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Friday, 10 May 2013 15:22

A century of love in action

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Sydney celebrated the centenary of its very own religious order, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, in spectacular style last month, when more 850 worshippers from throughout Australia filled St Mary’s Cathedral to capacity.

In a truly amazing service overseen by Head of the Office for Liturgy for the Sydney Archdiocese, Fr Donald Richardson pp, the 13 sisters of this tiny but much-loved order were led into the cathedral by indigenous musician, Glen Doyle.

The haunting sounds of his didgeridoo reverberated throughout the Gothic ceilings, providing a hair-tingling insight of a culture that existed tens of thousands of years before anno domini. 

Gadigal Elder, Charles (Chicka) Madden then delivered a commanding yet touchingly simple ‘welcome to country’. 

To the accompaniment of the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir, 42 priests, two monsignors and six bishops from the Archdioceses of Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra Goulburn and the Dioceses of Maitland Newcastle, Broken Bay and Wollongong processed down the aisle, filling the apse to capacity.

They included Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Bishop Peter Comensoli DD VG; former Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Bishop David Cremin dd; Bishop of Wollongong Diocese, Bishop Peter Ingham; former Bishop of Maitland Newcastle, Bishop Michael Malone; Bishop Bernard O’Grady op; Monsignor Kerry Bayada ev and Monsignor Vincent Redden ev.

Interstate visitors included Darwin-based Fr John Kelliher msc, who grew up close to Our Lady’s Home – the congregational headquarters – at 35 Dudley Street, Coogee, and Fr Wally Dethlefs, a parish priest in Brisbane.

Principal Celebrant, Auxiliary Bishop Terence Brady dd vg, began his homily with a poignant personal recollection of the ‘Brown Nurses’, as the congregation of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor is affectionately known.

“As a little boy, I can recall the Brown Nurses getting on and off the 399 bus from Circular Quay to Maroubra Beach at Dudley Street, Coogee,” he said.“I remember being told the story of co-founders, Eileen O’Connor and Fr Ted McGrath msc, by my mother.

“In the mid-1970s my path with the Sisters crossed again when I was working with the then South Sydney Council as a welfare worker.

“Many of the poorest people of the inner city were being cared for by the Sisters, especially those whom were in the ‘too hard’ basket for others.”Bishop Brady paid tribute to the tenacity of Eileen O’Connor, who was severely handicapped by a fall that broke her spine when aged three.

“Over the centuries the Lord has tended to tap on the shoulder young women like Eileen to carry out his most challenging missions,” he said.

“He certainly knew what he was about when he offered his invitation to Eileen. 

“She may have been crippled and had a number of other ailments but her heart was on fire for the love of the Lord and her brothers and sisters, especially the poorest of the poor.

“In many ways, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor was a forerunner of a much larger congregation in our church, the Missionaries of Charity.

“I often wonder if the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta had not heard of these Australian based Sisters.”

Bishop Brady said Eileen’s status as a ‘saint in waiting’ was not without foundation.

“To many of us, she is already an uncanonised Saint,” he said. 

“Many of us have a desire to see Eileen O’Connor officially to be beatified and ultimately to be declared a Saint of our Church.

“Work already has been completed, however more is to be done and it is really up to a number of us here today to work much more deliberately to make it happen.

“I dream for the day when the words declaring Eileen O’Connor a Saint of the Universal Church will fill St Peter’s Square.”

His Excellency, Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said it was an honour to address the congregation as the recently-appointed representative of His Holiness, Pope Francis, exactly one month after his election as the Successor of St Peter and Bishop of Rome.

“As has been noted from the first moment that his name was announced from the balcony of St Peter’s, Jorge Bergoglio, Jesuit priest, bishop, cardinal and now Pope, has always been, and will remain, a friend of the poor,” he said.

“So, he would be delighted to know that I am with you this morning to celebrate the centenary of the Brown Nurses.

