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Mother M. Francis McGuigan, a fearless pioneer in education

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Recently, the Congregational Archives received a request for a short biography to be written about Mother M. Francis McGuigan and her contribution to Australian Catholic Education.

Mother M. Francis was among several potential candidates, not only for her direct contribution in the classroom, but for her successful leadership as Superior General in expanding the teaching and nursing apostolates of the Congregation far beyond Sydney.  She was chosen for coverage because of her breadth of vision and outstanding service to the poor.

This biographical note will appear in Australian Catholic Educators 1820-2020, a forthcoming publication from Coventry Press as part of the Biographical Dictionary of Australian Catholic Educators, celebrating the first 200 years of Catholic Education in Australia.

Mother Mary Francis McGuigan was a gifted Catholic educator and skilful administrator. She was elected as the first Australian-born Superior General of the Religious Sisters of Charity of Australia in 1882 and remained in this position until 1920.  Under her leadership, the Congregation grew exponentially, from 44 to more than 400 members, allowing the order to expand its teaching and nursing apostolates in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

Bridget Mary Magdalen McGuigan (1842-1923), known in religious life as Sister (later Mother) Mary Francis McGuigan, was born on January 16, 1842 at Braidwood, in New South Wales.  She was the second of 10 daughters born to John McGuigan, a pioneering pastoralist of the Monaro District and his wife Ellen McGuigan, née Foran.  Pious Catholics, the McGuigans often hosted the visiting district priest who used the family home at Norongo as a “station” for the celebration of Mass. ([1])

In 1856, Bridget and her older sister Mary were sent as boarders to be educated by the Benedictine Sisters at the Convent of the Presentation of the Virgin, Subiaco, Rydalmere.  At Subiaco, Bridget encountered Sister Mary Alphonsus Unsworth, a Sister of Charity who was convalescing there; she later influenced Bridget’s decision to join the Order. ([2])   On July 22, 1861 Bridget McGuigan entered the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent’s Convent, Potts Point, and was professed on April 21, 1864 taking the religious name of Sr Mary Francis.

During her novitiate, Sr M. Francis was sent to train and teach at St Vincent’s Primary School (Victoria Street Roman Catholic School), then under the management of its two founding teachers, Sr M Aloysius Raymond (headmistress) and Sr M. Alphonsus Unsworth (infants mistress).  Her aptitude for teaching was quickly recognised and she was appointed as the first assistant to Sr M. Aloysius. ([3])

In 1865, she became headmistress of St Vincent’s School (following the withdrawal of Sr M Aloysius due to ill health), continuing in this role until 1881.  She maintained the school at a high standard, ensuring ongoing recognition and financial support from the Council of Education. ([4])Here election

At the 1882 General Chapter, Sr M. Francis McGuigan was elected Superior General of the Sisters of Charity.  Her election coincided with the removal of State Aid funding from non-government schools in New South Wales, which threatened to undermine the work of the Sisters in their schools.

Mother M. Francis, responding to the call of Archbishop Roger Vaughan and aided by several junior Sisters who had trained and worked as teachers prior to entering the Congregation ([5]) staffed six parochial schools in addition to the five schools already under the Sisters’ care.  This was made possible through the financial support provided by the opening of St Vincent’s Ladies College, a fee-paying boarding and day school at Potts Point in 1882. ([6] )

This new college incorporated the old St Vincent’s Primary School and offered both junior and senior schooling.  During the following 36 years, more than 20 Schools were staffed or established by the Sisters across Sydney and as far away as Bega and Bombala.  Of note were the Garcia School of Music and St Vincent’s Training College, a college for female primary school teachers, both established in 1896 at Potts Point.

The contribution of Mother M. Francis McGuigan and the Sisters of Charity to Catholic education in Australia, was however, not confined to a single State.  In 1889, five Sisters were sent to Melbourne, in response to a request made in 1888 by Archbishop Thomas Carr for the assistance of the Sisters in supporting Catholic schools in inner city Melbourne and for the establishment of a hospital.([7])  The Sisters undertook the staffing of St Patrick’s School, East Melbourne, and during the next 13 years staffed a further six parochial schools and established two senior schools.

The success of the Sisters in providing a sound Catholic education to their students resulted in further requests made to Mother M. Francis.  In 1889, she noted in her diary that she had to deny an appeal from Bishop Higgins of Rockhampton who had requested eight Sisters to educate up to 1000 children, as “the Sisters could not be spared… and the expense is great”. ([8]) She also received appeals from Melbourne and New Zealand for foundations, but again Mother M. Francis declined. ([9])

These decisions were made in the context of negotiations, begun in 1888 for the amalgamation of the Hobart community of Sisters (separate from 1847) with those on the mainland which was achieved in 1890. ([10] )

Tall with an expressive countenance and stately deportment, Mother M. Francis radiated a strong presence both as a junior Sister and as Superior General. ([11]) Her authority was firm but gentle, guided by her strong sense of piety and justice.

