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Anna Maria Desmond (1839–1921)

by A. J. McElligott

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Anna Maria Desmond (1839-1921), best known as Mother Benigna, nun and teacher, was born on 6 December 1839 at Bantry, County Cork, Ireland, daughter of Patrick Desmond, lawyer, and his Irish wife Esther, née Jagoe. Educated at home in singing, instrumental music, dancing and languages, she helped in the relief of the poor, admired her father's fight against injustice and acquired the Christian vision which governed her life. In 1862 her application to enter the Convent of Mercy of Cappoquin was granted and she was given the name of Sister Francis Xavier. She took her final vows on 26 November 1865.

In 1871 Mother Vincent Whitty returned to Ireland seeking recruits and Sister Francis Xavier volunteered. As there was a nun of the same name aboard the Silver Eagle on which she travelled to Australia, she took the new name Sister Benigna. She landed in Brisbane on 24 May 1872.

Helping to establish a convent at Rockhampton in 1873, next year she returned to Brisbane where she taught music and carried out charitable work until 1878. When the Sisters of St Joseph were recalled from his area, Father W. M. Walsh of Townsville invited the Sisters of Mercy to provide religious education. They arrived on 13 November 1878 and prepared to reopen St Joseph's School for the 1879 school year. Sister Benigna took charge of the community in January.

The Sisters had to support themselves and pay their lay teachers without a government subsidy. Under Sister Benigna's leadership some members of the community taught music and this, with the assistance and generosity of friends, kept the school and convent going. The Sisters also did much charitable work and soon saw the need for and established a boarding school for country girls. Their courage and hard work helped them to recover from a great set-back in 1892 when the church, and even the ground on which it stood, were washed away by torrential flooding.

On 11 February 1902 Bishop Joseph Higgins appointed Sister Benigna as Mother Superior of an autonomous St Patrick's Convent at Townsville which became the mother house for branches at Ravenswood and Bowen. In 1903 Mother Benigna and Mother Bernardine visited Ireland. They brought back ten recruits who were sent to staff various already established schools. Mother Benigna also did much to pave the way for the establishment of the Christian Brothers School at Townsville. In 1905 a delegation of businessmen asked her to found a girls' secondary school at Townsville and St Patrick's High School was opened with forty students. For many years the school was a centre of culture in Townsville and its ecumenism and high standard of education did much to break down bigotry.

Mother Benigna's golden jubilee in 1915 was celebrated by all classes and creeds in the city. Her humble honest faith, her gentle disposition and her hard work and charity within the district had won her many friends and admirers, both within and without the Church. Mother Benigna died on 24 November 1921 and was buried in Townsville cemetery after a requiem Mass in her beloved church, St Joseph's, The Strand.

Select Bibliography

  • M. X. O'Donoghue, Beyond Our Dreams (Brisb, 1961)
  • St Joseph's School Centenary Magazine (Townsville), 1977
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 26, 29 Nov 1915, 25 Nov 1921
  • Catholic Advocate (Brisbane), 8 Dec 1921
  • Sisters of Mercy Archives (Brisbane, Rockhampton, and Townsville, Queensland), including C. Camp, Biography of Mother Benigna Desmond (Townsville).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. J. McElligott, 'Desmond, Anna Maria (1839–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Benigna, Mother
  • Francis Xavier, Sister

6 December, 1839
Bantry, Cork, Ireland


24 November, 1921 (aged 81)

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.