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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Synan, Mary (1837–1915)

by Naomi Turner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Mary Synan (1837-1915), Brigidine nun, was born on 26 January 1837 in Limerick, Ireland, daughter of John Synan, grocer and draper, and his wife Mary, née Sullivan. Of Jewish origin, the Synans had settled in Cork before moving to Limerick as farmers. At age 16, having completed her schooling at the Brigidine Convent, Mountrath, Queen's County, Mary joined the Sisters of St Brigid (founded in 1807); two of her sisters joined the same order. She was professed on 17 January 1857, taking the religious name Mary John.

In 1882 Bishop James Murray of Maitland, New South Wales, invited the Brigidine Sisters to take charge of the school at Coonamble. A woman of vision, with leadership qualities and administrative ability, Mother John was chosen as superior of the six Sisters who had volunteered to work in Australia. They left London on 20 April 1883 in the Chimborazo and arrived in Sydney on 7 June; after a further journey by boat and coach, the Sisters reached the presbytery at Coonamble on the 21st. They took charge of the school, housed in the church and previously staffed by lay teachers, on 9 July. According to custom, the school was divided into classes for young ladies and the poor. In 1884 Mother John supervised the building of a convent, which contained a dormitory for boarders, and a school building was erected.

Named Australian provincial superior of the Brigidine Sisters in New South Wales and Victoria in 1893, Mother John became provincial superior of New South Wales next year when the Victorian Sisters formed a separate province. Under her leadership (until 1907) the Brigidines opened schools at Cooma (1887), Cowra (1894), Cundletown (1899) and Randwick, Sydney (1901), and in New Zealand at Masterton (1898), Foxton (1901) and Pahiatua (1906). The convent at Randwick became the provincial house and novitiate. Cultured and intelligent, Mother John played an important part in developing the high standard of education which characterizes the Brigidine convents. Her 'gifts, poetical and literary, were known, in spite of all precautions, outside the convent walls'.

Strict, upright, blunt, yet with a warmth of personality, she was described as 'a combination of Queen Victoria and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux'. Her compassion and common sense enabled her to compromise between the strictures of Irish monastic life and the different customs, needs and climate of Australia. The superior of Mount St Brigid Convent, Randwick, Mother John died on 6 March 1915 and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 7 Feb 1907, 11 Mar 1915
  • Catholic Press, 11 Mar 1915
  • Brigidine Sisters Archives (Brigidine convents at Mountrath, Ireland, and St Ives, Sydney).

Citation details

Naomi Turner, 'Synan, Mary (1837–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mary John, Mother

26 January 1837
Limerick, Ireland


6 March 1915

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence