Pioneer Sisters

Sister Theresa (Cissie) McLaughlin

Sister Theresa (Cissie) McLaughlin

Cissie was born at Sodwalls, near Lithgow NSW, in 1890, and educated by the Good Samaritan Sisters at Rosebank College, Five Dock NSW. Cissie was introduced to Eileen O’Connor by her cousin, Father Alphonsus Coen cp, who had asked if she’d ‘like to meet a saint’. Cissie entered Our Lady’s Home on 26 May 1913 and became Eileen O’Connor’s first volunteer nurse. Cissie played a key role in keeping the fledging community of nurses together during Eileen’s long trip to Europe in 1915. She became the congregation’s first Superior in 1953 and its first Mother General, positions she retained until her death on 28 March 1965.

Sister Mary Drohan

Mary was born at Ballarat, Victoria in 1878 and educated at the local convent. She was introduced to Eileen O’Connor by co-founder of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, Fr Edward McGrath msc, who was a confrere of her brother, Fr Edward Drohan msc. Fathers McGrath and Drohan had studied at the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Seminary at Kensington together and later served as assistant priests in the Diocese of Christchurch in New Zealand. Mary Drohan entered Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor on 31 May 1913, just five days after Cissie McLaughlin, enabling ‘The Work’ to begin. Sister Mary Drohan died on 24 December 1934, the first of the foundation sisters to go to her eternal reward.

Sister Ellen (Nell) Fitzgerald

Born in Harden, NSW, in 1885 and educated at Yerong Creek, Nell worked at the convent school in Paddington before entering Our Lady’s Home on 8 August 1913. She proved to be a wonderful nurse who gave all for her patients.Invariably she stayed with them until the end. She died on 9 June 1975, after serving the sick poor for more than 60 years.

Sister Catherine (Katie) Lynch

Katie was born into a large pioneering family at The Welcome, near Parkes, NSW, in 1885. In early 1914, she attended a retreat conducted by Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor co-founder, Rev Father Edward McGrath msc in Parkes. Inspired by his comments about a newly-founded community of Catholic women who care for the sick poor in their own homes, Katie travelled to Sydney to meet Eileen O’Connor. Katie entered Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor on 8 April 1914. Katie’s nieces, Eulalie (Lalie) and Bess McNamara, later joined the community, while her sister, Mrs Martha Perrotet, became one of its most fervent supporters. Sister Catherine Lynch did in June 1942. Her Requiem Mass was concelebrated by 16 priests at St Brigid’s, Coogee.

Sister Catherine (Kit) McGrath

Catherine McGrath was born at Wagga Wagga and her family later moved to Parkes. One of the foundation nurses, Kit entered Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor on 28 May 1914 after attending a retreat conducted by Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor co-founder, Rev. Father Edward McGrath msc in Parkes. Like Katie Lynch, who attended the same retreat, she was impressed by Father McGrath’s account of a community of Catholic women established to serve the sick poor in their homes.Sister Kit McGrath died on August 24, 1942 after serving the sick poor for 28 years.Her Requiem Mass was concelebrated by 18 priests at St Brigid’s Church, Coogee. She is remembered fondly as a gentle and kind person who was known for her good humour and strength of character.

Sister Agnes (May) McGahey

May was born at Ryde, NSW in 1888 and was educated by the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary and the Sisters of Mercy. She was encouraged to meet Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor co-founder, Eileen O’Connor by her parish priest, Fr Edward Gell. May entered Our Lady’s Home, Coogee, on 24 January 1915. She became the second Mother General of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in 1965, a position she held until 1974. May had a strong, commanding and dignified personality and was completely dedicated to the sick poor. She died on 18 January 1979, the last of the seven foundation nurses.

Sister Julia Cooney

Julia was born near Wellington NSW in 1887 and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Perthville. Julia and May McGahey were both parishioners at Ryde and known to Father Edward Gell. Julia asked to join the community at our Lady’s Home in early 1915. At the time, she was assisting her brother, who ran a small store and his wife with their young family. Eileen asked Julia to wait until she returned from Europe before joining. Julia Cooney entered Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor on 28 December 1915, taking the number of volunteer nurses to seven.She went on to have one of the longest vocations of all the nurses. Julia died on 21 December 1978, having served the sick poor for nearly 63 years.

