Our Lady of Coogee : Eileen O’Connor and the founding of Sydney’s Brown Nurses
Visions of the Virgin Mary in 1911 led the nineteen-year-old Eileen O’Connor (1892 – 1921) to co-found a community of nurses – Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor (OLNP) – also known as the Brown Nurses – to provide free nursing services to the poor in Sydney in 1913.
Despite living with a damaged spine, Eileen O’Connor was an indefatigable organiser, healer and teacher, whose love of useful community inspired her own and later generations of nurses. Sydney’s Brown Nurses have quietly served the sick poor and destitute in their homes and on the streets of Sydney for one hundred years.
Yet Eileen suffered – not just from her extremely painful disability – but from slander, libel, gossip, social ostracism, diocesan investigations, and threats of excommunication from her own Archbishop. If fierce hostility from senior Churchmen is a pre requisite for sainthood, then Eileen must surely become Australia’s second saint.
Inspired and populist Marian visionaries have always threatened the conservative hierarchy, and the feisty Eileen O’Connor, who once declared ‘I am not afraid of all the priests or Bishops in Sydney’ was no exception. Their Archbishop might have declared that no layperson could ‘pretend to be a representative of God’, but many of the Sydney faithful believed otherwise. In particular Eileen’s spiritual partnership with the young priest, Edward McGrath, a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, sorely troubled the Sydney hierarchy.
This story of sacred encounters, passionate friendships and the striving for justice reveals that the Irish Australian Catholic Church was not the stable patriarchal monolith it appeared to be, even or especially to its enemies (and its children), but a highly contested and conflicted realm, where women and men, laity and priests argued, allied, related, feared and desired.