Could the brave ‘Little Mother’ be Australia’s next saint?

The seven founding sisters, left: back row, left to right: Ellen Fitzgerald, Katie Lynch and Kit McGrath. At front are, left to right: May McGahey, Julia Cooney, Theresa McLaughlin and Mary Drohan.

Paradoxically, it is often those who endure terrible suffering that find great motivation to reach out to help others.

And such was the short, but inspirational life of Eileen O’Connor, who devoted hers to the poor and sick that it is of little surprise so many have been championing her towards sainthood for decades.

Born in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1892, Eileen was severely crippled after a fall from her pram that fractured her spine at age three, although it was not known until years later that her spine had been broken by the fall.

She was largely paralysed for several years, suffered periods of blindness, abscesses and remained in constant and often excruciating nerve pain throughout her brief life.

It is now known that Eileen also suffered from Pott’s Disease (tuberculous osteomyelitis), which caused her only to grow to 115cm tall and left her back bent at an 80-degree angle.

Despite ongoing operations designed to improve her condition, Eileen’s physical growth deteriorated and her pain increased to the point she was frequently falling unconscious, resulting in her formal schooling being seriously neglected.

On account of her ill-health and burgeoning medical bills, her Irish-born parents Charles and Annie O’Connor decided to move the family to Sydney when Eileen was aged 10 after her father was offered a better-paying job to support the family which had grown to include three other children.

The family first settled in Waterloo where, when well enough, Eileen briefly managed to attend Our Lady of Mount Carmel school often carried by one of her family members.

She quickly became well known in the area not just for her very visible disability, but for her amazing sunny disposition.

More often than not, a young Eileen was bedridden where she would lie in the window of the front room of the house and greet neighbours as they passed by.

But only nine years after relocating to Sydney, Charles died, having a devastating impact on the family not only financially as the only breadwinner, but on his eldest child, who adored him and she became immobilised in a way that she had not been before.

In a letter her father wrote to her shortly before his death, he said: “You are the dearest, best and bravest little girl under the sun … the sweetest little daughter in creation”.

Following her father’s death, Eileen’s family met a young Missionaries of the Sacred Heart priest, Father Edward McGrath, through his parish duties at St Brigid’s Church, Coogee, who helped the family to find a new home, with cheaper rent and one which could take in boarders and a provide an income for her mother.

Both Fr McGrath and Eileen shared a deep devotion to Our Lady and the desire to establish a ministry of compassionate service to the sick and poor in their own homes in her honour.

And given that Eileen was mostly bed-ridden, Fr McGrath would visit regularly to give her Holy Communion where she told him quietly of visitations from Our Lord and Our Lady.

As a result of that, she and Fr McGrath established the work that became known as Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, a work focused on caring for the sick and dying poor in their homes – a work that continues more than 100 years later as do the prayers for her sainthood.

And while Eileen could not assist with the work herself, she took on substitutive suffering, with Our Lady’s Nurses of the Poor starting its ministry in April 1913 from rented premises in Dudley Street, Coogee.

By the end of that year, the house was purchased with the generous financial assistance of Ryde parish priest, Fr Edward Gell and his sister, Frances Gell.

Every morning, the nurses would go out into the streets and people’s homes to help while Eileen, paralysed in all but her left arm at this stage, would organise where they had to go with her telephone while sitting up in bed.

Fr McGrath later described her role as: “Almost from the first day in the home, Eileen at my special request, in spite of her infirmities, assumed responsibilities. She was to be, and really was their loving Little Mother.”

Over the following years, seven young women entered Our Lady’s Home where each evening Eileen made a point of gathering them in her room for a time of talking and singing.

The foundation nurses and those who followed became affectionately known as the ‘Brown Nurses’ because of their distinctive brown cloaks and bonnets, chosen by the founders in honour of St Joseph.

Eileen’s love of the poor was boundless with her often saying: “The cause of a person’s poverty is not yours to question. The fact a person is poor is the reason you help.”

Miraculously, one day in 1914, seven years after she last walked, her mother came to visit and found her daughter lowering herself into a chair without assistance and a short time later walking. But a few years later her health began to again rapidly deteriorate with shocking bouts of pain returning until her death a month before her 29th birthday in 1921.

Former congregational leader and Eileen O’Connor Centenary Project Leader, Sr Margaret Mary Birgan oln said the cause for Eileen’s beatification has been a ‘work in progress’ for almost 100 years.

“Our congregation has been praying for this marvelous news ever since Eileen died in 1921,” she said.

“Her beautiful spirit inspired many people to seek her guidance and prayers during her short life.

“Despite having little formal education or theological formation, she embodied a distinctive spirituality marked by an unwavering devotion to Our Lady and her willingness to devote her suffering to Our Lady’s work.

“Year after year, the faithful have come to Our Lady’s Home on 10 January to pray at her tomb or to place petitions in our intercessory box.

“We have heard of many accounts of Eileen’s intercession in answering the prayers of the faithful.”

Eileen has also been selected by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP as the official spiritual companion or patron for the Archdiocese of Sydney’s young people in the Year of Youth currently being held around the country by the nation’s bishops.

In 1936, the community gained permission to have her casket moved from nearby Randwick Cemetery to the chapel at Our Lady’s Home. Her body was found to be incorrupt. And in 1953, Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor was officially recognised as a diocesan congregation with ministries established throughout Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle and Wollongong. At one stage, the congregation had almost 40 religious sisters and novices. The Brown Nurses, an independent ministry of the Society of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, is now based in Haymarket.

In July last year, the Congregation came under the aegis of the Congregational Leader and Council of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, thereby ensuring the legacy of Eileen O’Connor continues.