Sisters Today

Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor at Coogee. (From left to right: Sr Greta Gabb, Sr Anne O’Shaughnessy, Sr Patricia Malone, Sr Margaret-Mary Birgan, Sr Pauline Fogarty, Sr Gabriel Bast and Sr Kerry Macdermott).

Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor continues to minister to the sick poor in their homes in Coogee, Newcastle and Minto. Retired Sisters also live in Brisbane, Bondi Junction and Lavender Bay.

Sr Margaret-Mary Birgan, Newcastle

Sr Margaret-Mary is the Eileen O’Connor Centenary Project Leader, coordinating commemorations to mark 100 years since Eileen’s death in 1921.

Sr Margaret-Mary Birgan was born in Brisbane, Queensland, and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at All Hallows Convent School, Fortitude Valley. Margaret-Mary learned about Eileen O’Connor as a young child and knew that she wanted to become a nurse and give her life to God. Whilst still at school, she became aware of the plight of the sick and lonely in the community and often visited ‘shut-ins’ to deliver magazines on behalf of the sisters from St Ignatius Convent School at Toowong. Margaret-Mary’s brother’s sister-in-law, Sr Marie Carey oln, was a sister with Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor. When she was 18 years old, Margaret-Mary met Mother Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin and asked if she could enter the congregation. Mother replied, ‘Come when you are ready’. Determined to bring skills to her vocation, she commenced her general nursing training at the Mater Hospital, South Brisbane, and then obstetric nursing at the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital, Melbourne. Margaret entered the congregation in 1966. Sr Margaret-Mary had the privilege of working with three of Eileen’s original nurses – Julia Cooney, Ellen Nell Fitzgerald Agnes ‘May’ McGahey – and many of the early sisters. Fr McGrath’s cousin, Sr Lucy Mackay, was her Novice Mistress and encouraged Margaret-Mary to use her musical talents. Margaret-Mary played the organ at Our Lady’s Home and local parishes for more than 30 years. Sr Margaret-Mary worked in the congregation’s ministries at Brisbane, Newcastle, Kings Cross and Mt Druitt (including a memorable stint living in a caravan) before moving to Our Lady’s Home, Merewether, in 1984. While working in Brisbane, Margaret-Mary completed her maternal and child welfare training at the hospital on Petrie Terrace. Sr Margaret-Mary served as Congregational Leader between 2011 and 2017. With the help of volunteers, she continues to provide non-nursing care and pastoral support to families in the Newcastle region.

Sr Kerry McDermott, Macquarie Fields

Sr Kerry Macdermott was born in Jandowae, near Toowoomba, Queensland. Her father was a bank manager, requiring the family to move frequently. In the early 1960s, her family was living at New Farm, Brisbane, and Kerry began volunteering with Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor. Drawn by the sisters’ sense of purpose and devotion to the sick poor, and moved by the plight of the people they visited, she entered the congregation in 1964. At the time, four of Eileen’s original nurses – Julia Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald, Agnes ‘May’ McGahey and Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin, were still working on ‘The District’. Sr Kerry completed her nursing training at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hospital, Randwick, and apart from a short stint in Brisbane, has worked in the wider Sydney region for more than 50 years. In the early 1980s, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor established a fourth ministry in Sydney’s south-west suburbs. In 1984, Sr Kerry and Congregational Leader, Sister Patricia Murphy, took up permanent residence in Minto and then Macquarie Fields. Over the years, this ministry has evolved from healthcare to family support, advocacy and counselling. The sisters’ close involvement with the indigenous community led to the formation of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and a reconciliation group in Minto in 1993. In later years, Sr Kerry has completed training in welfare and studies related to the congregation’s Aboriginal ministry.

