Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Maria Andrews (1915–1996)

by Beverley Earnshaw

This article was published online in 2020

Mary Maria Andrews (1915–1996), Anglican missionary and deaconess, was born on 20 March 1915 at Adaminaby, New South Wales, eldest of five children of English-born Albert George Andrews, grazier, and his New South Wales-born wife Annie, née Mackay. In 1923 their home at nearby Dry Plains station was razed by fire and the family moved to Berridale, where Mary started school. In 1931 and 1932 she attended Hornsby Girls’ High School, Sydney, the family having moved to the city during the Depression. She developed an overwhelming conviction to enter the mission field during this time.

Too young to apply for missionary service, Mary commenced work in the admission ward of Gladesville Mental Hospital on her eighteenth birthday. She undertook a course in tropical medicine and surgery at the University of Sydney, passing it in September 1935. That year she enrolled as a student at the Missionary and Bible Training College, Croydon, gaining its diploma in 1936. On her twenty-first birthday she applied to the Church Missionary Society as a candidate for mission work in China. The CMS insisted she do six months training at Deaconess House, the Church of England training college. As a student deaconess she worked among those forced by the Depression to settle in the camp for the unemployed at Yarra Bay.

On 13 September 1938 Andrews sailed for China aboard the Nellore even though war had erupted between China and Japan. For most of World War II she had charge of a boarding school for girls at Lin Hai in Chekiang (Zhejiang) Province. In 1945 conditions in China became too dangerous and she was sent to India, where she worked at Lahore among destitute women and children. Recalled to Australia in 1946, she was appointed a deaconess before returning to China as a teacher in the Shaohsing (Shaoxing) region the following year. She maintained this role when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and was later put in charge of her parish, but was constantly harassed by the Communist regime. In 1951 she was evacuated to Australia where, the following year, she was commissioned head deaconess of the Sydney diocese and principal of Deaconess House.

Over the next two decades Andrews worked to elevate the status of women in the church, becoming known as ‘one of the most outspoken women … on this subject’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1970, 15). In 1969 the Anglican General Synod passed a canon to regulate and promote the order of deaconesses within the Church of England in Australia. While Andrews regarded it as a step in the right direction, the reform failed to bring deaconesses into line with the three holy orders recognised by the church: bishops, priests, and deacons. Deaconesses could perform pastoral and liturgical duties, but it was left up to bishops to decide what these duties entailed. Convinced that women not only had the right to be ordained as priests and bishops but also that they could ‘preach the word of God as effectively as men’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1968, 6), Andrews supported moves for the ordination of women. However, in the first instance, she sought a complementary role for women with functions similar to a deacon. Gentle but firm, small statured but authoritative, she discouraged aggression in the fight to extend such rights to women, as she believed it alienated both men and women from the cause. Having experienced interrogation in China, she was undaunted by opposition, saying: ‘Bishops are cream-puffs compared to the generalissimo of the Chinese communist forces’ (Rodgers 2005, n.p.). On 12 February 1989, at St Andrew’s Cathedral, she witnessed the ordination of fourteen women as deacons—the first female deacons in Sydney, though some women had been ordained in other dioceses.

In 1957 Andrews had joined the Women’s Inter-Church Council (later Australian Church Women), a group devoted to bringing women together across denominational, cultural, and racial barriers. Between 1967 and 1991 she travelled overseas seventeen times on behalf of Australian women’s organisations, attending conferences and serving on committees and commissions. After retiring in 1975, she had become chaplain at Goodwin Retirement Village, Woollahra, and Elizabeth Lodge, Kings Cross. In 1980 she was appointed AM. She visited China in 1985, 1986, and 1991. Suffering from severe osteoporosis in her later years, she died on 16 October 1996 at Kogarah. Deaconess House was renamed Mary Andrews College in 1997 and the Anglican retirement complex at Hurstville was named Mary Andrews Village.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Andrews, Mary. Interview by Beverley Earnshaw, 1994. Donaldson Robinson Library, Moore College, Sydney
  • Donaldson Robinson Library, Moore College, Sydney. Mary Andrews Collection
  • Earnshaw, Beverley. ‘Deaconess Mary Maria Andrews, AM, LPIBA, International Woman of the Year 1994.’ Lucas: An Evangelical History Review 33–34 (June–December 1996): 167–79
  • Lamb, Margaret. Going it Alone: Mary Andrews—Missionary to China 1938–1951. Sydney: Aquilla Press, 1995
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Rodgers, Margaret. ‘The Road Less Travelled.’ Indepth (blog). Sydney Anglicans. 10 June 2005
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘The Puzzle of Prejudice.’ 12 August 1968, 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Is There Room for Women in the Ministry?,’ 5 September 1970, 15

Additional Resources

Citation details

Beverley Earnshaw, 'Andrews, Mary Maria (1915–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 March, 1915
Adaminaby, New South Wales, Australia


16 October, 1996 (aged 81)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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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