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McGuire, Frances Margaret (1900–1995)

by Katharine Massam

This article was published online in 2019

Frances Margaret McGuire (1900–1995), biochemist, writer, and Catholic social thinker, was born on 20 May 1900 at Glenelg, Adelaide, fourth of five surviving children of English-born Alfred Stanley Cheadle, woolbroker, and his South Australian-born wife Margaret, née Loutit. Her father, a member of Adelaide’s Protestant establishment and a former mayor of St Peters, had prospered in the wool trade. The younger Margaret’s autobiography, Bright Morning (1975), describes her happy twentieth-century childhood among settler families like her own, still bound to Scotland and England. Her paternal grandfather’s early death reverberated through family memory and framed her father’s admonition to her aged about eighteen: ‘Never lose your independence’ (McGuire 1975, 17). Over the years of social engagement, intellectual enterprise, and committed religious faith that followed, she prized her ability to think clearly and choose wisely.

Cheadle and her siblings were nurtured amid books, music, and ideals of community service. Raised on Bible stories and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and acquiring ‘an abhorrence of dogma’ (SLSA PRG 336), she was also captivated by George MacDonald’s fairy stories that drew inspiration from the subtlety of evil and the beauty of divine wisdom. From the outset her Christianity focused on the life of Jesus in her own context. She imagined the woman cured of an issue of blood (Mark 5: 25–34) sitting on an Adelaide bluestone curb and reaching out to touch the passing Messiah.

After attending Girton House Girls’ Grammar School, Cheadle studied science at the University of Adelaide but did not take a degree. In 1923 and 1924 she assisted the biochemist Professor T. B. Robertson in his pioneering work preparing insulin. At university she met Dominic Paul McGuire and converted to Catholicism in order to marry him. While she was appalled by the clericalism of Irish Australians, she formed a deep affinity with Catholic scholarship and tradition, especially through contact with the Dominicans in North Adelaide. On 18 November 1927 she and McGuire married at St Laurence’s Church, North Adelaide; their two children would be stillborn.

The couple helped to support themselves by writing and running a literary page in Adelaide’s Catholic weekly, the Southern Cross. Some three years in London from early 1929 in the circle of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc proved definitive. The McGuires embraced the public outreach of the Catholic Evidence Guild, the teaching of the social encyclicals, and the Belgian model of Catholic Action developed by Fr Joseph Cardijn and the Young Christian Workers. On their return to Adelaide in 1932, Margaret founded, with Paul and their Dominican friend Fr John O’Doherty, the Catholic Guild for Social Studies. With Margaret as director of studies and an exhilarating hostess over tea and biscuits, the Guild gathered two thousand members. She was also instrumental in forming the nucleus of Adelaide’s Catholic Central Library.

An inspiring speaker, Margaret McGuire conducted study groups and presented numerous lectures with zeal and humour. Her Handbook for Catholic Action Groups (1939) sought to form lay people as confident, perceptive, and practising apostles. In 1939 and 1940, and again in 1946, she accompanied Paul on speaking tours across the United States of America, and conducted workshops on Catholic Action. During World War II they moved to Melbourne: Paul worked for naval intelligence; Margaret collaborated with him on The Price of Admiralty (1945), an account of the HMAS Parramatta, and completed her commissioned history The Royal Australian Navy (1948). Back in Adelaide, postwar confusion about Catholic Action in Australia spread to the guild. She resigned as director in 1948 to protest against the assumption they should ‘promulgate the doctrines of one political party’ (SLSA PRG 336).

The couple worked together on social histories of The Australian Theatre (1948) and Inns of Australia (1952). Margaret also provided research support for Paul’s increasing involvement in government policy. She adapted easily to life in diplomatic circles when Paul served as minister (later ambassador) to Italy (1954–59). Back in Australia, she turned keen botanical observation into Gardens of Italy, which ran to several editions. She also published three novels (1961, 1963, 1964) and two volumes of poetry (1990, 1994). After Paul’s death in 1978 Margaret remained active in community work, in writers’ networks, as a parishioner at St Laurence’s, and as a generous philanthropist to the church and the State library. She died on 14 August 1995 in North Adelaide and was buried in Brighton cemetery. Earlier that year she had been appointed AM.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Cockburn, Stewart. ‘Exhilarating Spray of Ideas.’ Advertiser, 14 April 1982, 5
  • Massam, Katharine. Sacred Threads: Catholic Spirituality in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1996
  • McGuire, F. Margaret Cheadle. Bright Morning. Adelaide: Rigby, 1975
  • McGuire, Frances Margaret. Handbook for Catholic Action Groups. Adelaide: Archdiocese of Adelaide, 1939
  • National Library of Australia. MS 6453, Papers of Paul McGuire, 1878–1987
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 336, Papers of Frances Margaret McGuire

Additional Resources

Citation details

Katharine Massam, 'McGuire, Frances Margaret (1900–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcguire-frances-margaret-27815/text35558, published online 2019, accessed online 18 September 2019.

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