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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O’Doherty, Ellen (Sister Mary Alphonsus) (1894–1983)

by Catherine O'Carrigan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ellen O’Doherty (1894-1983), known as Sister Mary Alphonsus, Sister of Charity and hospital administrator, was born on 8 February 1894 at South Yarrawonga, Victoria, eldest of nine children of Irish-born Joseph [O’]Doherty, schoolteacher, and his Victorian-born wife Agnes, née Shanahan. ‘Nellie’, who had a beautifully modulated voice, expressive large brown eyes and a tall willowy figure, was a pupil-teacher at two of her father’s schools.

After training (1918-21) as a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Ellen entered the Sisters of Charity Convent, Potts Point, Sydney. Professed on 27 June 1924 as Sr Mary Alphonsus, she was first sent to the Order’s hospital at Lismore. She transferred to St Vincent’s Hospital, Toowoomba, Queensland, when the Darling Downs area was suffering from a crippling drought. After taking her final vows in Sydney on 9 June 1927, she nursed at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, and then (1927-32) at Bathurst. As the rectress at Lismore in 1932, she coped with financial and other problems caused by the Depression.

Rectress at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne (1933-39), Alphonsus clashed with the new advisory board but introduced three major surgical specialties, and opened a Catholic maternity hospital and Victoria’s first hospice. After time in Sydney in 1940, next year she was posted back to Toowoomba. With the Japanese invasion of northern Australia believed to be imminent, convents and schools were evacuated. Unable to contact the mother house, she decided that the sisters should stay at the hospital, and offered to nurse the soldiers. In 1942-48 she again served as rectress at Lismore.

In 1949 Mother Alphonsus was chosen as superior general of the Sisters of Charity in Australia. She travelled to Rome in 1952 for a gathering of superiors general for renewal and adaptation, where an upgrading of professional standards with a diminution of older customs was advised. A few members felt her changes were too sudden. A large influx of vocations led her to arrange the purchase (1953) of property at Wahroonga for a new novitiate.

No longer superior general, Mother Alphonsus returned to her work as rectress of the Order’s hospitals: at Toowoomba (1955-61), Melbourne (1961-69) and Launceston, Tasmania (1969-74). At St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, she created a chair of surgery, and set up units for open-heart surgery and intensive care, renal and cardiovascular diagnostic services, and modern rehabilitation facilities. In her hospital jobs she was responsible for construction, repairs and the servicing of associated debts. After a quiet time at convent communities in Tasmania, she lived at the Melbourne convent from 1978. Aged 84, she spoke to medical graduates, stressing the importance of respecting the patient.

Displaying self-discipline, high principles and leadership attributes, Mother Alphonsus expected and achieved high standards in nursing, medical and allied health fields, and in maintenance and supporting services. Articulate and decisive, yet inherently gracious, she was respected by government and university officials for her resilience, courage, quick comprehension and skill in crisis management. Bishop Joseph O’Connell cited her as a great figure during forty years of medical revolution, with her integrity, wisdom, balance, enthusiasm and foresight. She died on 11 August 1983 at Fitzroy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1983, p 16
  • Catholic Weekly, 21 Sept 1983, p 13
  • O’Doherty personal file (Sisters of Charity archives, Potts Point, Sydney)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Catherine O'Carrigan, 'O’Doherty, Ellen (Sister Mary Alphonsus) (1894–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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