This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Eily Rosaline (Eileen) O'Connor (1892-1921), religious, was born on 19 February 1892 at Richmond, Melbourne, eldest of four children of Irish parents Charles Fergus O'Connor, clerk, and his wife Annie, née Kilgallim. Eileen, as she was known, when 3 fell from her pram and severely damaged her spine. Despite several operations nothing could be done to alleviate the terrible pain she endured. Later, radiologists discovered that her spine was at an angle of eighty degrees which should have prevented her from walking.
A member of a devout Catholic family, Eileen irregularly attended the Richmond parish school. With few friends of her own age and little opportunity for the normal preoccupations of childhood, she turned to her family and to her religion for consolation.
In 1902 the family moved to Sydney. When in 1911 Charles O'Connor died, his widow faced great financial difficulty and sought help from a friend, a priest who introduced her to the parish priest of Coogee, Fr Edward McGrath, a fellow member of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. He found accommodation for the family and witnessed the courage with which Eileen met her disability. In McGrath's opinion she came close to death when lapsing into unconsciousness during periods of particularly intense pain.
Deeply religious, Eileen claimed to have received a visitation from Mary, mother of Christ, who encouraged her to accept her suffering for the good of others. She told only McGrath of this and he shared with her his hope of establishing a congregation of nurses to serve the poor. Eileen entered into his scheme with enthusiasm and on 15 April 1913 moved into a rented house at Coogee which, known as Our Lady's Home, would serve as a convent for the new congregation.
The enterprise did not prosper and all recruits, except O'Connor, left the Coogee house. Gradually they were replaced and a small community of seven, called Our Lady's Nurses of the Poor, elected O'Connor as their first superior. The work of the 'Brown Sisters' consisted in visiting the sick poor in their homes and in nursing them and the frail aged. O'Connor supervised this work and directed the spiritual development of the congregation.
Some Sacred Heart missionaries alleged that an improper relationship had grown up between the twin founders of Our Lady's Nurses; McGrath was prevented from officiating as a priest. He appealed to Rome and, remarkably in view of her condition, O'Connor, with the assistance of a nurse, travelled to Rome and London in 1915 to support his cause. Granted an interview with Pope Benedict XV she influenced the decision to reinstate McGrath as a priest even though he was not permitted to return to Australia for about thirty years.
The growth of the institute now exclusively in her hands, O'Connor provided strong leadership and direction. Apart from the Roman interlude, she was almost entirely bed-ridden. She died on 10 January 1921 of chronic tuberculosis of the spine and exhaustion. She was buried in Randwick cemetery but in 1937 the body was exhumed and reinterred beneath the chapel at Our Lady's Home; it was found to be in a state of perfect preservation. The congregation which claims her as co-foundress continues at Our Lady's Home at Coogee with three additional houses.
Michael McKernan, 'O'Connor, Eily Rosaline (Eileen) (1892–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnor-eily-rosaline-eileen-7875/text13687, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 March 2017.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988