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Rose Hanigan (1864–1952)

by Maree G. Allen

This article was published:

Rose Hanigan (1864-1952), known as Mother Francis, Sister of Mercy, was born on 19 October 1864 at Barkers Creek, near Castlemaine, Victoria, sixth child of Irish-born parents John Hanigan, labourer, and his wife Anne, née Cahill, teacher. Rose left school to become a trainee milliner with McCreery & Hopkins, the leading emporium in Castlemaine. She rose quickly to senior saleslady, but decided to follow a religious vocation. In 1892, at the age of 28, she joined the Sisters of Mercy at Bendigo where she made her vows in 1895, taking the name of Francis. Five years later she led a group of four sisters who were appointed to establish a Mercy foundation at Tatura. Returning to Bendigo, she was superior of the convent in 1911-16. During this period, acting on medical advice, she implemented precautions to protect the Sisters against tuberculosis which was then prevalent in the district.

In 1920, in the wake of the pneumonic flu epidemic, the Order decided to open a private hospital in Melbourne. Coonil, a mansion at Malvern, was purchased and Mother Francis was appointed superior of the founding community. Her resourcefulness was called into play as she attended to renovations, recruiting staff, registering the institution as St Benedict's Hospital and establishing rapport with leading doctors. The early involvement of (Sir) Hugh Devine ensured that St Benedict's was well known to his surgeon colleagues. In 1948 the Cabrini Sisters took over its management.

After changes in government regulations had enabled the Mercy Sisters to fulfil their long-held objective of opening a hospital with intermediate and maternity wings, in 1930 Mother Francis purchased for the Order a one-acre (0.4 ha) site in East Melbourne. That year, accompanied by her assistant Sister Philippa Brazill, she undertook an inspection tour of hospitals in the United States of America. The architect (Sir) Arthur Stephenson was commissioned to design the 120-bed Mercy Private Hospital, but work was delayed because of the difficulty in raising finance during the Depression; excavations began in February 1934 and the Mercy opened on 2 December.

Mother Francis won the respect of doctors and contractors. Stephenson regarded his involvement with the hospital as a 'kind of mission'. A young neurosurgeon who met the elderly nun described her as 'a lovely woman . . . only the size of a threepenny bit but with a personality that could fill a room'. Her standards were high and she maintained them rigorously. One of her practices was to visit each patient daily, and they remembered her capacity to discuss any subject with ease. In 1940 the Mercy was declared a first-class hospital: thenceforth trainees did not have to go to other hospitals to gain nursing skills. Having handed over to Mother Philippa Brazill in 1948, Mother Francis died on 28 March 1952 at the Mercy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Ignatius O'Sullivan, The Wheel of Time (Melb, 1954)
  • M. G. Allen, The Labourers' Friends (Melb, 1989)
  • S. Priestley, Melbourne's Mercy (Melb, 1990)
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 29 Nov, 6 Dec 1934
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Mar 1952
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 Mar 1952
  • Convent of Mercy, Bendigo, Victoria, register, 1876-1907.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Maree G. Allen, 'Hanigan, Rose (1864–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 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
  • Sister Francis
  • Francis, Mother
  • Francis, Sister

19 October, 1864
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


28 March, 1952 (aged 87)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.