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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Forbes, Catherine Ellen (1874–1946)

by M. Borgia Tipping

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Catherine Ellen Forbes (1874-1946), religious sister and educationist, known as Mother Mary Elizabeth, was born on 18 July 1874 at Carlton, Melbourne, eldest daughter of Alexander Forbes, accountant, and his wife Jane Mary, née Costello, both Australian-born.

Catherine was educated at home; her matriculation entry, 1892, signed by her father and by a private tutor, L. D. Brouard, listed French, geography, English honours, Latin, geometry, algebra, arithmetic and physiology. In 1893 she began an arts course at the University of Melbourne and graduated B.A. in March 1897. At the university she was an active member of the Princess Ida Club. Her address after 1897 was Loreto Abbey, Mary's Mount, Ballarat. On 2 February 1900 she was received as a postulant into the Institute of the Blessed Virgin by Mother Gonzaga Barry and given the name Elizabeth.

Her first appointment after profession in 1902 was to the newly founded Loreto Convent in Adelaide. The small school, poorly equipped, was a challenge to test new methods in primary classes and her experience there proved invaluable. The 1905 Victorian Registration of Teachers and Schools Act opened the way to her specific educational career. As a result of the Act, the Central Catholic Training College at Albert Park, Melbourne, was founded with Mother Hilda Benson as principal and Barbara Bell as mistress of method. Mother Elizabeth took the necessary education subjects at the university to secure her diploma of education and in 1906 was ready for her post as collaborator with Mother Hilda. The college, essentially for the training of primary teachers, religious and secular, was also a residence for those students taking university courses. Students armed with 'registration' went out to all States; they bore in mind the prudent guidance given them by Mother Elizabeth and remembered too the salt of wit in her criticism lessons.

Reports of the training college led to a request from Western Australia for a summer school. Accordingly, Mother Elizabeth and the artist, Mother Catherine, conducted a 'school' at Loreto, Claremont, in the Christmas vacation of 1915-16, inaugurating what was to become a feature of Catholic education in Western Australia. Earlier, in 1912, Mother Elizabeth had given support and guidance to the opening of the Loreto Free Kindergarten at South Melbourne; she was anxious to involve past students in this service.

In 1918 St Mary's Hall at Parkville, a residence for Catholic university women students, was opened. Mother Elizabeth was the obvious choice as administrator. She loved the work, despite its responsibilities. In 1924 she went to Sydney where she held administrative positions at Loreto, Kirribilli, and later became superior and administrator of Loreto Boarding School, Normanhurst, during the Depression. Finally she was principal of Loreto Convent, Adelaide.

In each post she was beset by exam-oriented systems that taxed all her courageous experimentation, tact, and integrity of principle. Alternative 'courses' were examples of her care for the individuality of the person. She was essentially the teacher. A 'contemplative in action', she saw God in everything: she was a keen nature-lover and gardener, and knew every bird call. Her death at Loreto Convent on 1 March 1946 came after a period of retirement forced on her by failing health. After a requiem Mass she was buried in West Terrace cemetery, Adelaide. But she lives on in the annals of Loreto education.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • M. Oliver, Love is a Light Burden (Lond, 1950)
  • J. G. Murtagh, Australia
  • the Catholic Chapter (Syd, 1959)
  • S. Murray-Smith (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education (Melb, 1976)
  • J. Brownfoot and D. Scott, The Unequal Half (Syd, 1976)
  • G. O'Hagan, Ballarat to Broome (Ballarat, 1977)
  • Loreto in Development of Secondary Education in Victoria (typescript, Mary's Mount Archives, Ballarat).

Citation details

M. Borgia Tipping, 'Forbes, Catherine Ellen (1874–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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