Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gertrude Abbott (1846–1934)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Gertrude Abbott (1846-1934), founder of a hospital for women, was born Mary Jane O'Brien on 11 July 1846 in Sydney, daughter of Thomas O'Brien, schoolmaster, and his wife Rebecca, née Matthews. The family moved in December 1848 to Dry Creek, South Australia, where her father ran a licensed school, then took up farming. In February 1868, taking the name Sister Ignatius of Jesus, she entered the Order of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, founded at Penola two years earlier by Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison-Woods. Influenced by Tenison-Woods, she and another nun claimed to witness visions. There was a scandal when the other nun was found to have faked manifestations. Although blameless, Sister Ignatius left the order in July 1872, only four months after she had taken final vows, and returned to Sydney. No longer able to use her religious name, she became known as Mrs Gertrude or 'Mother' Abbott. For the next twenty years she waited in vain for approval to found an order of contemplative nuns. At her establishments in Surry Hills, first in Bourke Street, later in Elizabeth Street, she gathered round her a small community of women who survived chiefly by dressmaking. After Tenison-Woods's death in her care in 1889, she inherited his estate of £609.

In 1893 Mrs Abbott reputedly took in and cared for a pregnant girl brought to her by a policeman. Next year she opened St Margaret's Maternity Home at 561 Elizabeth Street, in the area known as Strawberry Hills. She claimed that the home was 'unsectarian in principle and working', its chief object being 'to provide shelter and care for unmarried girls of the comparatively respectable class'. From March to December 1894 she admitted 9 married and 23 unmarried patients; 3 nurses trained in midwifery that year and 8 were receiving instruction in 1895.

As president of the managing committee, later matron, Mrs Abbott ran the home for the next forty years. She and the women who worked with her were a quasi-religious community and followed an unofficial Rule; she obtained permission for Mass to be celebrated in a chapel at the hospital two or three times a week. In 1904 St Margaret's began to treat diseases of women and opened an out-patients department; doctors also tended cases in near-by homes. In 1910 Mrs Abbott leased, and later bought, from the Sacred Heart nuns a property in Bourke Street near Taylor Square, and the hospital moved there. As it was not recognized officially as a Catholic institution, she raised money for its work and further expansion by a series of large art union lotteries from 1921. That year she received a first government subsidy of £250, and patients' fees out-stripped for the first time fees paid by nurses.

In 1926 Sister Magdalen Foley, who had been with her since the earliest days and had been in charge of training nurses, died; from about then Mrs Abbott withdrew from the running of the hospital. She died there on 12 May 1934. That year its annual report recorded 760 patients treated and 619 births registered without any maternal deaths; it was the third largest obstetric hospital in Sydney. After her death, at her wish, it passed to the Sisters of St Joseph, whose order she had left unhappily sixty years before.

Select Bibliography

  • G. O'Neill, Life of Mother Mary of the Cross (Melb, 1931)
  • T. P. Boland, Quiet Women (Aust, 1974)
  • J. M. Noone, ‘St. Margaret's Hospital …’, Australian Hospital, June 1945
  • R. J. Murphy, ‘Catholic hospitals of Australia’, Catholic Medical Guild of St Luke, Transactions, Sept 1943
  • Town and Country Journal, 8 July 1908
  • St Margaret's Hospital, Annual reports (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sisters of St Joseph Archives (North Sydney and Goulburn, New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Abbott, Gertrude (1846–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • O'Brien, Mary Jane
  • Sister Ignatius of Jesus
  • Mrs Gertrude
  • 'Mother' Abbott

11 July, 1846
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


12 May, 1934 (aged 87)
Surry Hills, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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