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Books Etcetera

by Edmund Campion

Life of Eileen O'Connor; Waterhole of Hope; Sacred Space

You may start getting ready for another Australian saint. The appearance of John Hosie's biography Eileen: The Life of Eileen O'Connor (Sydney: St Paul's $29.95) is a signal that the Brown Sisters have recharged their drive to see their co-founder canonised. It's a fascinating story. Church history is often an account of the quarrels of good people; but in its purest form it is a saga of the saints. Spilled from a pram at the age of three, Eileen O'Connor suffered an extreme curvature of the spine that kept her in pain and often in bed for much of her short life. Her twisted body refused to grow; all her life she was just over one metre in height. Eileen offered her suffering as a prayer for the missionary work of the church.

Then a real life missionary came into her life, Father Ted McGrath MSC, the local priest who brought her Holy Communion, and a spark ignited between them. They began to dream a great dream that would join them together for eternity. At the time - this was early in the 20th century - social services for the very poor were limited. There were hospitals such as St Vincent's where the poor could find a place but often the sick and disabled poor just stayed at home and rotted. But what if, Eileen and Father Ted dreamed, you could inspire some nurses to devote their lives to caring for the poor "and the poor only" in their own homes. And so, just as World War I was about to start, Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor came into being.

They were nurses, not nuns, wearing a washable white nurse's uniform with a brown hat and a brown cloak (St Joseph's colour) - so Sydneysiders called them the Brown Nurses and later the Brown Sisters. They lived in a home, not a convent, and the heart of their home was the invalid Eileen O'Connor whom they called their "little mother". She liked games and laughter and picnics and playing with her dog, Rags. She ate little but was addicted to tea, so that taking tea with her was always an occasion, almost Japanese in its rituals. Personally she was very close to her nurses, teaching them to pray and giving them points for daily meditation and keeping their hearts pure. When they left the home each morning, it was to serve Christ in the poor; and when they returned in the evening it was to Eileen's bedside, to discuss their work and to be encouraged by her.

That home of theirs, however, became a cause of heartbreak. Among their earliest supporters were a well-off brother and sister, the Gells. Father Edward Gell, parish priest of Ryde in Sydney, was a graduate of Propaganda Fide College, Rome, the training school for future bishops, so not easily spooked by church authorities (although he met his match when Norman Gilroy came to town - but that's another story). He and his sister Frances put up the money to buy a home for the nurses in Coogee, a seaside suburb. They put ownership in the names of Eileen and Father Ted. Hello? Father Ted was a Missionary of the Sacred Heart, a priest with a vow of poverty. Unlike Father Gell, an unvowed secular priest, he could not own property. Thus when an enforcer from head office came out to Australia to smarten up the Missionaries, he quickly got onto Father Ted's case. Take your name off those title deeds, he told Eileen's co-founder. No way, said the young priest. Well, then, off to Tasmania you go.

The story now becomes somewhat operatic. Father Ted does go to Tasmania but Eileen, thinking he might be losing his vocation, goes after him. Then they travel back to Sydney, where Father Gell invites them to join him on a Pacific cruise. On their return Father Ted is convicted of disobedience and the canonical crime of "flight with a woman" and he is expelled from the Missionaries. I'll appeal to Rome, he responds. Eileen says, I'll go with you - when they see me they'll know this "flight with a woman" business is absurd; I'm no sex object - as a later age might put it. Afterwards it all went pearshaped. Father Ted got back into the Missionaries all right, but he was exiled from Australia and posted to the United States. On her return to Sydney, Eileen was given the cold shoulder by church authorities and the Catholic gossip mill ground her small. She and Father Ted had a couple of furtive meetings - one notably in Bombay, whither she sailed from Sydney, Father Ted, by then a WWI military chaplain, coming from Basra in Iraq, or Mesopotamia as it was then called. Under these conditions the survival of the Brown Nurses may be thought providential.

They have been well served by historians. I first got to know their story when one of my students did an assignment on them 20 years ago. (Frank Jones, where are you?) He led me to a useful booklet by the fine MSC historian John F McMahon and I wrote about Eileen and Father Ted in a Jesuit magazine, collected in Great Australian Catholics. Next, in 1992, came a capacious book by Tom Boland, the Brisbane priest who has written good biographies of Archbishops Carr and Duig. He took the story through to Eileen's death, in 1921; the church's recognition of the Nurses as a religious congregation, in 1953; the return of Father Ted to the Home at Coogee, in 1969; and his death there at the age of 96. Now John Hosie has put another good biography alongside these. More information has emerged since Dr Boland wrote. It's a sensational story yet John Hosie does not sensationalise it. He is quite matter-of-fact about various supernatural manifestations - attacks by Satan, appearances by the Blessed Virgin Mary, the discovery that Eileen's body was incorrupt fifteen years after her death - manifestations a less temperate writer could not have resisted shouting about.

Church authority is a necessary part of Eileen O'Connor's story, as it is of another story, a quite different one, that I've been reading lately. A few kilometres outside the NSW provincial city of Goulburn there's a property which was once a Catholic orphanage and is now a "House of Prayer". It's mentioned in Michael McGirr's Bypass (see Online Catholics No 19) and when I was in Melbourne I found a book on it tucked into a bottom shelf and the Catholic Bookshop: Waterhole of Hope by Annie Patterson, published by Spectrum in Melbourne three years ago. (One of the problems of being an historian of the grassroots is that much of your source material can be evasive.) It's a big book, really two books; a ruminative memoir by the "founder", Sue Gordon Woods, and a parallel account of the House's first 25 years. A big book but a good one, especially if you come from a more structured environment for then it will give you a shake and maybe get you thinking about how your life has run. Through the quarter century there were three archbishops who had ultimate oversight of the House of Prayer, Thomas Vincent Cahill, Edward Bede Clancy and Francis Patrick Carroll - three very different individuals, each charged to make or delay difficult decisions that would impact on the life of the House. What struck me about this was the constant understanding and sympathy and - shall I say? - love Sue Gordon Walker and her companions showed towards their bishops. It's not the sort of thing that makes the news but nonetheless it's a reality of our story.

One of the things that puzzled me about the House of Prayer was how they actually prayed. Oh, they go off to Mass and make retreats and share biblical insights and meditate on the Bible and all that; but when I put the book down I found it difficult to imagine what prayer life in the House might be like. This line of thought was teasing me because, also in Melbourne, I'd met a woman called Michelle Anderson. She's started her own publishing house, led to it by her own need. An alumna of a Loreto school, she found herself seeking spiritual sustenance; and so discovered www.sacredspace.ie, the website run by the Irish Jesuits to meet the modern hunger for a prayer life that nourishes. Good stuff, she found. Coming from a background in publishing, her next thought was - BOOK: had anyone thought of turning this wonderful website into a book? And the answer was no. So we have Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2005 (Melbourne: Michelle Anderson Publishing: $24.95). It follows the church's liturgical year, which means that Page One is about to start. As I was looking at this, the postman brought the latest copy of Madonna, the Jesuit spirituality magazine and I found that they have seen it too. I'll borrow two of their sentences: "This is a book to help everyday prayer go more sweetly and to help you find unexpected space for God each day. It offers prayers for each day of the year, with reflections on prayer set within a standard weekly format, the gospel reading, and a few questions about the reading." Amen to that.

PS: The Editor tells me that National Catholic Reporter is having its 40th birthday, and asks me do I want to write about it. Sure do. No paper has impacted on Catholic journalism more than the NCR. An Ulster stir-the-possum priest, Dennis Paul, told me about it mid-1964 and I was subscribing from their seventh number. This was Vatican II time, when the daily papers were full of news stories from Rome yet the diocesan press remained dull and timid, filled with deferential reports of bishops' speeches, pictures of the Pope and stodge about the Church's glorious past.

By contrast, NCR was an independent paper, breaking big stories about the church and reporting what was really happening rather than the official line. An example: after Humanae Vitae they got hold of the majority (pro contraception) report of the Pope's commission on birth control, the one Paul VI had rejected and ran it in full. Naturally, apparatchiks hated the paper. An American bishop told me of a new sin. "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I read the National Catholic Reporter." "Did you take pleasure in it?" So when I was editing Report (1968-1971), a precursor of Online Catholics, I drew heavily on NCR, as I can see now when I skim through our pages. This was before the internet, when news came airmail through the post. Today we'd be leaning heavily on NCR's man in Rome, John L Allen Jr, the best in the game since Henri Fesquet of Le Monde.

Back then, I wrote an editorial for NCR's fifth birthday that played off Pascal's puzzling sentence, "The history of the church ought properly to be called the history of truth", saying that truth-telling journalism was necessary before each member of the church community could be responsible for the life of the community. Conservatives thought otherwise; holding that power, decision making and responsibility were properly vested "on high", they were not interested in a free press. They thought of the Church as a static, unchanging, finished society. Not so, I wrote. "The Church is a movement in history; it is a living continuous body of Christians; it is a pilgrim people still on their way to the Promised Land. That is why papers like the NCR, which try to tell the contemporary history of the Church as a history of truth, are noble servants of both Church and truth."

The Books:

  • Eileen: The Life of Eileen O'Connor
  • Waterhole of Hope
  • Sacred Space: The Prayer Book 2005

    See also:

  • Spectrum Publications
  • St Joseph's House of Prayer, Goulburn
  • Michelle Anderson Publishing
  • National Catholic Reporter

    Previous Columns:

  • Issue 1 Books Etc
  • Issue 3 Books Etc
  • Issue 5 Books Etc
  • Issue 7 Books Etc
  • Issue 9 Books Etc
  • Issue 11 Books Etc
  • Issue 13 Books Etc
  • Issue 15 Books Etc
  • Issue 17 Books Etc
  • Issue 19 Books Etc
  • Issue 21 Books Etc
  • Issue 22 Books Etc

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