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Memories of the saintly ‘little mother’

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Isabelle Lindsey and Eliza Tome attended the annual memorial Mass celebrating Eileen O'Connor on her anniversary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Isabelle Lindsey and Eliza Tome attended the annual memorial Mass celebrating Eileen O’Connor on her anniversary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Though she may have had an ocean view of Coogee beach from her bedroom window, it was more likely the view of St Brigid’s Catholic Church that Eileen O’Connor preferred.

Now in that same hilltop house lie the mortal remains of the woman who many pray will be declared the next Australian saint.

It was as if the woman known as the “little mother” herself was again smiling over the church on 10 January when more than 250 people came together to celebrate the annual memorial Mass for the woman who despite her profound disability founded Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor and was declared a Servant of God in 2018.

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Some travelled hours for the occasion.

Bethne Williams set her alarm for 4am in order to make the long drive from Bathurst.

Her grandmother was a cousin of Fr Edward (Ted) McGrath, Eileen’s co-founder, and a sister of an early member, Sr Lucy Mackay.

“Eileen is very much an important figure in our family,” Williams said.
“She has helped us over and over again.”

Williams believes O’Connor and Fr McGrath are models of perseverance, and often finds herself asking for their intercession when she sees someone in need.

“I knew a couple who had lost their seven-year-old child and were trying desperately to conceive again,” she told The Catholic Weekly.

“I went to one of Eileen’s Masses, picked up some prayer cards and gave them one, after which she then fell pregnant.

“This woman had given up on everything else after five years of trying, but within a week of giving her that card, they fell pregnant.”

The liturgy was led by Bishop Terence Brady with concelebrants Fr Thoi Tran MSC, Fr Bob Irwin MSC, Fr Peter Henricks MSC and Sydney City South parish priest Fr Paul Smithers.

“Today, we remember this wonderful, holy woman, who had a love for the poor and above all, a love for her God,” said Bishop Brady in his homily.

“We can all learn from Eileen’s example of discipleship.

“She is the perfect model for living the spiritual life and how to be a disciple of Jesus in our present church.”

Born in 1892, O’Connor lived in Sydney from the time she was ten.

Over 250 people including Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, SIsters of Charity, Bishop Terence Brady, Fr Anthony Robbie (postulator for the cause for canonisation of Eileen O’Connor) and other clergy and friends  attended the annual memorial Mass celebrating Eileen O'Connor on her anniversary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Over 250 people including Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, SIsters of Charity, Bishop Terence Brady, Fr Anthony Robbie (postulator for the cause for canonisation of Eileen O’Connor) and other clergy and friends attended the annual memorial Mass celebrating Eileen O’Connor on her anniversary. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

As an adult she discovered that she and Fr McGrath, the then-parish priest at St Brigid’s, shared a devotion to Mary and a willingness to assist the sick poor in her name.

Together in 1913, despite O’Connor’s crippling spinal disability, they began their ministry attending to the marginalised of Sydney’s east and gathered a small community of women who later became known as Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor.

“I look around in our society at present and see a great number of people in need, and I often find myself asking what Eileen would do,” Bishop Brady said.

“I think she would be looking at ways we could do more.”

Following the Mass, a number of parents sought to pass down O’Connor’s story to their children with a visit to her resting place in her former bedroom, now the convent chapel, to find out more about her.

“She was a keen photographer, scrapbooker and embroiderer, and was particularly fond of dogs,” explained archivist Carlos Lopez.

“It’s a fun side to her and it’s different, you don’t expect it so much because when people think of Eileen as a person, they only remember her disability.

“Yes, she suffered a lot, but she also had a big personality.”

Eileen’s influence lived on through the OLN sisters long after her death on 10 January 1921. The visible model of care and compassion of the sisters in Brisbane left a lasting impact on Sr Kerry Macdermott, compelling her to join the OLN order 60 years ago this year. She has spent 40 of them serving the sick poor community in Minto, in Sydney’s southwest.

“Eileen is the one I turn to most of all in situations where I’m going to people in need,” Sr Kerry said.

“When I find myself wanting to do something I think she would do, I ask her to help me, and she always gives me the inspiration.

“Very, very special is our Eileen.”

Sr Kerry says O’Connor’s legacy lives on through the people she has touched and through those who recognise her work in them.

“People realise what a special, saintly woman she was and how very much she loved God and Our Lady.

‘They are very much inspired by that to carry on through their own sufferings, and, like Eileen, who offered up her sufferings, they do the same.”

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