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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Neill, Martha Mary (1878–1972)

by Maree G. Allen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Martha Mary O'Neill (1878-1972), Sister of Mercy and schoolteacher, was born on 18 November 1878 at Cork, County Cork, Ireland, eldest child of William O'Neill, accountant, and his wife Hannah, née O'Regan. The family emigrated to Victoria in 1886 and settled at Kyneton. William worked as a driver for the local brewery. 'Mattie' was educated at the Convent of Mercy girls' school, Kyneton, and taught (from 1898) at St Bridget's School, Maldon. On 26 April 1899 she entered the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy, Geelong. She was professed on 17 February 1903 and took the religious name Patricia.

Transferred to Melbourne, Sister Patricia taught in primary schools at Coburg and North Melbourne before returning to Geelong in 1906. After she had been registered to teach at both primary and secondary levels, she gave classes at the Sacred Heart College and demonstration lessons for Sisters who were training to be teachers. She enrolled as an external student at the University of Melbourne; although she completed the requirements for a diploma of education (1917) and a bachelor of arts degree (1919), she did not have them conferred. In 1917 she became acting-principal of the Mater Misericordiae Novitiate and Training College, Ascot Vale, and head of St Brendan's Infant School, Flemington. Her methods were influenced by watching experienced teachers in state schools and by observing a course at Mary Lush's kindergarten, Carlton. By 1935 she was principal of the training college: she taught all day and gave lectures after hours. In the Ascot Vale convent she was superior of the religious community.

In 1939 Sister Patricia was elected mother-general of the Sisters of Mercy in Victoria and Tasmania, comprising some four hundred members in forty houses. She made the welfare of the communities and the schools her chief priority. Faced with scant resources and large numbers of postwar immigrants, parish priests turned to her for help in staffing their schools. While she acceded to many requests, she worried that her Sisters were being overworked. The Congregation's income was meagre and the community lived in austere conditions, but Mother Patricia never cut down on meals. She adopted a flexible approach to discipline, allowing the nuns relaxation and outings. Her sense of humour and repartee lightened many situations.

During 1953 the Sisters of Mercy in Australia, then in fifteen autonomous groups, were invited to unite under a central administration. Eight groups joined the Australian Union of the Sisters of Mercy. Mother Patricia, a leader in the movement for union, was appointed (1954) superior-general. She lived in St Anne's convent, Canberra, and regularly visited each convent in the union. In 1955, responding to the call of a priest in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, she commissioned a band of nuns who volunteered to serve as missionaries in that country. She had a wing added (1961) to the convent to cater for Sisters who wished to study in Canberra. In 1966 she retired to the convent at Geelong, Victoria. She died on 25 November 1972 in St Joseph's Hospital, Newtown, and was buried in the convent's cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. M. O'Brien, Mother Mary Patricia O'Neill (Melb, 1976)
  • Mercy Teachers' College (Melb, 1984)
  • M. G. Allen, The Labourers' Friends (Melb, 1989)
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 21 Dec 1972
  • Sisters of Mercy Archives (held at Congregation Centre, Alphington, Melbourne).

Citation details

Maree G. Allen, 'O'Neill, Martha Mary (1878–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sister Patricia
  • Patricia, Sister
  • Patricia, Mother

18 November 1878
Cork, Cork, Ireland


25 November 1972
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence