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  • Writer's pictureKate Clinch

Reflecting on Father Ted McGrath

Eileen O’Connor is currently being investigated as possibly Australia’s next official saint. I have written about her here a few times. In 1913, she co-founded an order of nurses, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, who, after her death, became an order of Religious.

Today, I am drawing my inspiration, not from Eileen, but from her co-founder, Father Edward McGrath.

Father McGrath and Eileen were united in the desire to see their nurses care for the sick poor in Sydney’s slums, not just with professional skill, but with deep love, courage and compassion drawn from their love of Our Lady. They delivered spiritual direction to their nurses, that was grounded in Ignatian spiritual inquiry, and sought to model their own behaviour on the Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross.

Many years after Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor was established, Father McGrath wrote a beautiful letter to the nuns. It is a lovely summary of the vision he and Eileen shared. Perhaps they will speak to you, as you read an extract from that letter, in Father McGrath’s words:

“In and through the sick poor you will continue to slake the thirst of Our Saviour, as the poor Samaritan woman did at the well … Through the Poor you will feed Him as Lazarus, Martha and Mary Magdalene did when, in the evenings … He returned weary and hungry to Bethany.

“You will continue to console and comfort Him by visiting and bending over those in their agony, as the angel in the Garden of Olives comforted Jesus …

“[Y]ou will play the part of the Good Samaritan who bound up the wounds … carried him to the Inn, watched by his bedside and took care of him …

“Help the poor to carry their crosses as Simon of Cyrene helped …

“[You] will wipe the cold sweat from off the brows of Jesus’ and Mary’s Poor when in their last agony, even as saintly Veronica wiped the … blood-stained brow of Jesus

“[Y]ou recognise and serve Jesus and Mary in all and each of your sacred charges”

The nurses often would have had a tough time recognising Jesus and Mary in the destitute, the alcoholic, often hostile, dirty, perhaps criminal slum dwellers of Sydney through World War 1, the Spanish flu, the Depression and beyond. The cash-strapped nurses, who never charged for their services and did it all for love, sometimes might have to walk for 5 or 6 miles each way to attend their charges, as they couldn’t always afford tram fares. And they walked into those slums alone, not in pairs. Tough stuff indeed.

Father McGrath was no stranger to life's toughest challenges either. He undeservedly attracted the ire of the Catholic Church hierarchy

for complicated, unjust reasons, and was banished from Australia for three decades and forbidden to continue his involvement with Eileen and the Nurses. After this, he served as a chaplain in World War I, where his repeated bravery rescuing injured soldiers from No Man’s Land under fire, earned him a Military Cross. He was nominated for the Commonwealth’s highest medal for valour, the Victoria Cross, but the paperwork was lost when the vessel carrying it was sunk by enemy fire just before the end of the war.

He was not allowed back into Australia until 1941, but finally, in 1969 he was permitted to retire to Sydney, to live in the care of Our Lady’s Nurses until his death in 1977, aged 96. After all the controversy he attracted early in his career, he was clearly back in favour by then. His funeral mass was officiated by an archbishop, two bishops, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Kensington Superior, and 22 other priests.

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