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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frayne, Ursula (1816–1885)

by Imelda Palmer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Ursula Frayne (1816-1885), mother superior, was born on 5 October 1816 in Dublin, Ireland, daughter of Robert Frayne, a prosperous businessman, and his wife Bridget. In 1834 she entered the Institute of Mercy, founded in 1832 in Dublin by Mother Catherine McAuley, and took the name Ursula in place of her baptismal name Clara. In 1842 she was appointed Superior of the institute's first foreign mission foundation in Newfoundland and in 1845 went on foundation to Perth, Western Australia, at the request of the newly consecrated Bishop John Brady for Sisters to staff his proposed schools. She and her companions arrived in Perth on 8 January 1846.

From the outset the Sisters of Mercy experienced great hardship. So small was the Catholic population that government aid, granted to denominational schools in 1849, was insignificant and the bishop, who was close to bankruptcy, could not be relied on for support. Shocked by the conditions under which the Sisters worked in the first two years, the Dublin mother-house sent money for their return passages. This money Mother Ursula gratefully acknowledged but she refused to abandon the mission. However, she soon realized that the Sisters would have to supplement their meagre income. In 1849 she opened the first secondary school in Western Australia, a 'select' fee-paying school catering for an almost exclusively non-Catholic clientele; it brought much-needed security. Its success determined the pattern of future Mercy expansion, which was to establish, almost simultaneously and often within the same building, three separate schools: a 'select' fee-paying school, a primary school and an infants' school. By 1856, despite the impending withdrawal of government aid, the schools of the Sisters of Mercy in Western Australia were flourishing. Probably with some relief, having experienced the bitter Brady-Serra dispute over ecclesiastical jurisdiction and seen her countrymen recalled to Rome, Ursula Frayne responded to a request from Bishop James Goold for a Victorian foundation. A similar request came from Bishop Francis Murphy in Adelaide but she was already committed.

She arrived in Melbourne in March 1857 and within six weeks had raised loans to pay off the mortgage on her convent in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy. Rapid expansion followed. Large building programmes were undertaken for educational and social work, culminating in the erection of the first wing of the present 'Academy' in 1870 at a cost of £6000. The Sisters of Mercy were the first teaching nuns in Victoria and under the vigorous leadership of Mother Ursula their establishment included a boarding and day school for girls, together with two primary schools and a domestic training school for orphans. She also founded the St Vincent de Paul's Orphanage at South Melbourne and managed it until the Christian Brothers took over the boys' section, leaving the girls under the care of her Sisters. Although the 1872 Act caused temporary retrenchment in Catholic education, it resulted in expansion for the Nicholson Street community, and Sisters replaced lay teachers when salaries could not be met. Ursula Frayne's first Victorian country foundation was at Kilmore in 1875 and especially dear to her for its rural setting. She died at Nicholson Street on 9 June 1885.

Her letters give evidence of the qualities which distinguished her as a religious: intelligence, blended with shrewd, practical wisdom; tenacity and great powers of endurance; strict and loving observance of the Rule; and a keen Irish wit. A fine Gothic chapel was built by her successor as a memorial within the convent grounds at Nicholson Street. There her remains were interred in a vault flanked by a Celtic cross, reminiscent of her origin.

Select Bibliography

  • P. D. Tannock, A History of Catholic Education in Western Australia, 1829-1929 (M.Ed. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1964)
  • M. M. Frayne, Sketches of Conventual Life in the Bush (typescript, Convent of Mercy Archives, Perth)
  • letters (Benedictine Abbey Archives, New Norcia, Western Australia)
  • notes and letters (Convent of Mercy Archives, Dublin).

Citation details

Imelda Palmer, 'Frayne, Ursula (1816–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Frayne, Clara
  • Ursula, Mother

5 October 1816
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


9 June 1885
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence