Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Catherine Cecily O'Brien (1893–1945)

by Margaret Carmel Leavey

This article was published:

Catherine Cecily O'Brien (1893-1945), Dominican Sister and educationist, was born on 25 October 1893 near Merriwa, New South Wales, second of seven children of native-born parents James Thomas O'Brien, grazier, and his wife Catherine Cecily, née Gleeson. Her grandparents had migrated from Ireland about 1850. In 1898 the family settled at Tallwood, Walgett, where James was for many years president of the shire council.

Catherine was educated at home, then at a local private school owned by Mrs Octavia Evans and at the Dominican Convent, Maitland, where she won a teacher-training scholarship. In July 1914 Catherine entered the Dominican Convent at Maitland, and received the habit in April 1915, taking the religious name of Mary Anselm. She made perpetual vows in April 1917 and remained at Maitland, teaching in the secondary school, until 1920.

In 1921 Sister M. Anselm moved to Santa Sabina Dominican Convent School, Strathfield, to attend the University of Sydney. She graduated B.A. in 1924 with first-class honours in English and Latin and the University medal for English. She gained her diploma in education in 1925, and in 1928 took a first-class honours M.A. in English literature, with a thesis on tragedy.

In 1925-45, Sister M. Anselm taught English, Christian doctrine, French and Latin at Santa Sabina. She became widely respected for her innovative methods and her many lectures and publications on English literature and Christian doctrine. In 1925 she co-founded with Frank Sheed the school branch of the Catholic Evidence Guild, thus breaking new ground in the teaching of religion. Her best-known works are Magic Casements (1937) and The Catholic Evidence Guild in Secondary Schools (1939).

Capable and enthusiastic, Sister M. Anselm aimed at providing quality education for girls, while ensuring that they were well prepared for changing social conditions, and that Catholic schools were not isolated or inferior. She built up an extensive library at Santa Sabina, encouraged tertiary education for Catholics, and organized regular weekly lectures on English and Latin literature for the senior pupils and the Sisters. Many of the lecturers were friends from university days, including Christopher Brennan, John Le Gay Brereton and (Sir) Mungo McCallum. She included Australian authors in her anthologies and frequently invited them to the school.

Determined to improve the quality of physical education and sporting facilities, in 1922 she convened the first meeting of principals of Catholic girls secondary schools to facilitate co-operation in sporting competitions, which became a feature of Catholic schools in the 1930s. She also helped to found the Volunteer Sewing Guild for senior and former students to make clothes for the poor—the guild continued for many years after her death. In 1942-45 Sister M. Anselm was provincial directress of studies, responsible for the supervision and education of young Dominican Sisters and teachers.

Sister M. Anselm did not enjoy robust health at any time, and died suddenly of cerebral haemorrhage on 19 May 1945 at Moss Vale. She was buried in Rookwood cemetery. By her friends and associates she is remembered as much for her enthusiasm for life, an ironic turn of wit and capacity for friendship, as for her intellectual liveliness. The library at Santa Sabina is dedicated to her memory.

Select Bibliography

  • A. O'Hanlon, Dominican Pioneers in New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • Dominican, 1944, 1945
  • Proceedings of the Catholic Education Association, Teachers' conference, Sydney, 1928 (held by Strathfield Institute of Religious Studies, Leichhardt, Sydney)
  • Dominican Provincial Archives (Santa Sabina Convent, Strathfield)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Carmel Leavey, 'O'Brien, Catherine Cecily (1893–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mary Anselm, Sister

25 October, 1893
Merriwa, New South Wales, Australia


19 May, 1945 (aged 51)
Moss Vale, New South Wales, Australia

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.