Sister Carmel Hanson’s House of Hospitality

For 40 years, she has been fighting for social justice. 


Sister Carmel Hanson

Sitting on the front step of the House of Hospitality on Christmas Eve, Sister Carmel Hanson waves goodbye to the young family who has been staying with her.

Just as she is about to leave, the mother turns and tells her that if she has nowhere to go for Christmas, she should join her family for dinner.

“It was one of the greatest learning moments of my life,” Sister Carmel said recently.

“I always found in dealing with people who have very little, they are incredibly generous.”

A Catholic sister working with the Vincent de Paul Society, Sister Carmel has held many roles in her lifetime.

She has been a psychologist, a teacher, and a lawyer.

However, it is her current position as coordinator for the House of Hospitality that has been her favourite.

Born in 1946, Sister Carmel was raised in Cardiff, a suburb of Newcastle that holds great significance for her family.

Her great grandfather was an original settler in Cardiff and her whole family, including her father, grew up there.

She is the second of four children who were raised in a typical Catholic household with a large extended family.

Sister Carmel credits her grounding in social justice and fairness to her father, a union man, and mother, a great sportswoman. 

“If we ever came home from a netball game and complained about the ref, mum would say, If you can’t take the ref’s decision, don’t play the game’,” Sister Carmel said.

Sister Carmel entered the convent at 18.

It was her relationship with the Catholic Sisters during primary and secondary school that was a driving force for her to become a nun.

Sister Carmel’s younger brother Owen recounts the memory of when his sister decided to join the order.

“I was only around seven years old when she entered and to tell you the truth; I probably didn’t give it much thought,” he explains.

“In a Catholic family, it was a totally positive thing for her to do. Of course, I missed her not being at home with us, but we wrote to each other, and we got to visit once a month.”

Sister Carmel has since completed a teaching degree, a psychology degree, and a law degree.

The pursuit of these qualifications was driven by her desire to help others in need. Sister Carmel has worked as a teacher and school principal, as a psychologist working with people in their homes, and as a solicitor with a particular interest in those struggling with mental health issues.

She currently provides legal services for disadvantaged people, working out of the St Vincent De Paul offices in Newcastle, as well as continuing to operate the House of Hospitality.

Sister Carmel has worked as a psychologist for the Saint Vincent de Paul Society since 1991.

In the course of her work, she encountered a number of men who had come from a detox unit in Morisset.

The only accommodation available for those men at this time were in pubs or boarding houses.

Sister Carmel began researching the problem.

She had been inspired by the work of an American woman who had set up Houses of Hospitality during the depression.

Houses of Hospitality are run by organisations to provide food, shelter, and clothing for those in need.  

“I looked around for what would be a suitable place for these alcoholic men, in a safe alcohol- and drug-free place, where they could get on their feet and get on with their lives,” Sister Carmel said.

The House began in 1991, in the former priest’s quarters at St Pious the Tenth High School with the approval of Sister Carmel’s order and the Bishop.

In more recent times, there has been a shift in focus to encompass other members of the community in need.

The House of Hospitality now provides emergency accommodation to a wide range of people, including women and their children who have experienced addiction and domestic violence, asylum seekers in need of accommodation and single fathers with children.

Sister Carmel’s brother Owen understands the importance of the House.

“In a society that grows ever more selfish, I think that providing a safe and affordable refuge for people that are in need and often on the fringe of society is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Over the past few months, Sister Carmel has faced various health issues, but with the help of one of the House’s residents, she has been able to continue her work.

As for the future, she boldly states that she plans to continue to live in the House with homeless people until it is no longer possible.

When asked if she thinks the House is her greatest achievement, she goes into deep thought.

“It’s a hard one isn’t it?” Sister Carmel says.

“I think the greatest achievement anybody can get out of life is to become a better person.”

“I don’t think it’s about what I’ve done or had the opportunity to do.

“I think my greatest achievement is yet to come, in that perhaps I will become a more tolerant, prayerful women.”