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O'Connell, Cecily Maude (1884–1965)

by Kathleen Dunlop Kane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Cecily Maude Mary O'Connell (1884-1965), trade unionist and religious Sister, was born on 30 June 1884 at Beaufort, Victoria, daughter of Patrick Martin O'Connell, storekeeper, and his wife Rosina, née Hosking. Her father was a cousin of (Archbishop) Daniel Mannix. The O'Connell family moved from Beaufort to Bairnsdale, later to Kilmore then to Walhalla where Maude, aged 11, witnessed her mother's funeral winding up the steep hills, an event which she said had a profound effect upon her later work. She was sent to live at Abbotsford, Melbourne, but within a few years had become independent.

Working as a teacher, Maude O'Connell became involved in social work with Sister M. Bernardine of St Vincent's Hospital and Sister M. Monica of the Good Shepherd Sisters. To experience the working conditions of the women she met through these activities Maude O'Connell went to work in the factory of the British Australasian Tobacco Co. Pty Ltd and also became one of those dedicated women who, early in the century, threw themselves into the advancement of the struggling Labor Party. The politician R. H. Solly commended her for travelling through the heat and drought of the Mallee to discover the settlers' wants, 'a new thing in politics at this stage'. In 1915-16 Maude O'Connell was active as a unionist, representing tobacco workers on the Trades Hall Council and at Political Labor Council conferences. Perhaps in an effort to combat her zeal, the B.A.T. Co. offered her an executive position; she replied, 'I'm not up for sale'.

A loyal Catholic, Maude O'Connell spoke at a large meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall on 28 April 1915, arguing for state aid to independent schools, in opposition to the Labor Party to which she continued to belong. When, under the guidance of Fr Lockington, the Catholic Women's Social Guild (Catholic Women's League) was formed in 1916, she became its first treasurer and also joined with Dr Mary Glowery in arranging accommodation for girls unemployed as a result of strike action. She began nursing training at the Eye and Ear Hospital and during the influenza epidemic of 1919 worked with doctors nursing the sick in their own homes.

Abandoning a plan to accompany Dr Glowery to India, Maude O'Connell, aged 46, founded the Company of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to the care of the family, particularly mothers and children, although her ambitious plans anticipated all the fields later covered by the various branches of social service. The first house of the Grey Sisters, as they are popularly known, was opened at Daylesford in 1930, although Maude O'Connell had been visiting some of the poorest homes in Melbourne and giving domestic assistance before that time. The Daylesford house, Kewn Kreestha or the Quiet of Christ, provided a home where mothers could rest while their children were cared for. There in 1930 Maude O'Connell was joined by the first of her helpers, Mary Bannon, and others followed. The 1930s Depression made many demands on the new organization (it did not become a religious congregation until 1949) and the Grey Sisters went into homes cooking, cleaning, shopping and looking after little children and their mothers wherever there was illness or a new baby. During those years, Maude O'Connell also helped Muriel Heagney to organize the Unemployed Girls' Relief Movement.

In Maude O'Connell's lifetime the Grey Sisters established themselves at Prahran, Surrey Hills and finally in Canterbury and Croydon, all in Victoria, where the vision of Maude O'Connell continues as a reality. She died at St Vincent's Hospital on 13 December 1965 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. In 1986 the Company of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament decided henceforth to be known as the Family Care Sisters (the Grey Sisters).

Select Bibliography

  • K. Daniels et al (eds), Women in Australia, vol 2 (Canb, 1977)
  • K. D. Kane, History of the Grey Sisters (Melb, 1980)
  • Austral Light, 1 June 1916
  • Labor Call, 15, 22 Apr, 30 Sept 1915, 1 May 1916
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1965
  • Tribune (Melbourne), 23 Dec 1965
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Jan 1966
  • M. Bannon, Cecily Maude Mary E. O'Connell, Foundress of the Company of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament 1930-1965 (typescript, State Library of Victoria)
  • Grey Sisters Archives (Grey Sisters Generalate, Canterbury, Melbourne).

Citation details

Kathleen Dunlop Kane, 'O'Connell, Cecily Maude (1884–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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