Sr Patricia Byron, Coogee

Sr Patricia was born at Five Dock, NSW, and educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the ‘Brown Josephites’) at St Francis Xavier, Arncliffe. After leaving school, she trained and worked as an office clerk for several years. Eager to do more with her life, Patricia learned about Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor and the congregation in 1954. She undertook nursing training at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hospital, Randwick, and began a long and fulfilling vocation working with the sick poor in Sydney and Brisbane. One of her many skills was palliative care and the preparation of the dead. Sr Patricia was also closely involved in the Prisons Ministry in her later years before retirement. “Once I found out about the Brown Nurses, I never looked back,” she says. Sr Patricia was fortunate to have known four of Eileen’s foundation nurses: Julia Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald, Agnes ‘May’ McGahey and Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin, as well as co-founder, Father Edward ‘Ted’ McGrath. Her commitment to her life-long vows, especially her poverty and love for the poor, Eileen O’Connor, Father Founder and our benefactors is outstanding.
“I particularly loved Eileen’s words that a dear OLN Companion sent to me when I first entered:
“Our love here will not be satisfied, so it will bring us nearer to that true love of God that in this Work you will gain, and I will gain, in loving it. That’s all the use I am”.
We were very Faith enriched.

Sr Patricia Lord, Brisbane

Patricia was born in Brisbane, Queensland, and grew up in the suburb of Nundah. After leaving school, she worked with Queensland Railways for three years. She read about the ‘Brown Nurses’ in Harvest magazine and began to contemplate a vocation serving the sick poor. She wrote to the nurses at Our Lady’s Home at Coogee and travelled to Sydney to meet with them. She stayed in contact and often drove the sisters around during their visits to Brisbane in preparation for establishing a second ministry at New Farm in 1956. Patricia entered the congregation the following year. After training, she served the sick poor in Sydney, Brisbane and Newcastle for more than 50 years. In her early years, Sr Patricia worked alongside many of the congregation’s original and early nurses, including Julie Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald, Lucy Mackay, Agnes ‘May’ McGahey, Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin, Peggy Shead, Marie Purcell, Irene Madrid, Eileen Harrison, Amy O’Connor and Thelma Delander. “There are lovely experiences as a Brown Nurse,” she says. “We help people stay independent and live longer in their own homes, which they always prefer to do.”
“There were lovely experiences as an Our Lady’s Nurse. We helped people stay independent and live longer in their homes which they always prefer to do”.

Sr Gabriel Bast, Coogee

Sr Gabriel Bast was raised at Manly, NSW, and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at Monte Saint Angelo College, North Sydney. Raised in a devout Catholic household, Gabriel often called on the ‘shut-ins’ and the poor in her parish. Investigating a desire to become a District Nurse, Gabriel read about Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in a magazine, which included photos of the Sisters at work. At age 16, she wrote to Mother Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin and asked to enter the congregation. Gabriel entered the congregation in 1957, soon after her 17th birthday, and served the sick poor in Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane for more than 50 years. She is fortunate to have known another three of Eileen’s original nurses – Julia Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald and Agnes ‘May’ McGahey – as well as co-founder, Father Edward ‘Ted’ McGrath. Sr Gabriel is a healthcare professional, having completed her nursing training, a Graduate Diploma in Nursing, a Bachelor of Health Science (Management) and a Master of Community Health. She is an Associate Fellow of the College of Health Service Management (NSW). Sr Gabriel proudly remembers that Cissie McLaughlin once told her mother that she was training Gabriel to become the congregation leader. Cissie’s intentions came to pass more than 40 years later. Sr Gabriel maintains a great love for the sick poor and the importance of the ongoing ministry of the Brown Nurses, an independent ministry conducted by Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in the City of Sydney local government area.

Sr Greta Gabb, Coogee

Sr Greta Gabb was born in Sydney, NSW. Raised in a Methodist family, she converted to Catholicism as a young woman. Whilst undertaking training in nursing and midwifery at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, Greta became inspired to join Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor after reading about Eileen O’Connor in the Catholic Weekly and then seeing a group of ‘Brown Nurses’ in a large procession at the National Eucharistic Congress at St Mary’s Cathedral in 1953. She entered the congregation in 1958 and worked with four of Eileen O’Connor’s original nurses: Julia Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald, Agnes ‘May’ McGahey and Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin. She was also fortunate to have known co-founder, Father Edward ‘Ted’ McGrath. Sr Greta was elected Congregational Leader in 1987. Sr Greta is an enthusiastic supporter of the congregation’s ongoing ministry in Campbelltown and the Brown Nurses, an independent ministry conducted in the City of Sydney local government area. Sr Greta says she has always been inspired by Eileen’s saying, ‘True charity is never idle’ and the concept of apostolic love. She is particularly drawn to Eileen’s heroic virtue of fortitude in her joyful acceptance of 25 years’ of painful and often debilitating illness.