In 1914, she celebrated her Golden Jubilee, the first Australian born Sister of Charity to do so, before being succeeded in 1920 by Mother M Berchmans Daly.  After a short retirement, she succumbed to heart complications on October 27, 1923 ([12]) and was laid to rest in the Lady Chapel of St Vincent’s Chapel, Potts Point.  At her funeral, Archbishop Kelly noted in relation to Mother M. Francis McGuigan’s leadership that, “The small seed sown in far-off days by the pioneer sisters of charity [sic], was under her guidance to grow and flourish.” ([13])

Mother M. Francis McGuigan oversaw and guided the Sisters of Charity through a period of great change and growth.  Despite being constrained by limited resources, further divided between the teaching and nursing apostolates, she was able to establish and staff schools and hospitals throughout New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

She denied requests for further foundations which might overextend the Congregation, instead focussing on those already under her care.  Mother M. Francis McGuigan played a significant role in supporting Catholic education in Australia both as teacher and as an administrator. This, however, was only possible owing to the support and work of the many unsung Sisters of the Congregation.

Bibliography

Advertising: Monaro District for Positive Sale: Queanbeyan Age, 19 October 1871. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30582261

Cannell, Josephine: To the Beckoning Shores: Urged on by the Love of Christ. Hobart, N.P., 2007

The Cardinal at St. Patrick’s: A Flood of Memories,  Freeman’s Journal, 3 March 1900, 16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111310265

Donovan, Margaret M. Apostolate of Love: Mary Aikenhead 1787-1858 Foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity. Melbourne, The Polding Press, 1979

Festival of Memories, Freeman’s Journal, April 16, 1914. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111292801

Frappell, Samantha: St Vincent’s College Potts Point 1858-2008: 150 Years of Catholic Education. Sydney. Kingsclear Books, 2009

McGuigan, Mother Mary Francis, Diary, 1888, SER/01674/011, Congregational Archives of the Sisters of Charity; Roper.

Mother Mary Francis McGuigan Dead: Solemn Requiem Mass: The Catholic Press, Sydney. November 1, 1923. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article106414201

Roper, Sister Mary Teresa Joseph: Short Sketch of the Life of Mary Francis McGuigan: Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, 1923, SER/01710/008.  Congregational Archives of the Sisters of Charity

Granting the petition of the Sisters of Charity to accept fees and to conduct boarding Schools. Given at Rome by Pope Leo XIII, 4 December 187931 January 1880, SER/01720/002, A104/11, Congregational Archives of the Sisters of Charity.

Footnotes 

[1] Sr Mary Teresa Joseph Roper, Short Sketch of the Life of Mary Francis McGuigan: Superior General of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, 1923, SER/01710/008, Congregational Archives of the Sisters of Charity, 8.

[2] Roper, 12.

[3] “Festival of Memories,” Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW), April 16, 1914, 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article111292801

[4] Roper, 31; Margaret M. Donovan, Apostolate of Love: Mary Aikenhead 1787-1858 Foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity (Melbourne: The Polding Press, 1979), 234-237; Samantha Frappell, St Vincent’s College Potts Point 1858-2008: 150 Years of Catholic Education (Sydney: Kingsclear Books, 2009), 4-9.

[5] Roper, 32-33; Donovan, 237.

[6] Roper, 39; Rescript, “Granting the petition of the Sisters of Charity to accept fees and to conduct boarding Schools. Given at Rome by Pope Leo XIII, 4 December 1879,” 31 January 1880, SER/01720/002, A104/11, Congregational Archives of the Sisters of Charity.

[7] Mother Mary Francis McGuigan, Diary, 1888, SER/01674/011, Congregational Archives of the Sisters of Charity; Roper, 44.

[8] McGuigan, Diary, 16 September 1899, SER/01674/011.

[9] McGuigan, Diary, February 7, 1895, July 1904, April 1905, SER/01674/011.

[10] Donovan, 240-241; Josephine Cannell, To the Beckoning Shores: Urged on by the Love of Christ (Hobart: N.P, 2007), 47-48.

[11] Roper, 13.

[12] Roper, 126.

[13] Mother Mary Francis McGuigan Dead: Solemn Requiem MassThe Catholic Press (Sydney, NSW), November 1, 1923, 20, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article106414201

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