Born in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond on 19 February 1892, Eileen Rosaline O’Connor was the eldest of four children of Irish parents, Charles and Annie O’Connor (nee Kilgallin).
Eileen suffered a crippling break in her spine at the age of three when she fell out of the family pram.
She lived her short life in constant nerve pain from what was later diagnosed as transverse myelitis and underwent countless operations with little success.
Eileen irregularly attended a Catholic primary school in Richmond and had restricted opportunity to develop friendships with children her own age. She instead turned to her family and strong Catholic faith for consolation.
With limited education and no formal theological formation, Eileen embodied a distinctive spirituality marked by an unwavering devotion to Our Lady and her own willingness to endure a lifetime of suffering.
The O’Connor family moved to Sydney when Eileen was aged 10 and she briefly attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel primary school in Waterloo, often carried to school by one of her family members.
Her family was left in dire financial circumstances following the death of her father, Charles in 1911.
The experience left Eileen with a deep empathy for those who had faced similar difficulties to her.
Meeting Fr Edward McGrath
The O’Connors sought help from the priest of the Coogee parish, Fr Edward McGrath, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
Fr McGrath found accommodation for the family and was inspired by the courage with which Eileen faced her disability.
Around this time, Eileen experienced an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who encouraged her to accept her suffering for the good of others.
One of the very few people she told of the apparition was Fr McGrath, who also shared a deep devotion to Mary and a desire to establish a ministry of compassionate care for the sick poor in their own homes in her honour.
Our Lady put forward three options to Eileen:
- To return to heaven with Our Lady;
- To stay on earth and adopt a “normal life” which might imply a life of good health;
- Or to remain on earth and offer up her health for the good of others.
Formation of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor
On 15 April 1913, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor began its ministry in a rented house in Coogee, which soon became known as Our Lady’s Home. The fledging society would later serve as a convent for the new congregation with Eileen O’Connor as their first Leader, supervising and directing their work from her bed.
Around this time, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor were fortunate to secure important financial support from benefactors.
Such supporters included the long-time parish priest of Ryde, Fr Edward Gell and his sister Miss Frances Gell. During his 40 year term as parish priest, Fr Gell rebuilt the church of St Charles at Ryde and built new churches and parish schools at Eastwood, Epping, Gladesville, Marsfield and Meadowbank.
However the nurses still faced unexpected opposition from church authorities in the early years.
Allegations of an improper relationship between Eileen O’Connor and Fr McGrath. All who knew both Eileen and Fr McGrath considered the allegations scandalous.
Father McGrath was ordered to end his involvement with Eileen O’Connor and Our Lady’s Nurses for the poor under threat of expulsion from his order. Eileen was threatened with excommunication if she proceeded with legal action for defamation by church authorities.
Eileen and Fr McGrath travelled to Rome in 1915 where Fr McGrath’s case was successfully appealed in the Vatican Congregation for Religious.
Granted an audience with Pope Benedict XV, Eileen spoke with the Holy Father about Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor and their mission in Australia. Eileen influenced the decision to reinstate Edward McGrath as a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, but he could not return to Australia for close to 30 years.
Fr McGrath joined the British Army and served as a military chaplain during the First World War and was awarded a Military Cross, and recommended for the Victoria Cross, for repeated acts of gallantry under enemy fire.
Eileen O’Connor’s case against church authorities was quashed and after several months travelling in Europe and Britain, she returned to Australia.
A Little Mother for the Poor
The growth of the congregation was now very much in Eileen’s hands and she provided strong leadership and direction.
She earned the affectionate nickname, The Little Mother, reflecting her short stature since her childhood injury had halted her growth.
Eileen O’Connor died on 10 January 1921 of tubercular transverse myelitis (chronic tuberculosis) of the spine and exhaustion. She was aged 28.
In December 1936, 16 years after her death, Eileen’s coffin was moved from Randwick Cemetery to the chapel at Our Lady’s Home in Coogee. At the time, her body was found to be incorrupt. It has not been verified since.