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Annie Keenan (1912–1999)

by Madonna Grehan

This article was published online in 2024

Annie Keenan (1912–1999), Sister of Mercy, nurse, and hospital administrator, known as Sister Mary Joan, was born on 21 September 1912 at Boomahnoomoonah, Victoria, fifth of six children of Victorian-born parents John Keenan, farmer, and his wife Bridget Mary, née Curtain. Known in her youth as Nancy, she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at Sacred Heart Primary School, Yarrawonga. After her father died in 1922 the family moved to Coburg, Melbourne, and she attended St Aloysius High School, North Melbourne, gaining her Leaving certificate in December 1928.

On 25 March 1930 Keenan entered religious life at the Mater Misericordiae Novitiate and Training College, Ascot Vale, taking the name Sister Mary Joan. The same year, she began a career in health care as a junior assistant at St Benedict’s Hospital, Malvern, the Mercy Sisters’ first hospital in Victoria. It was superintended by the astute nursing administrators Rose Hanigan (Mother Francis) and Dame Johanna Brazill (Sister Mary Philippa). The Mercy Sisters did not have a recognised nurse training facility in Victoria until 1934, so after making her first profession on 24 January 1933, Sister Mary Joan was sent to Sydney to train at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, then superintended by Mary Scollen (Sister Mary Justinian).

Returning to Victoria in late 1935, Sister Mary Joan was awarded a certificate in general nursing in February 1936. She then spent two years studying for her final profession at the Rosanna Novitiate, made in 1938. That year she registered as a general nurse in Victoria and New South Wales and was appointed to the recently opened Mercy Private Hospital, East Melbourne. In about 1940 she took charge of the hospital’s modern operating theatres and sterilising department. A quiet disciplinarian, she was credited with establishing a culture of best practice, diligence, and respectful relationships in the busy theatre suite: ‘One encounter with her silent piercing gaze was sufficient to cure surgeons of unpunctuality, or of being less than fastidious in scrubbing up or in operating room technique’ (Priestley 1990, 156). She earned a certificate as an X-ray technician in 1948.

Having studied accountancy at a business college, Sister Mary Joan qualified in 1950 for entry into the part-time correspondence course of the Australian Institute of Hospital Administrators. She gained practical experience working in the Mercy Hospital’s office and was awarded the institute’s diploma in 1953, one of few women to hold this qualification. In 1958 she was admitted to the institute as an associate. While studying and engaged on hospital projects, Keenan worked intermittently in the hospital’s operating theatres until 1970. She was a founding member (1958) of the theatre nurses’ section of the Royal Victorian College of Nursing and helped to plan and run its conference at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1963.

In 1965 Sister Mary Joan studied intensive care nursing at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, but, before finishing, she was recalled to the Mercy to superintend planning for a new 339-bed public maternity hospital. Her role included fund-raising for the hospital’s construction, complex negotiations with Victoria’s Hospitals and Charities Commission, and consultations with the University of Melbourne which sought to establish a clinical teaching unit at the new hospital. With building of the Mercy Maternity Hospital well underway by December 1968, she and a colleague embarked on a ten-week study tour of America and Britain to examine trends in hospital administration and the care of mothers and babies.

As the Mercy Maternity Hospital’s first sister administrator (1971–84), Sister Mary Joan was instrumental in securing its accreditation as a public hospital. Influenced by overseas practices, she introduced pastoral care as a service and inaugurated a program of clinical pastoral care education. In maternity care policy, she oversaw the inclusion of fathers in antenatal classes and at the bedsides of their partners during labour. At the same time, she observed the prevailing Catholic view that single women should not keep their babies; the hospital was a registered adoption agency and staff encouraged single mothers to reach ‘wise decisions’ (Alves 2004, 33).

Sister Mary Joan was sister superior (1971–75) of the Mercy Maternity Hospital’s congregation of twenty-two sisters, a member (1978–82) of the Mercy Sisters’ Congregation Council, and a foundation member (1982–85) of Mercy Private Hospital’s board of management. She was involved in establishing the Catholic Hospitals Association (Victoria), convened the inaugural National Catholic Health Care meeting held in Melbourne in 1976, and was chairman of the Commission for Mercy Hospitals in Australia. She was a member of the Victorian Hospitals Association and the Australian Hospitals Association.

After retiring from full-time work in 1984, Sister Mary Joan was finance officer for Mercy Hospice Care, a home-based palliative care service at Sunshine. In 1988 she relocated to the Mercy Conference Centre at Queenscliff, doing odd jobs and gardening. With failing health, in 1996 she moved into supported care at Rice Village, Geelong. She died there on 9 November 1999 and was buried at Melbourne General cemetery.

Colleagues described Sister Mary Joan as a hardworking, no-nonsense, but personable woman, who shunned the limelight. She was respected as an exceptional administrator, an astute businesswoman, a generous teacher, and an energetic leader dedicated to her faith and to humanity. In 1991 the Mercy Maternity Hospital had been renamed the Mercy Hospital for Women, and in the late 1990s, Sister Mary Joan was asked about its impending relocation to Heidelberg. She responded that buildings were ‘only bricks and mortar, it’s really service and care that we should be on about’ (Alves 2004, 45).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Alves, Lesley. People of Mercy: A History of Mercy Hospital for Women 1971–2004. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2004
  • Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia & Papua New Guinea, Archives and Heritage. Annie Keenan (Sister Mary Joan), Sister’s Biographical Information. Copy held on ADB file
  • Priestley, Susan. Melbourne’s Mercy: A History of Mercy Private Hospital. South Yarra, Vic.: Highland House, 1990

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Madonna Grehan, 'Keenan, Annie (1912–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 22 June 2024.

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