Mother Vincent

Ellen Whitty (1819-1892), best known as Mother Vincent, a Mercy Sister, was born on 3 March 1819 near Oilgate in County Wexford, Ireland, one of six children of Johanna (born Murphy) and William Whitty, farmer. She was trained as a teacher and at nineteen joined the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic Order founded in 1831 for education and social work. The foundress of the Order, Catherine McAuley, prepared her for religious profession; they came to have a high regard for each other and an abiding affection. Known as Sister Mary Vincent from 1840, and Novice Mistress and Bursar before election in 1849 as Reverend Mother, she coped with the burden of social work resulting from the famine of the 1840s, and organised the preparation of Sisters to travel with emigrants in 1854. She was capable, intelligent and had a gift for making and keeping friends, both inside and outside the convent.

Father Robert Whitty, her brother, was vicar-general to Cardinal Wiseman at Westminster, and through him and Father (later Cardinal) Manning, the British government invited her to send Sisters to nurse the wounded in the Crimea. After the war she established homes for neglected children and for unmarried mothers.

In 1860 Mother Vincent and five Sisters were invited by Bishop James Quinn to become the first women religious in the newly formed diocese of Queensland. She looked forward to this missionary venture, and the reluctance of her community to free her was overcome by the command of Archbishop Cullen. They arrived in Brisbane in the Donald Mackay in May 1861. Mother Vincent's problems in Queensland stemmed partly from the trend towards centralised and secular state education, but more from the bishop's autocracy. She wanted to have her schools independent yet adapted to a pluralist society and so open to all creeds; but Quinn, unlike other bishops, wished her to graft the convent schools on to the state system, reserving the right to choose teachers and texts. She eventually agreed.

Mother Vincent was unable to tolerate the degree of control which the bishop sought over purely conventual matters. The resulting tension when he demoted her to the ranks in 1865 could have wrecked her foundation or forced her to withdraw but for her profound spirituality. In 1870 on Quinn's instructions she returned to Ireland to recruit nuns and he appointed her assistant to the Queensland head of the Order, an office which she retained until her death. Her schools flourished though some of her projects did not, notably a hospital and work with Aborigines. When she wished to make Maryborough a centre for the care of Aborigines, the bishop vetoed the move. At her death, there were 26 Mercy schools in Queensland, 222 Sisters and 7000 pupils. At Nudgee there was a Mercy Training College for teachers. Mother Vincent had commenced a secondary school (All Hallows') many years before the State entered this field. She duplicated in Brisbane the types of social work she had pioneered in Dublin, and provided a link between all forms of service in regular home visitation. She died in Brisbane on 9 March 1892. Her work has stood the test of a century of change.

Eileen M. O'Donoghue

Mary Xaverius O'Donoghue Mother Vincent Whitty 1972.