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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ronan, Mary (1904–1989)

by M. R. MacGinley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Mary Ronan (1904-1989), Sister of Mercy, was born on 30 October 1904 at Knockreigh, County Kerry, Ireland, daughter of Eugene Doherty, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Ashe.  Registered as Ellen, she was known as Eileen Francis.  In 1924 she travelled with a group of forty-nine young Irish women to join the Sisters of Mercy Congregation, Brisbane.  She entered the Mercy novitiate on 18 September and made her religious profession on 24 November 1927.  Two of her sisters later followed her to Brisbane and also became Sisters of Mercy.

Known as Sr Mary Ronan, from January 1928 she continued her professional training under the pupil-teacher system at St Patrick’s Church School (from 1959 St Saviour’s Primary School), Toowoomba, where she was also in charge of boarders.  Subsequent postings took her to Mitchell and, when further study had prepared her for secondary teaching, to Gympie.  In January 1940 she transferred to the lower secondary level at All Hallows’ School, Brisbane, the principal college of her Congregation.  An effective and exacting teacher, especially of mathematics, she was to remain at the school for the rest of her teaching career.

In traditional Sisters of Mercy practice, Ronan also engaged enthusiastically in visitation, calling in at the homes of pupils and of people in need, whether through poverty, illness, loneliness or personal problems.  This was a regular after-school and weekend activity for classroom teachers.  Ronan quickly developed a love and marked aptitude for this ministry, especially in the impoverished areas of Spring Hill and Fortitude Valley.  She besought her pupils not only to pray for the 'unfortunates' that she met, but also to make practical contributions to relieve their hardship.  Her commitment to serving those who were deprived or suffering was evident to students, fellow Sisters and an increasing network of helpers.  At All Hallows’ she collected supplies of surplus uniforms and other requisites for poorer students.

When Ronan retired from teaching in 1973 she began full-time work among the poor and disadvantaged.  Already well known, she became more visible on Brisbane streets and buses as she travelled around the city, seven days a week, helping people in their homes and visiting patients in hospitals and nursing homes.  On her rounds she carried a jar of vegemite because it was 'very good for helping alcoholics to dry out' and a supply of silver and blue miraculous medals of Mary.  She worked tirelessly raising funds for the Mater hospitals, St Vincent’s Orphanage at Nudgee, and the Mercy Centre at Wooloowin, which cared for disabled women.  Collaborating with the ladies’ sewing group at All Hallows’, where she continued to live, she oversaw the distribution of their products.

In 1983 Ronan received a lord mayor’s Australia Day citizens’ award for her community service and in 1987 an Australia Day award.  She died on 10 August 1989 in the Mater Misericordiae Public Hospital, South Brisbane, and was buried in Nudgee cemetery.  At the requiem Mass in the All Hallows’ chapel there was standing room only.  A fund to assist disadvantaged students at the school was named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • Catholic Leader (Brisbane), 12 February 1984, p 11
  • Catholic Leader (Brisbane), 10 September 1989, p 21
  • Sisters of Mercy, Brisbane Congregation, archives, Brisbane
  • private information

Citation details

M. R. MacGinley, 'Ronan, Mary (1904–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Doherty, Ellen
  • Doherty, Eileen Francis

30 October 1904
Knockreigh, Kerry, Ireland


10 August 1989
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence