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  • Writer's pictureKate Clinch

Eileen O'Connor, saint in waiting, on her Birthday

Updated: Feb 20

When Eileen O’Connor, Australia’s saint in waiting, was born on February 19th, 1892, the world was a very different place. Antibiotics and X-rays hadn’t been invented, and neither had social security payments. Tuberculosis was endemic, often in its respiratory form, where it infects the lungs, but also as miliary TB, where the infection spreads through the blood and lodges in other parts of the body, including the spine and bones. Eileen contracted miliary tuberculosis in infancy, which damaged the bones of her spine, causing deformity, chronic pain, paralysis and inflammation in her spinal cord. Anaesthesia was quite primitive, but the child Eileen had multiple surgeries on her back, presumably to drain abscesses and attempt to straighten the deformity. Her illness caused her terrible suffering, stunted her growth so that she was only three foot ten tall (115cm) and resulted in her early death from heart failure at the age of twenty-eight.

On top of all that, her father died when she was nineteen, plunging her family into poverty.

We wouldn’t think that was an auspicious starting point for a journey towards sainthood…

But Eileen O’Connor was considered a saint by many people in her own lifetime. After she died, her undertaker said the haunting words: “I buried a saint today.” Her reputation for saintliness hasn’t faded, and indeed her cause is being championed and she has been declared a Servant of God by the Vatican, which is a stepping stone on the process.

So, what could a pain-wracked, paralysed, often bed-bound young woman do that would earn her this abiding reputation?

Acutely aware, through her own life experience, of the devastating impact of illness and poverty, Eileen was determined to do something about it. The question was what. She was too ill to be accepted as a nun. But a near death experience when she was nineteen brought an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who offered Eileen three choices: she may stay with Mary in Heaven, she may return to lead a normal life, or she could return ill but work on Mary’s behalf to save people’s souls. Eileen chose the third option. During the apparition, she was shown that Father McGrath, the young priest deputed to assist the struggling family to find accommodation her mother could afford in the aftermath of being widowed.

Father McGrath and Eileen found a mutual respect and admiration, and saw each other as the means to fulfill their life’s calling to alleviate the suffering of the sick poor. Together they founded Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, to care for the sick and dying poor in the slums of Sydney. The nurses were known as the Brown Nurses, due to the colour of their cloaks, brown being chosen not just for practicality, but to honour St Joseph. The nurses became heroes, risking their lives by nursing Spanish Flu patients in the terrible conditions of 1919, and indeed their matron died after catching it.

Father McGrath was also a hero, having been awarded the Military Cross for repeatedly retrieving wounded soldiers from No Man’s Land under heavy fire.

Eileen instilled a love of service in her nurses, helping them to see the face of Jesus in their patients, reminding them not to judge people for being poor, but to respond to their needs, and above all, to always do everything with love.

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