Brown Nurses 60th marks Eileen’s enduring influence

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Left to right: Sr Margaret Mary Birgan OLN, Fr Andrew Doohan, Mrs Barbara Bowers MBE, Mrs Margaret McNamara, Sr Gaye Reynolds, Sr Kerry McDermott OLN. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Left to right: Sr Margaret Mary Birgan OLN, Fr Andrew Doohan, Mrs Barbara Bowers MBE, Mrs Margaret McNamara, Sr Gaye Reynolds, Sr Kerry McDermott OLN. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Hundreds have gathered from across Australia for a special Mass last Sunday at Newcastle’s Sacred Heart Cathedral to mark 60 years of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in the city.

Inspired by their co-founder, Australia’s saint-in-waiting, Eileen O’Connor, the Brown Nurses, as they’re affectionately known, have left an indelible mark on the city, caring for generations of sick poor in the comfort of their own homes.

The mission began on what would have been Eileen’s 70th birthday, on 19 February 1962, when four foundation nurses, Mother Superior Cissy McLaughlin and Sisters Patricia Davoren, Marie Purcell and Greta Gabb arrived to set up a convent in the seaside suburb of Merewether which continues to this day.

The celebrant at the Newcastle Mass, Fr Andrew Doohan said Servant of God Eileen O’Connor would have been proud of the inspiring contribution the Sisters have played in the Hunter region.

“Following in the footsteps of their foundress, Eileen O’Connor, they had given their lives simply because that is what God has asked of them and they have been faithful to that witness from the time they entered the order, right down to this day”.

“The ongoing mission of Our Lady’s Nurses would never have been so successful without the strong support of the Catholics of Newcastle and local community organisations.”

“Thank you, Brown Nurses, for all you have done in this part of the world and that you will please God, continue to do for many more years yet. May God continue to bless the work that you have done and that still remains to be done”, Fr Doohan said.

For two-thirds of the time that Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor have been based in Merewether, the public face of their mission here has been the Brisbane-born Sr Margaret Mary Birgan, who has played a pivotal role in caring for generations of disadvantaged Novocastrians and working with the local community to organise fetes and other fundraisers to support the mission in the city.

Sr Margaret Mary told the congregation at the Mass that the ongoing mission of Our Lady’s Nurses would never have been so successful without the strong support of the Catholics of Newcastle and local community organisations.

“The schools of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, the St Vincent De Paul Society, the Jesmond Lions Committee all came together to support annual fetes and fundraisers, from bowls days to fashion parades and movie nights”, Sr Margaret Mary said.

Sr Margaret Mary Birgan, second from the left, back row, alongside volunteers who have supported Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in Newcastle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Sr Margaret Mary Birgan, second from the left, back row, alongside volunteers who have supported Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in Newcastle. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“It was very obvious early into the mission that the community of Maitland-Newcastle would respond generously and warmly to the presence of the Sisters and so many volunteered over the years to help whenever and wherever that help was needed.”

Among the dedicated volunteers present at the Mass was former Brisbane TV presenter, Mrs Barbara Bowers MBE, a classmate of Sr Margaret Mary’s from All Hallows in Brisbane, who has been travelling regularly to support Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor in Newcastle for the past 20 years.

“The people here have really taken the Brown Nurses to their heart because they have been so focused on reaching out to the poorest of the poor and many of the volunteers who are now aged in their 80s have been volunteering since they were aged in their 30s and 40s”, she explained.

“The Sisters have always gone into all homes, irrespective of race, colour or creed and help them through their daily lives and the Sisters have had such an impact here that many of the people who had initially received support from them during hard times have actually gone on to contribute back to the mission through volunteering themselves”.

“Eileen was a young woman well ahead of her time who coordinated a lot of the outreach to the poor over the telephone from her bed since she battled a painful spinal condition.”

Alongside volunteers such as Barbara Bowers were representatives from other communities where Our Lady’s Nurses continue to minister to the sick poor, including Sr Kerry McDermott who had made a three hour drive from Minto where she has provided support to the disadvantaged for many years, especially to Aboriginal students attending John Therry Catholic College at Rosemeadow.

Barbara Bowers believes Eileen O’Connor’s example of a young faith-filled life in which she had to overcome many personal health challenges is one which should resonate with the young adults of today.

“Eileen was a young woman well ahead of her time who coordinated a lot of the outreach to the poor over the telephone from her bed since she battled a painful spinal condition which left her unable to walk for most of her life”, she said.

“Eileen had a remarkable vision and the ability to attract people into the mission that was firmly focused on serving Our Lord through serving the poor and she would always emphasise to the Sisters that you should never ask why someone is poor, but that the fact that they’re poor is the reason you help them”.