Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mother Leone Ryan (1900–1989)

by Mary Cresp

This article was published:

Mother Leone Ryan (1900-1989), Sister of St Joseph and educator, was born on 22 March 1900 at Allendale, Victoria, youngest of five children of Irish-born Denis Ryan, miner, and his Victorian-born wife Winifred, née McCormick.  Named Annie, she was educated at Ascot Vale and trained as a pupil-teacher with the Victorian Education Department.  After a brief period teaching at Maribyrnong she entered the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Hawthorn, just before her nineteenth birthday.

Making her religious vows on 13 April 1921, Sr Leone furthered her studies in Sydney, in Montessori methods at Blackfriars teachers’ college, and at the Kindergarten Union training college at Woolloomooloo.  In 1922 she was appointed mistress of studies at St Joseph’s Training School, North Sydney, which was run by the Sisters for their members.  She held this position, in which she was responsible for the training of hundreds of sister-teachers, for twenty-five years.

Mother Leone’s election as superior-general of the Sisters of St Joseph in 1947 coincided with an influx of postwar European migrants.  The effects of the 'baby boom' soon followed and class sizes in parochial schools soared into the hundreds.  To deal with this challenge Mother Leone opened the facilities of St Joseph’s Training School (in 1971 renamed the Catholic Teachers’ College), first to other religious congregations and then, in 1958, to Catholic lay students.  Working in consultation with Monsignor John Slowey, the director of Catholic schools in the Sydney archdiocese, she enabled the employment of lay teachers in the Catholic school system, a turning point in the history of Catholic education in Australia.

Mother Leone was also concerned about Catholic children attending government schools and those in the outback.  In the 1950s she oversaw the extension throughout Australia of the 'motor mission', whereby two sisters travelled to state schools, giving Catholic instruction either during 'scripture' lessons or out of school hours.  From 1954 the religion correspondence school posted catechism lessons to isolated rural families.  She also encouraged sisters to provide lessons through the new medium of television.

After two six-year terms as superior-general Mother Leone served (1959-71) as assistant superior-general.  In 1983 the council of the Catholic College of Education, Sydney—which had absorbed the Catholic Teachers’ College—conferred on her an honorary bachelor of education degree, citing sixty years of dynamic leadership, professional competence and her outstanding contribution to teacher education.

Mother Leone has been described, like Saint Mary MacKillop, the founder of the congregation, as a true 'Aussie pioneer':  forthright, honest, courageous, big-minded and resourceful.  Apparently unworried by insufficient funds, she encouraged many new ventures such as the erection of a large novitiate at Baulkham Hills.  The 'common good' always took precedence over local and provincial aims.  Her practical, down-to-earth style endures in sayings cited still, for example, 'the school exists for the child, not the child for the school'.  When almost blind and unable to walk, she would ask, 'Wouldn’t I be the most ungrateful creature under heaven if I had complained after all He has done for me?'  She died on 19 April 1989 at North Sydney and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery, North Ryde.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1989, p 6
  • Catholic Weekly, 17 May 1989, p 22
  • Ryan personal file (Sisters of St Joseph archives, North Sydney)

Citation details

Mary Cresp, 'Ryan, Mother Leone (1900–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ryan, Annie

22 March, 1900
Allendale, Victoria, Australia


19 April, 1989 (aged 89)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.