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Eileen O'Connor – Servant of God

Michael McVeigh  |  22 August 2018

In March this year, Sydney Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher announced the beginning of the formal process for the canonisation of Eileen O’Connor.

Rome-based priest Fr Anthony Robbie has been appointed as postulator for Eileen’s cause, tasked with bringing together all the stories and evidence from her life.

The letter from the Vatican this month is confirmation that she has earned the title of Servant of God – the first of four steps towards sainthood.

Eileen O’Connor was born in Melbourne in 1892, and suffered a crippling spinal fracture at the age of three after she fell from her pram. Despite several operations, her spine could never be fixed – a later scan found that her spine was at an angle of eighty degrees. The curvature of her spine mean that she was, at best, 115cm (3’9”) tall.

As well as spending much of her life confined to a wheelchair, Eileen lived in constant nerve pain from a condition known as tuberculous osteomyelitis. That she lived for 28 years was a miracle in itself. That she founded a religious order, oversaw the activities of its sisters, travelled across the world and met with the Pope – that is evidence of an extraordinary spirit.

Eileen O’Connor’s family moved to Sydney when she was 10, and her father died just nine years later. Her family was left in financial difficulty, and a friend introduced them to Coogee parish priest Fr Edward McGrath, a member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

McGrath helped the family find accommodation, and became a confidant of Eileen in her suffering. During periods of intense pain, Eileen would lapse into unconsciousness. She told McGrath of a visitation she had received from Mary, mother of Christ, who encouraged her to accept her suffering for the good of others. McGrath shared with Eileen his hope of establishing a congregation of nurses to serve the poor. He said later, ‘I was face to face with an exceptionally saintly soul, encased within a pure and precious body wracked with pain. From that moment, I realised better that there were big things to be done for God and souls and that I had found my helper.’

In 1913, she moved into a rented home in Coogee that would become the convent for the new congregation. Although she had received little education and no theological training, Eileen became the first superior of the Our Lady’s Nurses of the Poor, commonly known as the ‘Brown Sisters’. Their work involved visiting the sick in their homes, and nursing the frail and aged. While Eileen herself was limited in what she could do, she supervised the other sisters in their activities and was often sought out for her guidance and prayers.


For more information on Eileen O’Connor and other important Australian Catholic women, see the Autumn 2018 edition of Australian Catholics.



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