Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kathleen Mary Egan (1890–1977)

by Anne O'Brien

This article was published:

Kathleen Mary Egan (1890-1977), Dominican Sister and educationist, was born on 16 December 1890 at The Rock, near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, third child of Richard Egan, a railway stationmaster from Ireland, and his native-born wife Catherine, née Connors. Educated from the age of 15 by the Dominican nuns at Maitland, Kathleen entered the order's novitiate in 1910 and was professed on 14 November 1912, taking the religious name Mary Madeleine Thérèse.

Sr Madeleine taught mathematics and also served as mother superior at Tamworth (1924-26 and 1930) and Mayfield (1927-29). In 1931 she was appointed to the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Waratah, Newcastle; as superior (1933-41) she made many innovations based on her previous classroom experience. Believing that 'the deaf child has tastes, dislikes, ambitions similar to those of her unhandicapped sister', she introduced the State curriculum (using conventional textbooks where possible), drama, art, physical culture, eurhythmics and current affairs. She encouraged pupil participation and oversaw the change of the institution's name to School for Deaf Girls. In 1938 Sr Madeleine invited Fr L. Page, director of the Deaf and Dumb Institute at Montreal, Canada, to teach the nuns the latest 'oral' techniques—speech, lip-reading and the use of modern equipment to amplify sound. Considerable debate emerged within the order in the 1930s between those who advocated 'oralism' and those who favoured sign language.

From 1942 to 1947 Sr Madeleine taught at Dominican convents at Maitland and Mayfield, and was superior (1945-47) at Tamworth. Early in 1948 she was appointed superior of the new St Mary's School for Deaf Children at Delgany, Portsea, Victoria. In May, with a group of Catholic educationists, she visited New Zealand where by law all schools for the deaf used oralism. At Delgany oralism was used exclusively. A. W. G. and I. R. Ewing's 1950 report to the Commonwealth government praised the 'impressively high' standard of speech at Portsea. Sr Madeleine remained as principal for nine years.

An honorary foundation fellow (1935) of the Australian Association of Teachers of the Deaf, Sr Madeleine had presented a paper (1938) at its second conference: 'The Residential Deaf Girl in the World of Sport and Leisure'. She produced ephemeral magazines, including Ephpheta, published a Prayer Book for the Catholic Deaf (1938), compiled a History of Deaf Education in Australia, 1927-1950 (n.d.), and—in retirement at the Rosary Convent, Waratah, New South Wales—completed a companion volume, Pictorial Centenary Souvenir (1975). A woman of great strength, she led reforms in the education of the deaf within Dominican schools which were at the forefront of change in the wider community. She eventually concluded that oralism by itself was insufficient and suggested (behind the scenes) that Sisters should also be trained in sign language. Known among the nuns as 'Madeleine the Builder', she was responsible for enlarging the various schools of which she was superior. She was tall and 'lady-like', generous and kindly, trusting of the younger Sisters in her charge. Sr Madeleine died on 17 June 1977 at Waratah and was buried in Sandgate cemetery, Newcastle.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dooley, To Be Fully Alive (Syd, nd)
  • A. O'Hanlon, Dominican Pioneers in New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • B. L. Crickman, Education for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired (Mayfield, NSW, 1990)
  • Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (Waratah, New South Wales), Annual Report, 1913-18, 1927-28, 1933-39
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 June 1977
  • J. Burke, The History of Catholic Schooling for Deaf and Dumb Children in the Hunter Valley (M.A. thesis, University of Newcastle, 1974)
  • Dominican Archives, Santa Sabina, Strathfield, Sydney
  • private information.

Citation details

Anne O'Brien, 'Egan, Kathleen Mary (1890–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 15 July 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
  • Mary Madeleine Thérèse, Sister

16 December, 1890
Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia


17 June, 1977 (aged 86)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

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