Religious orders are institutes of priests, brothers and sisters in the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic (Anglican) churches that are expressions of spiritual revival and responses to social distress. Members of religious orders commit, through vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, to orders that are either active, providing education and social welfare, or contemplative, concentrating on prayer and study. The vows distinguish the orders from the ministry of deacons or elders, which serves pastoral and spiritual functions within the Protestant churches. It is customary to use the term order to refer to both orders and religious congregations, but Catholic orders have not been founded since 1752. Institutes founded later are actually congregations and, unlike orders, are subject to the authority of Rome, rarely conflicting with it. More congregations than orders have worked in Melbourne, and they have maintained amicable relations with the church. Catholic sisters outnumber Anglican sisters, and sisters outnumber brothers and priests.
Catholics in 19th-century Melbourne formed a cohesive, predominantly Irish community. With the exception of the French Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the first orders arrived in Melbourne from Ireland, preventing conflict like that between English and Irish Catholics in New South Wales. The close community relied less on religious orders than other Australian cities, and this delayed the foundation of a local institute. While female congregations were established in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia before 1880, the first to be founded in Melbourne was the Company of the Blessed Sacraments in 1930. The Archdiocese of Melbourne drew on the network of Catholic orders, supporting the contemplative Carmelite nuns, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Daughters of Charity in their work with the poor. Orders enabled a system of Catholic education to survive in the century between the 1870s and 1970s, when State aid was not available. The Jesuits, the Loreto Sisters, the Sisters of Charity, the Faithful Companions of Jesus and the Sacred Heart Sisters provide elite education, and the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Presentation Sisters undertake parish education. The composition of Catholic religious orders has reflected patterns of immigration. After 1910, Irish immigration slowed and Australian-born religious became predominant. After World War II Italian, Polish, German, Austrian and French religious arrived in Melbourne as displaced persons or to serve others dispossessed from their home countries.
The Oxford Movement resulted in the revival of Anglican religious orders in mid-19th century England as part of an attempt by the church to respond to social distress. A number of communities were subsequently established, and in the 1890s the Community of the Sisters of the Church arrived in Melbourne with a special interest in the education of girls. In 1912 the Community of the Holy Name became the first Anglican order founded in Australia. The sisters had run the Mission to the Streets and Lanes as a deaconess order since 1888, but the Anglican Church had resisted their recognition as a religious community because of the association between orders and Roman practices. The small numbers of Anglican sisters precluded specialisation, and they worked in schools, hospitals, reformatories, hostels and female refuges.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) brought radical changes to religious orders. Diversification of active works, reversion to baptismal names, increased professional training and modifications to dress, the daily timetable and communal living were introduced to help the churches identify with the laity and respond to the needs of contemporary life. These changes coincided with increased employment opportunities for women and the development of alternative forms of spiritual expression, and have contributed to reduced membership in Catholic and Anglican orders. Despite a growth in the Catholic population between 1962 and 1996, the number of brothers declined from 596 to 205, and of sisters from 2074 to 1395. Religious orders are still involved in the provision of education and welfare services in Melbourne, but because of the decline in numbers lay professionals now undertake much of the work.