Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Elizabeth Duncombe (1899–1980)

by Frances O'Donoghue

This article was published:

Mary Elizabeth Duncombe (1899-1980), Sister of Mercy, was born on 6 September 1899 at Hughenden, Queensland, eldest of three children of Horace Henry Duncombe (d.1907), a native-born hotelkeeper and grazier, and his wife Kate, née O'Keefe, from Ireland. Educated at primary level as a boarder at St Mary's convent school, Ipswich, Molly visited Ireland with her mother before attending All Hallows School, Brisbane. She was awarded a licentiate in pianoforte (1915) by Trinity College of Music, London, with a gold medal for the highest pass in the State. Having rejected the offer of a teacher's scholarship to the University of Queensland, she helped her mother on the family property at Winton where she learned much about land management and sheep-farming. She made frequent sallies to Melbourne and Sydney, returning in the latest expensive fashions, and declined offers of marriage. Secretly she felt called to the religious life. Following her mother's remarriage, Molly sought counsel from former teachers. Despite an unsympathetic response from home, she began her novitiate with the Sisters of Mercy at All Hallows' Convent on 24 September 1927 and was professed in 1930, taking the religious name Damian.

After teaching for sixteen years, Sister Damian turned to administration and remained pastoral in her relationship with the Sisters and staff of the various institutions that came under her care—schools, hospitals, and homes for children and the handicapped. Within the order, former school companions remembered her as a warm and loving friend who frequented plays and concerts; but younger novices could be intimidated by her deportment, large frame and air of self-sufficiency, as well as by her incapacity to make small talk. In 1944 she was appointed superior of the Mater Misericordiae hospitals, Brisbane, and from 1951 supervised the planning and completion of the Mater Mothers' Hospital which opened in 1960. By that time she was administrator of the largest denominational hospital-system in Australia.

In 1954 the Sisters had elected her Reverend Mother and in 1956 she became mother general of All Hallows' Congregation. Perceiving advantages from combining with other Mercy Sisters, she patiently negotiated her proposal for union and in 1958 was elected mother president of the Australian Federation of Sisters of Mercy. When the call for 'aggiornamento'—Pope John XXIII's word for religious renewal—encountered resistance, Mother Damian advanced courageously over the middle ground by inviting theologians and sociologists to enlarge the Sisters' spiritual and mental horizons.

A keen educationist, she had been involved in establishing a teachers' training college (later Damian House) which was opened in November 1958 at All Hallows'. Sisters were sent abroad for further studies, and two teams extended teaching services to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Mother Damian also promoted secondary education, but her wish to include Aboriginal children in Mercy schools by means of scholarships was thwarted by opponents of integration. Besides providing responsibly for her various undertakings, she progressively modernized buildings and facilities in homes for the handicapped and disadvantaged. In 1962 she was appointed O.B.E.

Although it took discretion and discernment for her to attain a high degree of consensus among seven hundred Mercy Sisters, Mother Damian depended largely on the force of her personality. A woman of humanity, integrity and honour, she never sought acclaim or popularity, and often appeared preoccupied with her own thoughts and projects. She could be obstinate in the face of contrary ideas. To make a point, she talked around a subject for hours on end, especially with her group of four councillors. She was torn between her personal need for the support of friends and her ethical view that she must prove even-handed to all ('a Superior . . . can have no friends'). This conflict may have been a factor in the breakdown in health that occurred in 1973 during her last of many visits to the Sisters in Papua New Guinea.

Lonely, inward looking and contemplative, in 1978 she retired to Emmaus, the home at Nudgee which she had built for those Sisters no longer engaged in active service. She died there on 30 July 1980 and was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. X. O'Donoghue, Beyond Our Dreams (Brisb, 1961)
  • J.-M. Mahoney, Dieu et Devoir (Brisb, 1985)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 2 June 1962, 3 July 1980
  • Sisters of Mercy Archives, Brisbane.

Citation details

Frances O'Donoghue, 'Duncombe, Mary Elizabeth (1899–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Damian, Sister
  • Duncombe, Molly

6 September, 1899
Hughenden, Queensland, Australia


30 July, 1980 (aged 80)
Nudgee, Queensland, Australia

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