“Such an anniversary is not only an occasion for thanksgiving for all that God has accomplished for his poor through his servants Eileen O’Connor, Little Mother, and Father Edward McGrath, and the courageous women drawn to their charism, it is also an opportunity to recognise that the Holy Spirit of God is at work in Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor today, and to beseech the Almighty Father, that this particular manifestation of His compassion and mercy, which was first shown in this great city of Sydney, may continue to be made present among us today and tomorrow.

Our Lord tells us still: You have the poor with you always and so it is even in times of greater prosperity, opportunity and social solidarity, that souls should be moved by the love of God and Our Lady to serve and nurse the poor must always remain among the highest ambitions of the Catholic Church and the Christian spirit.

“Congratulations, Sisters, thank you for all that you have given during those 100 years. 

“We are grateful to you and to God whose blessing we invoke upon on you.”

OLN Congregational Leader, Sister Margaret Mary Birgan, replied with a gentle and heartfelt address reinforcing that ‘The Work’ was far from over.

“As I stand here today, I imagine that I am seeing all of you through the eyes of Eileen O’Connor and Father McGrath,” she said. 

“They would see – as I see – an astounding gathering of people so diverse and representative of all they hoped and prayed would rally to the service of their beloved sick poor.

“They would see the faithfulness of generations, not only of their own family members who have come from far and wide to be here today but also of religious, clergy and ordinary people.

“It is people like you who have sustained us as a community for more than 100 years.

“Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor hasn’t changed much since our foundation.

“We are still small in number but our work for the poor, disadvantaged and marginalised is still very large and growing. 

“We pray and trust that ‘the work’ will continue to grow through the ongoing work of our lay apostolate, the Brown Nurses.” 

Following Mass, the bells of St Mary’s rang out in majesty for 30 minutes as hundreds of visitors merged in the brilliant autumn sunshine.

The following morning tea had a most joyous atmosphere of reminiscence and reconnection.

Many visitors had a direct association with the Sisters of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor and although unknown to each other, happily shared amazing recollections as old friends.

Relatives of co-founders, Eileen O’Connor and Fr Ted McGrath, offered personal recollections that added even more depth to the recorded personality of these great individuals.

NSW Attorney General, Greg Smith, volunteered that his mother had been a close friend of the early sisters and he himself had served as an altar boy at Our Lady’s Home.Other dignitaries attending included Official Secretary and Chief of Staff to Her Excellency the Governor of NSW, Brian Davies; Former Federal Attorney and 

Minister for Immigration & Aboriginal Affairs, the Honourable Philip Ruddock; NSW Legislative Council members, the Honourable Sophie Costis and Luke Foley; and City of Sydney councillor, Linda Scott.

Also in attendance were a wide representation of religious orders and organisations, including the Catholic Women’s League, Knights of the Southern Cross ,St Vincent de Paul and the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.

Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor was founded in Sydney in 1913 by a young Australian woman, Eileen O’Connor, whom many consider to be Australia’s next saint-in-waiting, and a Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest, Father Edward McGrath. 

Both shared a deep devotion to Our Lady and the desire to establish a ministry of compassionate service to the sick poor in their own homes in her honour. 

For 100 years, the order has quietly provided in-home healthcare, advocacy and friendship for the poor and marginalised throughout Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle and Wollongong.

Assisted by the generosity of their benefactors and volunteers, the Sisters continue to assist the sick poor in Sydney, Newcastle and Macquarie Fields. The Sisters’ mission for the poor and disadvantaged in the local government areas of Sydney, Randwick and Leichhardt is conducted by an organisation called the Brown Nurses. 

Based at Glebe, a small team of registered nurses continue to minister to the sick poor in the tradition of the Sisters.

(This article is a media release from the Our Lady's Nurses of the Poor. More photos can be found at the website of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland Newcastle.)

Further information:

Sister Margaret Mary Birgan oln 

Congregational Leader

Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor

35 Dudley Street COOGEE NSW 2034

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

02 9665 6331


Barbara Bowers mbe

Centenary Project Manager

Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor

35 Dudley St COOGEE NSW 2034

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

02 9665 6331 M 0423 617 012