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Clara Margaret Moore (1906–1999)

by Charmaine Robson

This article was published online in 2024

Sister Mary Benigna, no date

Sister Mary Benigna, no date

Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Archives, Kensington, New South Wales

Clara Margaret Moore (1906–1999), religious sister, educator, and administrator, was born on 5 January 1906 at Beechwood on the New South Wales mid-north coast, eighth of ten surviving children of Thomas Moore (born Thomas John McAllister), farmer, and his wife, Mary Matilda, née Murray, both hailing from the region. Clara’s childhood was spent surrounded by close and extended family in the small hamlet of Pappinbarra Creek, where her father owned land and supported his growing brood by farming and logging. Each day she made the long trek to and from Beechwood State School, sometimes carried by her brothers when struck by the migraine headaches that were to persist throughout her life. After her father died when she was twelve, the family relocated to Maitland. She continued her education at Catholic schools, first with the Sisters of Mercy and then at St Mary’s Dominican Convent, West Maitland. Her schooling was cut short before her intermediate year when she left to help in her mother’s business.

As an adolescent, Moore’s attraction to religious life was sparked by priests of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) who regularly visited her parish and talked of their missions in Papua and New Guinea. This influenced her to join the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (DOLSH), the MSC’s filial congregation. She moved to Sydney and, on 5 January 1924, entered the congregation at the convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart at Kensington. On 1 July, under the name Sister Mary Benigna, she received the religious habit, and a year later she was admitted to her first profession.

Sister Benigna soon began work as a teacher at Catholic primary and secondary schools: first posted to Botany-Mascot to teach grade six, she then was appointed to schools at Kensington, Bellingen, and Elmore. Concomitantly, she completed her own Leaving certificate studies, passed all courses at the convent’s teacher training college, and undertook tutorial courses in French, mathematics, geography, English literature, and botany at the University of Sydney. Her poor health prevented her from enrolling for a degree, and just before World War II she contracted tuberculosis. She was sent from the city to Bowral and then Leura to recover. From 1942 she helped forge the first DOLSH community in the Blue Mountains where, as directress of studies, she taught girls in preparation for religious life. This was followed by a period as novice mistress at Bowral. Considered a ‘firm but kind’ teacher, she ‘inspired confidence and a love of learning’ (Hanlen 1999, 2) in her students.

In 1958 Sister Benigna was posted to Issoudun, France, as general councillor to the DOLSH superior general, Mother Mary Florence, who had visited Sydney in 1954. In 1961 the generalate moved to Rome, and two years later Sister Benigna was elected the sixth superior general. The first Australian to hold this post, she was re-elected in 1969. Her twelve-year term coincided with the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. She oversaw her congregation’s response to the council’s call for the renewal and modernisation of religious life and its revivification with the original charism of the institute’s founders. The demand for the adaptation of religious life and work to local circumstances was especially relevant to the DOLSH as a missionary congregation.

Mother Benigna convened the first DOLSH general conference in Rome in 1967 to discuss Vatican II and to plan for updating the constitution accordingly, ahead of the general chapter in 1969. Consultation with sisters at all levels took place, in line with the council’s exhortation for superiors to listen to their subordinates and promote their harmony. Touring the provinces across five continents, she listened to the concerns of local sisters, first learning multiple languages including Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Indonesian in addition to French and Italian. She also established three new provinces between 1964 and 1971: Papua New Guinea, Java, and Spain. Under her leadership several congregational histories were commissioned, starting with Sister Mary Venard’s The Designs of His Heart (1966), which traced the institute’s origins to 1874 and explored the spirituality of its founders Mother Marie Louise Hartzer and Father Jules Chevalier.

Driven by a ‘strong spirit of determination’ and high expectations of herself and others, Sister M. Benigna lived humbly, guided by an ‘extraordinary faith in God’s gracious designs’ (Hanlen 1999, 30). Steering her congregation through Vatican II and with continued ill-health, she ‘suffered much’ (Hanlen 1999, 2). Her term as superior general was followed by a secretarial role in Rome before she returned to Australia in the late 1980s and rejoined the community at Kensington where, over the next few years, she translated congregational works from French to English. The last surviving member of her immediate family, she died on 16 November 1999 at St Joseph’s Nursing Home, Kensington, and was buried in Macquarie Park cemetery. She was remembered by her colleagues as a ‘quiet achiever’ (Hanlen 2000, 12).

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Catholic Press (Sydney). ‘Reception and Profession.’ 16 July 1925, 23
  • Freeman’s Journal (Sydney). ‘Sacred Heart Convent, Kensington.’ 10 July 1924, 28
  • Hanlen, Moya. ‘Sister Mary Benigna.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 4 January 2000, 12
  • Hanlen, Moya. ‘Sr Mary Benigna FDNSC. Clara Margaret Moore.’ 23 November 1999. Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Archives, Kensington, New South Wales
  • Venard, Mary, and Juliette Baker. History of the Australian Province of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Kensington, NSW: Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 1974

Additional Resources

Citation details

Charmaine Robson, 'Moore, Clara Margaret (1906–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moore-clara-margaret-33314/text41574, published online 2024, accessed online 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sister Mary Benigna, no date

Sister Mary Benigna, no date

Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Archives, Kensington, New South Wales

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Benigna, Sister Mary
  • Benigna, Mother Mary
Birth

5 January, 1906
Beechwood, New South Wales, Australia

Death

16 November, 1999 (aged 93)
Kensington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

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.

Education
Occupation
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