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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leehy, Mary Agnes (1873–1960)

by Margaret M. Press

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Mary Agnes Leehy (1873-1960), Sister of St Joseph, was born on 10 April 1873 at Bundarra, New South Wales, eldest of six children of Irish parents Thomas Leehy, miner and drover, and his wife Julia, née Kavanagh. She moved with her family to Merriwa where she attended the Catholic school. During her father's long absences droving, her mother raised the children with a respect for authority, regard for frugality and an ability to manage their resources, allied to staunch Catholic faith and practice.

In May 1890 Mary joined the black-habited Sisters of St Joseph at Lochinvar; she was professed on 13 February 1893, taking the religious name Mary Aquin. Until 1911 she taught in small country convent schools in the diocese of Maitland. She returned to Lochinvar in 1911 as sister assistant and was involved with the boarding school there. She supervised the addition to the Lochinvar buildings of school, refectory and dormitory accommodation. In 1917-23 Mother Aquin was sister guardian and in 1923-29 superior of the newly founded convent and school at Taree. She remained at Lochinvar for the rest of her life as sister guardian in 1929-35, assistant in 1935-41 and in 1941-55 mother-general.

Despite straitened finances during World War I and the Depression, Mother Aquin was able to have built a chapel, large enough to accommodate sisters, invalids and novices as well as 200 boarders, in a dignified and traditional architectural style. On her return from Taree she saw to the addition of a novitiate wing and more sleeping accommodation in the busy and growing complex. Early in her third term of office she applied to have the Lochinvar Sisters of St Joseph given official Pontifical status and from 1943 became known as mother-general. She supervised the building of a music block, dormitory and school extensions, including a library. When Mother Aquin stepped down in 1955 the number of sisters had increased from 32 in 1890 to some 260 in the congregation's 35 houses. Throughout her terms of office she had made regular visitations to all the sisters in the diocese. She acted as an advisory councillor until she died on 19 May 1960 in St Joseph's Convent, Lochinvar, and was buried in the Catholic cemetery.

A legend in her time, Mother Aquin was a matriarchal leader of the Sisters of St Joseph in the Maitland diocese, known by schoolchildren and parents, businessmen and clergy as a capable, even dynamic, planner and builder. She had a commanding presence as well as a reputation for quick, perceptive decisiveness, fairness and a maternal concern for her sisters. Her letters to her mother reveal close and affectionate family bonds; they give a dimension of warmth to her image of an energetic leader who was a model of her own teachings about prayer, hard work and a drive for excellence in every sphere.

Select Bibliography

  • family letters and written memoirs (Archives of St Joseph's Convent, Lochinvar, New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret M. Press, 'Leehy, Mary Agnes (1873–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 January 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Aquin, Mother Mary

10 April 1873
Bundarra, New South Wales, Australia


19 May 1960
Lochinvar, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence