Mother M. Francis McGuigan
Bridget Mary Magdalen McGuigan (1842-1923), known in religious life as Sister Mary Francis McGuigan, was born on 16 January 1842 in Braidwood, New South Wales. Bridget was the second of ten daughters born to John McGuigan, a pioneering pastoralist of the Monaro District and his wife Ellen McGuigan, née Foran.
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, in Rydalmere. While there, Bridget encountered Sister Mary Alphonsus Unsworth, a Sister of Charity who was convalescing at the time and would be the one who influenced Bridget’s decision to join the Order. Bridget felt attracted by the gentle ways of the visitor and made a mental resolution that she would one day become a Sister of Charity.
On 22 July 1861, Bridget McGuigan entered the Sisters of Charity at St Vincent’s Convent in Potts Point and was professed on 21 April 1864, taking the religious name of Sister (Sr) Mary Francis.
During her novitiate, Sr Mary was sent to train and teach at St Vincent’s Primary School, on Victoria Street in Darlinghurst. She was quickly recognised as a gifted educator as well as a skilful administrator and within a year became the headmistress of St Vincent’s School, continuing in this role until 1881. She maintained the school at a consistently high standard.
At the 1882 General Chapter, Sr Mary was elected Superior General of the Sisters of Charity, the first Australian-born Superior General of the Religious Sisters of Charity of Australia. The title ‘Mother’ was given to the head superior of Religious Sisters because of their “motherly care” in both spiritual and temporal care, of both the Congregation, the Sisters and their ministries. This title was kept even when the Superior General completed their term in office. Mother M Francis remained in this position until 1920.
While under her leadership, the Congregation grew exponentially, from 44 to more than 400 members, allowing the order to expand its teaching and nursing ministries in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
In 1914 she celebrated her Golden Jubilee, the first Australian born Sister of Charity to do so. After a short retirement, she succumbed to heart complications and died on 27 October 1923. She was laid to rest in the Chapel of St Vincent’s Chapel in 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, was under her guidance to grow and flourish.”
Described as being tall with an expressive countenance and stately deportment, Mother M. Francis radiated a strong presence both as a junior Sister and as Superior General. Her authority was firm but gentle, guided by her strong sense of piety and justice.
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.
St Vincent’s Private Hospital Sydney was opened in 1909 under the leadership of Mother M. Francis – a hospital that would provide compassionate care and financial support through its surplus to fund the Public Hospital. Our hospital honours Mother M. Francis for her vision and courage and has named the East Wing of the St Vincent’s Private Hospital in her honour.
The Story of Mother M. Francis McGuigan is provided through the courtesy of the Archives of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Australia.