Sr Patricia Malone, Coogee

Sr Patricia Malone was raised on her family’s farm outside Monto, Queensland. After leaving school, she frequently visited the Catholic church on her way to work to pray to Our Lady to reveal her vocation in life. Learning of the presence of Our Lady’s Nurses of the Poor in Brisbane, she wrote to the sisters and asked to meet them. In 1959, Patricia and her mother travelled to Brisbane by train and took a bus and then a tram to Our Lady’s Home at New Farm. They were greeted by Sisters Agnes ‘May’ McGahey (one of Eileen’s foundation nurses), Irene Madrid and Lucy Mackay. Patricia entered the congregation soon afterwards after embarking on a memorable 1400 km plane journey from Monto to Brisbane and then Sydney. Sr Patricia worked among the sick poor in Coogee, Newcastle and Brisbane for 50 years before returning to Coogee in 2010. Sr Patricia fondly remembers the idiosyncrasies of the people she met on ‘The District’, regardless of their predicament. One of the mothers said to her son “Come and meet the Sisters.” And he said “I aint the marrying kind!”

Sr Anne O’Shaughnessy, Bondi Junction

Sr Anne was born in Five Dock, NSW, and educated by the Sisters of Mercy at Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta. Anne worked in a bank for several years after leaving school. Drawn to a vocation with a nursing or closed order, her father suggested Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor instead. At the time, her parents lived in the eastern suburbs and knew of the sisters’ work in serving the sick poor. About a week after her initial visit, Mother Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin asked Anne to consider joining the congregation. Drawn by the warmth of Cissie’s letter and the friendliness of the sisters, Anne entered the congregation in 1962 and completed her general nursing training. In her early years, Sr Anne worked alongside three of Eileen’s original nurses, including Sisters Julia Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald and Agnes ‘May’ McGahey. Sr Anne served the sick poor in inner Sydney for most of her religious life. In later years, as the work of Our Lady’s Nurses Poor expanded into pastoral care, she completed a counselling course and worked at a crisis centre in Campbelltown for four years. A former Congregational Leader, Sr Anne has also served as a director of the Brown Nurses, an independent ministry of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor that serves the disadvantaged in the City of Sydney local government area. Sr Anne says she has had an enriched religious life as a member of a congregation with a unique charism. ‘In the words of Eileen O’Connor, it is worthwhile’, she says.

Sr Pauline Fogarty, Lavender Bay

Sr Pauline Fogarty was born in Newcastle, NSW, and grew up in Grafton, Tocumwal and Melbourne. Her father was a bank manager, requiring the family to move frequently. Pauline first became aware of the plight of the sick and disadvantaged in the community via her father’s involvement in the St Vincent de Paul Society. Whilst training as a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, she often encountered the homeless in nearby Exhibition Gardens. After travelling and working overseas for two years, Pauline returned to Australia with a ‘niggling’ desire to work with the poor. She entered Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in 1966 and worked with some of Eileen O’Connor’s original nurses, including Julia Cooney, Ellen ‘Nell’ Fitzgerald and Agnes ‘May’ McGahey. Apart from short stints in Brisbane and Newcastle, Sr Pauline has worked with the poor and disadvantaged in Sydney’s inner suburbs for more than 50 years. Her work led to the establishment of a ministry in Darlinghurst in 1987. Working in partnership with social and mental health workers at St Vincent’s Hospital, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and St Canice’s parish, this ministry evolved into the Brown Nurses, an independent ministry of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor that continues to serve the poor and disadvantaged in the City of Sydney local government area.