Vincent, Mother (1819–1892)

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Vincent, Mother (1819–1892)

Irish-born Australian nun and educator . Name variations: Sister Mary Vincent; Ellen Whitty. Born Ellen Whitty on March 3, 1819, near Oilgate, County Wex-ford, Ireland; died on March 9, 1892, in Brisbane, Australia; daughter of William Whitty (a farmer) and Johanna (Murphy) Whitty; trained as a teacher.

Born one of six children in the farming family of William and Johanna Murphy Whitty in Ireland in 1819, Ellen Whitty trained as a teacher before joining a religious order of the Sisters of Mercy at the age of 19. Catherine McAuley —one of the founders of an order begun in 1831 with the aims of both education and social work—became both friend and mentor to the young novitiate, known after 1840 as Sister Mary Vincent.

Outgoing and intelligent, she became novice mistress and bursar before her election in 1849 as Reverend Mother. Preoccupied with social work resulting from the great Irish famine of the 1840s, Mother Vincent prepared a number of her order to travel with emigrants in 1854 and was also involved in sending sisters to nurse the wounded during the Crimean War, an initiative backed by her brother, Father Robert Whitty, who was vicar-general to Cardinal Wiseman in Westminster. After the war ended, Mother Vincent continued the social work of her order by creating homes for neglected children and unmarried mothers.

In 1860, Mother Vincent was invited by Bishop James Quinn to become one of the first women religious in the newly formed diocese of Queensland, Australia. She arrived in Brisbane with five sisters in May 1861, despite a reluctance within her community to see her leave Ireland, which was overcome only by the direct command of Archbishop Cullen.

Mother Vincent had always found it easy to make and keep friends, but she was faced with several problems when she arrived in Queensland. She discovered that Australia tended towards centralized, secular school education, and, even worse, she found Bishop Quinn autocratic. Forced to accept his wish to choose teachers and texts, Mother Vincent found his interference in convent matters unbearable. The conflict between them resulted in her demotion in 1865. But in 1870, having sent her home to Ireland to recruit nuns, Quinn appointed her assistant to the Queensland head of the Order, an office she held for the rest of her life.

Their relationship remained problematic. Her desire to start a health-care center for Aborigines was vetoed by Bishop Quinn. However, by the time of her death in 1892, she had created 26 Mercy schools in Queensland, with 222 sisters and 7,000 pupils, as well as a Mercy Training College for teachers. She started All Hallow's, the state's first Catholic secondary school. Mother Vincent also introduced the types of social work she had pioneered in Dublin and encouraged regular home visitation, emphasizing the link between the different forms of social service. Despite the difficulties of her missionary work in Australia, in both education and social work, Mother Vincent left an important and lasting legacy.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York

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Vincent, Mother (1819–1892)

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