The complex is historically important because of its association with the Roman Catholic Order of the Sisters of Mercy. In 1856 members of this order left Dublin for Buenos Aires, establishing themselves in South America. Following religious persecution the entire community left Argentina for Adelaide in 1880. In June 1880 the community bought a house that had been occupied since 1877 by George Dutton Green. The purchasers on behalf of the order were Christina Fitzpatrick, Julia Murphy and Anne Kenney. In 1898 the property was vested in the Convent of Mercy Adelaide Inc, which bought the properties further east in 1920.
The house and land bought in 1880 was the western-most part of the present property. Described as a “very handsome villa residence”, the house was built by Charles Farr in 1870-71 on land owned by Farr and Bullock for Mrs Anthony Forster, to a design by Wright, Woods and Hamilton. It was so architecturally significant it was described in the South Australian Register of January 3, 1871. There were about 10 large rooms, beside bathrooms and store closets, side and front entrances, and a spacious hall with a staircase to the upper floor: “The doorway is very handsome, enriched by an arch and other ornamental work in cement and freestone. The eastern end of the front projects a few feet, and has two very handsome bay windows in the centre. The side front, facing east is likewise finished in superior style, the entrance being through a double-arched doorway, surmounted by an artistically-designed balcony connecting with the upper rooms.”
The residence was of Dry Creek stone with cement and freestone dressings. Additions and alterations were carried out for the Sisters of Mercy in 1882. In 1889 Edward John Woods designed a wing facing Angas Street with a community room and living cells on the upper storey. Attached to this was an arcade that formed two sides of a court.
Mother Mary Clare, a member of the original company from Argentina, had aimed to extend the convent eastwards and to complete the cloister. With the purchase of additional property to the east in 1920, together with funds provided by a substantial inheritance of Mother Mary Cecilia, plans were prepared by Walter Hervey Bagot for incorporating a house on the east and to unify the appearance of the whole. The cloister court and the facade to Angas Street were completed in symmetrical form, reflecting the detailing of the original Wright, Woods and Hamilton residence. The house that was subsumed had been built by Brown and Thompson for £1350 in 1867-68 for Alexander Cunningham.
The most important part of this expansion was the Cunningham Memorial Chapel, built to commemorate the parents of the Reverend Mother Mary Cecilia. The Advertiser of November 22, 1922, described this building. The exterior of the chapel conformed to the design of the old building, its principal features being a slender belltower, and an apse with organ and stairs to the choir gallery. Within, it was divided into sanctuary, nave and transept, with stalls of English oak for the sisters and the transept reserved for the scholars. The altars were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. The high altar is “executed in pure white Carrara marble, with columns of dark green veined Polcevera and pale green french marble, and panels of warm African and pale rose Sienna marble. The gilt bronze doors of the Ciborium are flanked with little shafts of rare African red onyx.”
At the front of the altar is a high relief sculpture of the Last Supper, wrought from one block of statuary marble. The pavement is in a design of dark green, terracotta and white marble. The crucifix and candlesticks are fine examples of metal work: these and the hand-worked altar cloths were brought by the sisters from Argentina. The ceiling of the sisters’ choir and the barrel vault of the sanctuary were considered the main decorative features of the interior. The fibrous plaster ceiling is deeply coffered, with enriched beams forming octagonal and square panels relieved by scrolls and centre flowers of Roman acanthus ornament. The whole effect is heightened by colour decoration, with a background in deep rose-red, lapis lazuli, blue and black, and the coffering and enrichment is in gold. The chapel’s design is based on St Mary Major in Rome.
Such richly detailed surfaces and finishes make this building unique in Adelaide. The chapel is remarkable for its excellence of design and workmanship at a time when craft skills were still highly regarded. The consistency of detail and the marriage of the old convent building with the new is well carried through, the design being perhaps the finest to come from the hand of Walter Hervey Bagot. The richly carved altars were wrought by Signor Luigi Tommasi of Pietrasanta, Italy, and Messrs Hardman & Co. of London designed and executed the stained-glass windows. Those in the scholars’ choir were from the studios of Montgomery and Troy (Melbourne and Adelaide). The bulk of the parquet flooring is of Australian oak, the borders of which are of Russian cedar.