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Prophetic Australian Catholic women

Tatiana Kurniawan  |  06 February 2018

Most people know of Australia’s first saint Mary MacKillop, but there are other Australian Catholic women who have also lived prophetic lives. We asked one of our young writers, Tatiana Kurniawan, to share some of their stories.

Irene McCormack (21 August 1938–21 May 1991)

Born in Kununoppin, Western Australia, Irene McCormack enjoyed playing tennis, golf and dancing and was an avid AFL fan growing up. A boarder at Santa Maria College, Perth, by the age of 15 Irene knew that she wanted to become a religious sister. Little did this Aussie girl from rural WA know that she would find herself held at gunpoint by guerrillas in South America less than five decades later. 

Irene McCormack joined the sisters of St Joseph in 1957 and was a teacher for the following 30 years. After teaching in Australia, Irene felt drawn to venture out and serve the poor in Latin America. Her work as a Peruvian missionary took her to Huasahuasi in the Andes mountains where she helped Caritas Peru distribute emergency goods.

Irene McCormackWhen all the Catholic priests in Huasahuasi fled after being warned of danger from guerrilla groups, Irene remained to conduct services and assist the people. Irene was a beacon of hope until her final day, which came all too soon when members of Sendero Luminoso, a guerrilla group, accused her of dispensing ‘American’ food and ideas despite the protests of locals defending the kind-hearted Australian. She was ordered to lie face down six metres away from the church, where she was the first of five who were executed by the guerrillas.

Irene McCormack is already considered a saint by the Peruvian locals and her sainthood is pending submission to the Vatican by both senior Peruvian and Australian Catholic clergy.

Her selfless life is a timeless inspiration to many Australian Catholics, encouraging today’s youth to follow in Irene’s legacy and persevere through the challenges of a world in chaos.

Caroline ChisholmCaroline Chisholm (30 May 1808–25 March 1877)

Caroline Chisholm was a gift to those she selflessly dedicated her life: migrant women and families. A devoted mother and wife herself,

Caroline led the battle for dignity for the migrant community in the harsh 19th century colonial society of Australia. 

Born to a well-to-do family in England, Caroline and her Roman Catholic husband continued the family tradition of evangelical philanthropy. After travelling to Sydney in 1838, Caroline was drawn to take on the responsibility that the government had overlooked: supporting assisted immigrants and providing them with employment opportunities. 

She sheltered immigrant girls in her home and successfully found employment for many. She determinedly met every immigrant ship at port and soon became an icon of hope, affectionately earning herself the title of ‘The Emigrant’s Friend.’ Despite controversy and anti-

Catholic attitudes at the time, she persevered and never lost sight of her mission. She scorned material rewards and remained humble throughout her life. 

Over a century after her death, Caroline continues to be a prophetic voice through her hard-working, compassionate example. A protector of women’s dignity, Caroline was the subject of many poems, articles and cartoons. Numerous schools across Australia bear her name, ensuring people will continue to be inspired by her story. 

Eileen O'ConnorEileen O’Connor (19 February 1892–10 January 1921)

Having fallen from her pram at age three, which resulted in permanent spinal damage, Eileen O’Connor suffered severe pain throughout the short 28 years of her inspirational life. 

Co-founder of ‘Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor’, Eileen was the eldest of four in her devout Catholic family. Having moved to Australia in 1902, the O’Connor family faced great financial difficulty following the death of Eileen’s father. Though she received only limited education and no formal theological training, Eileen devoted her life to Our Lady and determinedly ministered to the poor and sick in Sydney. 

Eileen suffered from constant, acute pain which would, at times, be so severe as to cause her to lapse out of consciousness. Her tireless devotion was reaffirmed with a visitation from Our Lady who encouraged her to endure her own physical pain and suffering for the good of others.

Eileen O’Connor committed her life entirely to those in need. She was a prophetic voice in the Australian Catholic community through her determination and desire to help others. Her spinal injury, which radiologist later found to be at an angle of 80 degrees (this would have been enough to take away her ability to walk), did not hinder her from serving the Church and performing Our Lady’s will. 

In 1921, at the youthful age of 28, Eileen O’Connor died of chronic tuberculosis of the spine and exhaustion. Many years later in 1937, her body was exhumed and was found to be in a state of perfect preservation; almost a metaphor for Eileen’s timeless perseverance and determination to help the poor and sick.

For more activities and reflections on the lives of these women, see the Classroom reflections and activities section.

Main image: Glass icon dedicated to Sr Irene McCormack of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. 1,8mx1.2m based on a mosaic designed and crafted by artist Rose Riley, reworked and made by Perth Art Glass for Irene McCormack Catholic College, Butler, WA.


Reader Luke Guthrie has pointed out that the line in the section on Irene McCormick about all the Catholic priests fleeing Huasahuasi is not quite accurate. 

'Fr Leo Donnelly, a very close friend of both my wife and myself, definitely remained and even tended to Irene's anointing and funeral when the Sendero Luminoso moved on. We often lived with Leo on our visits to Peru and he always quite upset that people were told that "the priests fled". Leo also believes that a sixteen year old girl shot Irene - possibly forced to by the Sendero Luminoso.'


Topic tags: heroesandrolemodels, socialjustice-australia, volunteeringandtakingaction

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