Gertrude Abbott

Gertrude Abbott (1846-1934), founder of St Margaret's hospital, was born Mary Jane O'Brien on 11 July 1846 in Sydney, daughter of Rebecca (born Matthews) and Thomas O'Brien, schoolmaster. The family moved in 1848 to Dry Creek, South Australia, where her father ran a school and then took up farming. In February 1868, taking the name Sister Ignatius of Jesus, she entered the Order of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, founded two years earlier by Mary MacKillop (q.v.) and Julian Tenison Woods. Influenced by Woods, she and another nun claimed to witness visions. There was a scandal when the other nun was found to have faked manifestations. Though blameless, Sister Ignatius left the order in July 1872, only four months after she had taken final vows, and returned to Sydney. No longer able to use her religious name, she became known as Mrs Gertrude or Mother Abbott. For the next 20 years she waited in vain for approval to found an order of contemplative nuns. At her establishments in Surry Hills, first in Bourke St, later in Elizabeth St, she gathered round her a small community of women who survived chiefly by dressmaking. After Tenison Woods's death in her care in 1889, she inherited his estate of 609 pounds.

In 1893 Mrs Abbott reputedly took in and cared for a pregnant girl brought to her by a policeman. Next year she opened St Margaret's Maternity Home at 561 Elizabeth St, in the area known as Strawberry Hills. She claimed that the home was 'unsectarian in principle and working', its chief object being 'to provide shelter and care for unmarried girls of the comparatively respectable class'. From March to December 1894 she admitted nine married and 23 unmarried patients; three nurses trained in midwifery that year and eight were receiving instruction in 1895.

As president of the managing committee and later matron, Mrs Abbott ran the home for the next 40 years. She and the women who worked with her were a quasi-religious community and followed an unofficial rule; she obtained permission for mass to be celebrated in a chapel at the hospital two or three times a week. In 1904 St Margaret's began to treat diseases of women and opened an out-patients department; doctors also tended cases in nearby homes. In 1910 Mrs Abbott leased, and later bought, from the Sacred Heart nuns, a property in Bourke St near Taylor Square, and the hospital moved there. As it was not recognised officially as a Catholic institution, she raised money for its work and further expansion by a series of large art union lotteries from 1921. That year she received a first government subsidy of 250 pounds, and patients' fees outstripped for the first time fees paid by nurses.

In 1926 Sister Magdalen Foley, who had been with her since the earliest days and had been in charge of training nurses, died; from about then Mrs Abbott withdrew from the running of the hospital. She died there on 12 May 1934. That year its annual report recorded 760 patients treated and 619 births registered without any maternal deaths; it was the third largest obstetric hospital in Sydney. After her death, at her wish, it passed to the Sisters of St Joseph, whose order she had left unhappily 60 years before.

Chris Cunneen