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  • Writer's pictureKate Clinch

Eileen O'Connor on the Centenary of her Death

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

Here we stand, at the beginning of 2021. A year like no other. Everything that we used to count on and take for granted seems to have been stripped away. We wonder, is life meant to be this hard? How are we to get through it? What are we here to do? How can we - feeling helpless, isolated, afraid or lost – possibly make a difference?

Where can we can find strength and inspiration to help us on our path into an uncertain future?

The 10th of January marks the centenary of the death of a woman who could easily have felt helpless, isolated and lost, and yet who made a difference the effects of which are still echoing in people’s hearts.

Eileen O’Connor was born in 1892, a time that doesn’t seem so long ago, but a world away from today. A different disease was rife, tuberculosis; and children commonly contracted it in infancy, through drinking infected milk. Family legend had it that Eileen broke her back at the age of three, in a fall from her pram. But in fact, she was already a victim of tuberculosis, which had infected her spine, causing damage so severe that she only grew to be three foot ten tall (115 cm). She endured repeated spinal operations at a time before modern anaesthesia or pain relief. For years, she was so ill that she was bedbound, partially paralysed, sometimes blind, in chronic pain and sometimes unconscious.

How could it be that this frail woman, who only lived to be twenty-eight achieved enough in her short life, that is possible she will be recognised as Australia’s second saint?

As a child, Eileen saw her family struggle with the costs of her medical care. Their poverty became worse with the premature death of her beloved father. Acutely aware that Sydney’s slum dwellers could not afford nursing care, Eileen became convinced the Virgin Mary was calling her to service. She was refused entry to the convents of Sydney, on the grounds that she was too ill to be a nun. But she didn‘t let that stop her. With the enthusiastic assistance of a parish priest, Father Edward McGrath, her dream grew until they founded an order of nurses in Coogee, to serve the poor at no charge. Clearly, Eileen didn’t allow illness, self-doubt or a sense of being a victim of her fate get in the way of expressing her heart’s desire to serve.

She never waited for bureaucracy to approve her plans, or the wider Catholic Church to embrace her vision. So, as you can imagine, she attracted hostility from the establishment. Perhaps partly because the establishment looked bad in comparison, for leaving the poor to suffer in squalor. Scandalous rumours were spread, about the friendship between her and Father McGrath. Totally ignoring the fact that she was bedridden due to the severity of her illness, people whispered about her having the handsome young priest in her room to give her communion and pray. And just as bad, when she couldn’t walk, he was sometimes seen carrying her in his arms. Determined to the core, Eileen didn’t let this ill-treatment stop her, even taking her case to the Pope for arbitration.

When she founded Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, Eileen believed her role would be to pray, and in doing so to alchemise her own suffering into Grace that would alleviate the suffering of the poor. However, the reality of running an order of nurses who never charged their clients, yet had to be housed, clothed, fed and able to pay tram fares on their rounds, saw Eileen, even when she was bedbound with paralysis in her legs and right arm, propped up in her bed answering phone calls and planning patient visit schedules.

When a miracle happened, and Eileen regained the ability to walk, though always slowly and so carefully because of the pain any jarring would trigger in her spine, she visited patients in their own homes, whenever she could. She hosted garden parties and invited the children of the poor, ensuring that they were well-fed and entertained. Eileen loved the ocean, and her nurses would carry her to Coogee Rocks for picnics.

She and her nurses cared for their patients through the traumas of World War I, and then, heroically, through the Spanish flu, which took the life of their matron.

And the people loved her. When Eileen lay dying, gasping for breath, in the hot Sydney summer of 1921, people queued to see her for the last time. Her reputation for saintliness was already strong in her local community, and when she died, her undertaker was heard to say, ‘I buried a saint today. I buried a saint today.’

So if Eileen could offer us a word of advice today, as we worry about what 2021 will bring, what would she say?

“Remember that if you fail, or are tired, or find anything, or many things wanting in your soul, heart or person, God who has done so much for souls, God who loves you and can help you, will, on your asking, help you and leave nothing wanting in you, if it be for the use of souls, or if it will enable you to love Him more.”*

There’s nothing unusual in feeling self-doubt or inadequacy. Those are common human feelings. In letting them go, we free ourselves to better serve souls and to love Spirit.

The more we can do that, the better the New Year will be for all of us.

* Quote taken from her Thoughts for Every Day, which she wrote for her nurses.

More information on Eileen at

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