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John Hosie. Eileen: The Life of Eileen O'Connor, Foundress of Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor.

JOHN HOSIE. Eileen: The Life of Eileen O'Connor, Foundress of Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor. St Paul, Sydney, 2004; ISBN: 1-87629-580-5; 348 pages.

This is an inspiring life of Eileen O'Connor (1892-1921), an Australian woman likely one day to be declared a saint.

She has always been known as 'The Little Mother' by the Sisters who revere her as their foundress, Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor at Coogee NSW. She was indeed little, standing at no more than 115 centimetres as a result of a childhood accident and a tubercular condition. For most of her twenty-nine nine years she was confined to her bed or to a wheelchair.

But Eileen's height was the only thing little about her. Her spirit and the faith on which it fed know no limits. Reading her achievement you would never guess her physical limitations. John Hosie lets us see the extent of that achievement and the difficulties encountered along the way.

Eileen was born into a Catholic family in Richmond, Victoria, but when she was ten they moved to Sydney. In spite of much distressing surgery her condition did not improve and she never seems to have been without pain.

Hosie does not dramatise this suffering, but you wonder how Eileen was able to endure it. The early chapters indicate the source of this endurance and the wellspring of her zest for life here and hereafter. It was her faith, shared by all the faithful, but faith reinforced by something not shared by all--visitations of heaven which gave her an acute sense of her union with Christ and the closeness of his mother to us. A striking fact is that Eileen never made any secret of these divine favours and referred to them almost casually.

Her life's work was achieved in association with a priest at Coogee, Father Timothy Edward McGrath msc. They gathered together a group of young women who aspired to serve Christ by caring for the sick poor in their own homes. Eileen was never a nun, and thirty years elapsed after her death before her Nurses achieved canonical status as a religious congregation.

Hosie devotes much of his book to the difficulties occasioned for Eileen by the failure of those in authority to approve of what was going on at Coogee. That is putting it mildly. Because of what was judged to be indiscretion, Father McGrath became a persona non grata and was forced to spend a major part of his life exiled from his native land. The effect of this on Our Lady's Nurses could easily have driven them into the exile of oblivion.

Readers should beware of drowning in the details of this sad story, or of focusing on those who instigated the trouble. The focus should be on Eileen's heroic fortitude and unfailing charity in enduring it. One is reminded of Cardinal Gilroy's words about Mary MacKillop:
 The more we consider the accusations against her the deeper becomes
 the certainty that everything was prepared by the sweet and
 merciful goodness of God, who so willed to prove more luminously
 the merits and virtues of his most faithful Spouse and Servant.


In spite of her suffering, Eileen's joyfulness made people glad to be around her. She loved cups of tea, picnics, celebrations, especially for children, and took great care that her joyful kindness touched everyone around her.

When in 1936 her body was being transferred from the Randwick cemetery to the chapel at 35 Dudley Street, Coogee, it was found, for whatever reason, to be incorrupt.

Bishop Walker's foreword is valuable. It reminds us that if Eileen is canonized it will not be because she was a dedicated social worker. It will be because she loved God with her whole being, and because her love of other people did not arise just from a natural sympathy but from a source which, because of her union with God, was both human and divine.

Paul Gardiner sj
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Author:Gardiner, Paul
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:659
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