Sister Agnes FitzGeraldPrint
Agnes FitzGerald was born in Mackay in 1867. She inherited from her father, a founder of the sugar industry in north Queensland and a distinguished member of parliament in Queensland, a fine sense of purpose.
In 1893 she entered the Sisters of Charity. She was a pioneer of the first school of the Sisters in Queensland, St Finbarr’s at Ashgrove, leaving there in 1929. She was then appointed to St Vincent’s Hospital Toowoomba.
For twenty-five years, Sister Agnes had been pleading with the leaders of her congregation to build a hospice for the dying in Brisbane. This desire was propelled by an extraordinary dream she had, and which made such an impression on her that she committed it to writing before she died. Then in her 90s, she wrote her account of it on the very day it was fulfilled with the opening of Mount Olivet Hospital Kangaroo Point, on the 8th September 1957. This account, though slightly modified for greater clarity, is as follows:
“My sister, Mother Mary Audeon FitzGerald, a Sister of Mercy in Brisbane, died suddenly in 1932, 52 years after her religious profession. Some little time after, I had a very vivid dream about her, whom I loved so much. I thought I was on the verandah of a fair sized and well-built cottage. Coming around the corner towards me was my sister carrying a chalice, her hands clasped around its stem. Floating above it without any support was a large shining Mass Host. I looked at her in surprise.
“‘What are you doing carrying a chalice and consecrated Host? Only a priest should do that,’ I said. Looking down her sister reverently answered, ‘Oh! This is my work now, I have to visit the dying and see that all receive the last sacraments and die happily. This is a hospice for the dying. Will you come with me and look at it?’ ‘Oh yes, I will come and be pleased to do so.’
“When we reached its entrance door I woke up, dreadfully disappointed at not being able to continue being with her. The dream seemed so real that I could not dismiss it from my mind. So I went to see Mother Mary Alban of All Hallows, the Superior of the Sisters of Mercy in the diocese of Brisbane, asking her if she could do something about building and staffing a hospice for Brisbane, which was so much needed, especially by the Catholics.
“Her reply was: ‘No, I could not even consider it and, much as I would like to do it in memory of our dearly loved sister, I have too much on hand at present. The Children’s Hospital is not completed, and when it is, I will have to face the tremendous work of providing a maternity hospital for Brisbane. Try someone else.’
“When opportunity presented, I approached our own Mother General, Mother Mary Edmund Daniel of the Sisters of Charity, on the matter, telling her of the refusal I had from Mother Mary Alban. Her answer was: ‘Sister, much as I see the need of a hospice, I have neither money nor Sisters at my disposal. It would be an impossible undertaking! Put it out of your mind.’ I accepted this decision for time being, but could not remain satisfied. The dream still haunted me and gave me no peace.
“One day, I was speaking to an ex-student, Mary Purcell (Mrs Mary King) whose mother, Mrs. Purcell, was very ill and was in and out of the General Hospital with serious attacks of illness.
“‘Mary, could you not do something about getting your husband and friends to sponsor a cottage for the dying, even a small one at the beginning, with plans for a large building later on? It seems to me a crying shame that your mother, a wonderful Catholic, someone who has lived and worked for the Church and has done so much for it and for our convent, should have to die in a public hospital, away from the Blessed Sacrament and from daily Mass and all that a good Catholic loves.’ Mary assured me she would see what could be done, but going away said quite brightly to me, ‘Don’t worry about Mum, she is good for another ten years yet.’ That night, or shortly after, Mrs Purcell was taken to the hospital for treatment and died soon afterwards.
“Mary rang up some time after to say that her brother Tom Purcell wished to leave Brisbane and settle elsewhere. He had a small farm of 34 acres and would give the Sisters the first offer to buy it, or part of it, at a reasonable price. The property was situated at Enoggera, Brisbane, convenient to the city and good doctors.
“To me, that seemed an answer to prayer. I wrote immediately to our new Mother General, Mother Mary Alphonsus O’Doherty, who was in Sydney at the time. I told her of the dream and all that had gone on between myself and Mother Mary Alban and Mother Mary Edmund. I asked her to send up to Brisbane a hospital Sister, experienced in what would be needed for a hospice, as there were only school Sisters in Brisbane.
“Next morning, after posting my letter the night before, one of my Sisters showed me The Courier-Mail morning paper in which was a paragraph stating that Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane had invited the Canossian Sisters to open a hospice for the dying on Gregory Terrace, Brisbane. The Sisters were arriving from Italy to take up residence and open a private hospice in a building which had been previously been a private hospital. They would soon be ready to commence work. On reading that I gave up hope saying sorrowfully: ‘That is the end for us. We can never have our desires fulfilled.’
“I was not able to recall my letter to my Mother General. When she received it, she, not having heard about the Canossian Sisters coming, replied at once: ‘Even without money, or not knowing whether we will have sufficient Sisters, I think it is God’s work and He will help us. I will go forward and buy the land if it is suitable!’ She sent to Brisbane her assistant for hospital works, Mother Mary Giovanni Ackman, who approved the site. Approximately ten acres were secured.
“Events, however, took a different turn and an alternate site for the proposed hospice was offered to the Sisters of Charity by a Miss Mary Bedford. Some time after Miss Bedford had left her property at Kangaroo Point as a gift to the Sisters of Charity, and the hospice site had been changed from Enoggera, I was invited to look through the house and grounds and to make Miss Bedford’s acquaintance.
“While the Sisters with me went upstairs to see the attic rooms, I sat on the veranda by myself, not feeling fit to climb the stairs. After admiring the scenery and thinking ‘What a wonderful gift’, I suddenly jumped up saying aloud: ‘My God! I have been here before. This is the identical veranda and cottage that I saw in my dream of Mother Mary Audeon!’ Now I realized that my dream was true and the hospice was born in heaven.”
So concludes Sister Agnes FitzGerald’s account.
Not long after the first wing of Mount Olivet was officially opened and patients had been admitted, Sister Mary Agnes was appointed to the Sisters’ community of Mt St. Michael’s, Ashgrove.
Here she continued to teach music for a few years and her zeal was undiminished. She remained to many a wise and holy friend.
As time passed her active work lessened and she became a patient at Mount Olivet (image of the opening in 1957 by Archbishop Duhig), Brisbane for several years. She spent those days in prayer, patiently resigned to God’s will.
Her love for her Sisters’ community was real and deep, and at the age of ninety four she was still vitally interested in every facet of its life. She died very peacefully in her Dream Hospital on 26 September 1962.
Her brother, Monsignor FitzGerald, had predeceased her by some years, so the Requiem Mass was celebrated in the Mount Olivet Chapel by the Rev. Cyril Shand, her grandnephew. Her grandniece, Sr M. Bernadette Shand, was also a Sister of Charity. Large numbers of Sisters, nurses, and friends were present at Sister Agnes’ Requiem Mass.
Her body was the first to be buried in the new plot reserved for the Sisters of Charity at Nudgee cemetery. She was pioneering until the end in her beloved Queensland.
(Images from SoC Congregation Archives)