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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nicholas, Mabel (1866–1958)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Mabel Nicholas (1866-1958), Anglican Sister and college principal, was born on 13 July 1866 at Kilburn, Middlesex, England, daughter of John Nicholas, wine merchant, and his wife Mary Ellen, née Hodding. Aged only 4, Mabel gave coins for 'Bun Breakfasts' for pauper children, organized by the Anglican Order of the Community of the Sisters of the Church. An attractive, high-spirited woman, she renounced her comfortable secular life and entered the Order's novitiate at Kilburn on 18 June 1892. She was professed on 3 January 1895, taking the religious name Rosalie. After training as a teacher and community worker, she taught boys at C.S.C. schools in London. She was also encouraged by her superior, Mother Emily Ayckbowm, to develop her natural business acumen.

When asked by the Order's Mother to respond to a call from the Perth diocese, Sister Rosalie obeyed, though with some misgivings. She reached Fremantle in the Australia on 20 November 1901, accompanied by Sisters Vera and Susanna. Their tasks were to establish a school, to introduce Sunday mission services and meals for indigent men, and later to support Sister Kate Clutterbuck's home for orphans. In 1902 the Sisters established Perth Girls' College and its junior school, Cowandilla, and Kalgoorlie High School for Girls. With the arrival of additional Sisters, they opened St George's High School (1908), Perth, Lady Margaret School (1911), Guildford, and St Alban's (1913), Highgate Hill. As Sister Vera's deputy, Sister Rosalie was responsible for securing premises and co-ordinating management of the schools.

The cost of renting each building—and the Sisters' wish to consolidate their girls' schools in Perth—prompted them to settle on a location at Mount Lawley. Assisted by James Fisher, secretary of the diocese of Perth, Sister Rosalie raised money to build a college for boarders and day-girls. While visiting England in 1913-14, she received support from the bishop of London, and persuaded the editors of two newspapers to include an article on the C.S.C.'s appeal for funds. She oversaw the planning of Perth College, its opening in 1916 and the addition of a chapel in 1927.

As principal (1928-47), Sister Rosalie identified with the college's pastoral and community ethos. She subscribed to Maria Montessori's philosophy that 'real education' brought out the 'whole nature of a child'. She worked in conjunction with a lay headmistress, and took pride in the scholars and community leaders produced by Perth College. Considered fair and never petty, she turned a blind eye to the students' midnight feasts and nocturnal swims, but, when angered, made one recalcitrant feel like 'an absolute worm'. She was a compassionate, worldly and approachable woman, with 'a homely and straightforward way of putting eternal truths'.

In retirement Sister Rosalie remained interested in students and anonymously published Perth College (1958), a history of the school. In 1949 she was appointed O.B.E. She died on 16 July 1958 at Mount Lawley and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Rosalie House at Perth College was named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ayckbowm, A Valiant Victorian (Lond, 1964)
  • Myola (Perth), 1913-33
  • Western Anglican, Aug 1958
  • Our Work, 81, Sept-Oct 1958
  • C. King, By the Way (trypescript, Perth College Archives).

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Nicholas, Mabel (1866–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rosalie, Sister

13 July 1866
Kilburn, Middlesex, England


16 July 1958
Mount Lawley, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence