Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ella Wilson (1870–1959)

by Catherine O'Carrigan

This article was published:

Ella Wilson (1870-1959), Sister of Charity, was born on 21 August 1870 at East Maitland, New South Wales, second daughter of Frederick Alfred Adolphus Wilson, a bank accountant from Victoria, and his locally born wife Jemima Duncan, née Thomson. Ella matriculated in 1889 and entered the University of Sydney (B.A., 1892; M.A., 1895). She taught in turn at several grammar schools in Queensland, including Ipswich Girls' Grammar School (1897-98), where she also instructed the girls in swimming. Introduced to the youthful Father (Sir) James Duhig, she was converted to Catholicism in 1900. On 15 January 1903 she sought admission into the Sisters of Charity in Sydney. Having taken the religious name Mary Dunstan, she was professed on 21 October 1905. After a few years of teaching, she was sent to the University of Melbourne (Dip.Ed., 1908).

At the Mother House in Sydney, the Congregation in 1905 established formally St Vincent's Training School. Connected with the Novitiate, it used St Mary's Cathedral Girls' School for practice teaching. In 1915 Sister Dunstan, who had been teaching at the training school since her return from Melbourne, was appointed mistress of method, a post she held for twenty-seven years.

Sister Dunstan wrote books, lectures, articles for periodicals, and numerous issues of the Catholic School Paper. Her introduction to psychology, How Our Minds Work (1925), was highly regarded as a textbook for student teachers; the Victorian school inspectors J. A. Seitz and Julia T. Flynn praised it in 1929. The Sisters of Charity took part in conferences on education during the summer holidays. At the Catholic Education Association's conference in Sydney in May 1927, Sister Dunstan lectured on 'Geography for Third Class', using a three-dimensional model of Sydney Harbour, and on 'How to Use the School Paper'. In the late 1930s, as radical groups were gaining a foothold in the community, she wrote The Child and the Communist (1937) which sold more than 22,000 copies. She published The Junior Bible and Church History in 1941 and Keep in Step with the Church, echoing Chesterton and Belloc, in 1949. For nine set English classics she compiled books of notes, questions and exercises. Her Social Studies for Secondary School Pupils and Those at Home had appeared in 1939.

In 1942 Mother Dunstan was elected general councillor and assistant (1942-48) to the superior general, whom she advised on educational matters. Her devotion to the sick was outstanding. Small and slightly built, she showed a ready wit, radiated kindness and peace, loved her Congregation, admired nature, and had a most charitable spirit. She died on 29 March 1959 at the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Freeman's Journal, 2 June 1927
  • Ipswich Girls' Grammar archives, Queensland
  • Sisters of Charity archives, Potts Point, Sydney.

Citation details

Catherine O'Carrigan, 'Wilson, Ella (1870–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Dunstan, Mother

21 August, 1870
Maitland, New South Wales, Australia


29 March, 1959 (aged 88)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, 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.