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Bonzer Words!: Mother Mary Berchmans Daly

Paula Wilson tells the inspiring story of Mother Mary Berchmans Daly, the ninth child of an Irish blacksmith, who made a huge success of her life in Australia.

On his deathbed, John Daly told his wife Mary that their ninth child Anne would be 'the greatest of them all.' It is unlikely he had any idea how true his words were to become.

Anne was born on 28 May, 1860 in Tipperary, Ireland, one of ten children. Her father was a blacksmith/mechanic, whose health was not good. He was advised to seek out a warmer climate, so the family boarded a ship in December 1865 and sailed for Australia.

Upon landing in Sydney they travelled overland to Jembaicumbene, where gold had been discovered and Johnís trade was in demand. But the change of climate did not help, and within two years he was dead.

Despite the hardships the family must have encountered Anne received a good education. By the age of seventeen she was an assistant at the nearby Braidwood Catholic School and her fatherís prophecy was beginning to take shape.

After working at a number of schools, Anne arrived at St Maryís Cathedral Girls School. And in 1881 she entered St Vincentís Convent and became Sister Mary Berchmans, a member of the Sisters of Charity.

She continued to teach at St Maryís and in 1883 was appointed head teacher. This was a rapid rise for the young nun who was still only twenty-three.

In 1888 the Sisters of Charity were headed for Melbourne and Sister Berchmans was among the founding group. There was a lot of poverty in Melbourne and it was into this environment the sisters immersed themselves.

One of the first tasks was to take charge of St Patrickís School. With Sister Berchmans in a leading role they set to work, and in no time at all the student population had trebled. By 1897, not only was Sister Berchmans responsible for St Patrickís but four other schools that the sisters had established.

During these years Sister Berchmans had displayed extraordinary abilities, which were recognised when she was appointed Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Melbourne in 1892. Not bad for the ninth child of a blacksmith; but the best was yet to come.

Now known as Mother Berchmans, her major legacy to Melbourne was about to begin. Part of her routine was to visit the sick and poor and she soon recognised the drastic need for a hospital to help these people, something along the lines of Sydneyís St Vincentís, and administered by the Sisters of Charity.

Mother Berchmans had a unique ability to attract the support of influential people, and it was these she enlisted to help with her project. Within no time, three terrace houses in Albert Terrace were purchased and, on the sunny afternoon of 6 November, 1893, St Vincentís was officially opened. The two-storey buildings held 33 beds and took in outpatients, something that had been happening for four months before the opening.

It soon became obvious the hospital was not big enough so a building fund was set up. When it reached 10,000 pounds, plans were put in place for a new, larger hospital. Twelve years after the opening of Albert Terrace the larger hospital was opened on its present site in Victoria Parade.

Although Mother Berchmans did not have a medical background she was appointed administrator of the hospital, a position she had proven herself well qualified to hold. Still, she was not content until St Vincentís was recognised as a teaching hospital. And finally her last major work in Melbourne was the opening of Mount Evinís Private Hospital, now St Vincentís Private Hospital.

Mother Berchmans had achieved such significant advancements in education and health institutions within Melbourne, but her rise within the Sisters of Charity was yet to be completed. At the age of sixty Mother Berchmans was elected Superior General of her order.

Her new role saw her returning to New South Wales where she presided over the whole of Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. She continued to establish hospitals in Toowoomba, Lismore and Bathurst, and her final achievement came in 1923 with the recognition of Sydneyís St Vincentís as a teaching hospital.

Her work completed, Mother Berchmans died on 4 March 1924 of broncho-pneumonia at the age of sixty-four.

In the entrance of St Vincentís, Melbourne, a bronze bust tells everyone of the woman who built hospitals for the poor. The inscription reads: 'She hath opened her hand to the needy and stretched out her hand to the poor.'


© Paula Wilson

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Paula writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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