Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Norah Mary Potter (1849–1927)

by Katherine M. O'Brien

This article was published:

Norah Mary Potter (1849-1927), best known as Mother Patrick, Sister of Mercy, was born on 21 February 1849 at Cloontamore, Longford, Ireland, daughter of James Potter, schoolmaster, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Mulloolly. Educated at Cloontagh National School and Longford Convent School, in 1866 she began her novitiate as a Sister of Mercy at Athy Convent, Kildare. Arriving in Brisbane on 4 July 1868, she joined the congregation which had been established in Queensland by Mother Vincent Whitty and in 1869 made profession of vows at All Hallows' Convent.

After teaching for a few years at Ipswich, she was appointed to All Hallows' School where she was assigned administrative roles. Though she maintained strict vigilance, she endeared herself to students whom she knew personally and who looked upon her as a keenly interested friend—an interest kept up far beyond school years. The staff found her most supportive; she supervised the teaching of the less experienced, invariably offering encouragement and advice. In co-ordinating the curriculum, she emphasized integration of discipline to ensure the religious, academic and cultural development of the students. With little musical training, she gave every incentive to the music programme of All Hallows' School which made a fine contribution to the cultural life of Brisbane of the period. Subsequently, ex-students played a significant part in musical education in Queensland. In 1889 she introduced Latin into a course which already included French, Italian and German.

Foreseeing the educative role that women were to play in the new colony, she strongly promoted the idea of able students continuing with higher studies. As early as 1879, she prepared candidates for the University of Sydney's junior public examination. The university's senior and junior examinations were taken annually by All Hallows' students until the establishment in 1910 of the University of Queensland to which she had looked forward, applauding the move in 1888 towards petitioning for a university in Brisbane. Ex-students of All Hallows', urged on by Mother Patrick, were among the early graduates; several of them were subsequently active in state secondary education.

She continued to be associated with the government of the school even after she was elected in 1879 to the administration of the Brisbane congregation of Sisters of Mercy, of which she was, for the next forty-eight years, the Superior or the assistant. During this time the membership of the congregation grew from thirty to five hundred. Observing the spread of population, she established convents and schools in many suburbs and in country areas as the railway reached them. The Sisters who taught in those centres also performed other traditional works of the Sisters of Mercy. Despite long, fatiguing journeys, Mother Patrick kept close contact with more than thirty foundations, some as remote as Charters Towers, Charleville, Cunnamulla and Goondiwindi.

Largely because of her outstanding administrative ability, painstaking examination of the sites, and consultation with experts, the various enterprises were successful. In 1919, when a wing was being added to the original Stombuco building of All Hallows' School, she often checked materials and workmanship. Mother Vincent Whitty's idea of building a Mater Misericordiae Hospital in Brisbane was enthusiastically adopted by Mother Patrick who brought about the purchase of the South Brisbane land in 1893. In spite of many obstacles the Mater opened in a rented house at North Quay in 1906, the private section of the new hospital opened on College Hill in 1910 and the public section in 1911, the latter being the only public hospital on the south side until 1956. Before her death she had planned a children's section which was subsequently built as her memorial and opened in 1931.

Her ability was recognized by business and professional men of the city who said her genius for control was unique. Uncompromising in matters of principle, she combined a practical wisdom, tact, gentleness, and heroic spirit of selflessness with lofty ideals and broad vision. Despite her strong personality, Mother Patrick was an unpretentious person insisting: 'We are all of us useful, none of us necessary'. By a singular combination of powerful leadership, length of time at the helm, and force of accomplishment, she impressed her ideals and outlook on others.

Mother Patrick died at All Hallows' Convent on 13 November 1927 and was buried in Nudgee cemetery after a requiem Mass celebrated at St Stephen's Cathedral by her brother Monsignor Michael Potter. A portrait by Oscar Friström hangs in All Hallows' Convent.

Select Bibliography

  • F. O'Donoghue, Beyond our Dreams (Brisb, 1961)
  • H. J. Summers, They Crossed the River (Brisb, 1979)
  • J. M. Mahoney, Dieu et Devoir (Brisb, 1985)
  • Sisters of Mercy Archives (Bardon, Brisbane)
  • Potter family letters (University of Queensland Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Katherine M. O'Brien, 'Potter, Norah Mary (1849–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 February 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
  • Patrick, Mother

21 February, 1849
Cloontamore, Longford, Ireland


13 November, 1927 (aged 78)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.