The United States west coast city of Spokane in Washington state, 500 kilometres east of Seattle, home to half a million people, would be unfamiliar to many Australians. It’s well and truly off the list of common tourist destinations.
Yet, it is here over a lively Vacation Bible school class, that an Australian-born nun has been encouraging her students to learn more about Sydney’s “saint-in-waiting”, the Servant of God, Eileen O’Connor.
Evidence is being gathered to support Eileen’s canonisation based upon her inspirational work co-founding Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor with Fr Edward McGrath in 1913, a religious order committed to caring for the sick poor in their own homes and whose legacy still lives on today in inner Sydney, Newcastle, Minto and Macquarie Fields.
Sr Paschalina Marie, from the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church in Spokane, spent some years of her childhood growing up close to Eileen’s tomb in Coogee and is now spreading the word about this remarkable Australian woman in her role as Coordinator of Religious Education at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Diocese of Spokane.
“The theme for our recent Vatican Bible School was Salve Regina: Our Comfort and Our Queen which emphasised those aspects of the lives of the Saints that demonstrated Our Lady’s maternal care for them during times of suffering and the wonderful things our Lord was able to accomplish through them”, Sr Paschalina Marie told The Catholic Weekly.
She said that Eileen’s personal courage in spending most of her short life confined to a wheelchair due to a crippling spinal illness, yet never losing sight of her concern for others, should be an inspiration for all, especially for children and young adults.
“I think every Catholic in Australia stands in need of having Eileen as a role model, one who was willing to endure sufferings for the sake of Our Lord, sufferings precisely because of the fruits of her utter devotion to the Lord and His Mother, even over and above the physical sufferings and limitations that Eileen embraced joyfully and which allowed her to be so intimately united to Jesus on the Cross”, Sr Paschalina Marie added.
Alongside her at the Vacation Bible School was mother of three, Mrs Chrissie Carleton. “There were over 60 children present and they all loved hearing Eileen’s story! They made Eileen O’Connor peg dolls, played Coogee Beach themed games and coloured an Eileen O’Connor colouring page”, Mr Carleton explained.
An enlarged poster made from the Eileen colouring page is kept permanently in Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atrium area so the children are constantly reminded of Eileen’s ongoing care and intercession for them.
As a former nurse, Mrs Carleton said she can relate well to Eileen’s mission of caring not only for the physical needs of the sick poor, but their mental and spiritual needs, which she believes is often lacking in the secular medicine of today.
She said her three children, Julianna, Justin, and little Gemma, have all been learning about Eileen’s remarkable story.
“They love celebrating her special day on the 10th of January each year and her birthday on 19th February with a high tea! They are always drawing little scenes from her life and my daughter Julianna even dressed up as her for All Saints Day in 2020! So Eileen is definitely a good family friend.”
Sr Paschalina and Mrs Carleton count their blessings that they were able to make a pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Home in Coogee in the last half of January 2020, only weeks before international flights ceased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Together with her tomb, the opportunity to pray at Eileen’s bed left a huge impression on me”, Mrs Carleton said.
“It was such an atmosphere of serenity and peace, and I was aware of the vitality of Eileen’s mission being very much present and the need for it to be embraced and spread anew”, Sr Paschalina-Marie added.
“I don’t know how to best sum up the experience, but I know that on leaving Our Lady’s House, I was convinced that I had encountered Eileen there quite profoundly and I had been very much comforted by Eileen’s care and knew that a lasting friendship had been established.”
Sr Paschalina is one of a growing number of global ambassadors for Eileen O’Connor’s cause for canonisation with devotion also growing closer to home in the Philippines and New Zealand.
She believes the young Australian laywoman was an inspiration in a similar way to St Teresa of Calcutta, especially through her unfailing care for the disadvantaged.
“I can see Eileen and St Teresa of Calcutta, lover of Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor, being wonderful friends in heaven, a congruence of the work in Coogee and later in Calcutta. Eileen is known for saying, ‘Here we begin the work of heaven’, care for Jesus in the sick poor, the neglected, in those who struggle to believe in their own dignity”, she said.
Mrs Carleton said in a climate when there are many public attacks on the culture of life and where the elderly and the sick are often not treated with sufficient dignity, Eileen O’Connor’s life should serve as an enduring inspiration.
“If you fast forward 100 years after her death to the current day, you can easily see that we live in a strong culture of death”, she said.
“It is definitely the ‘throwaway’ culture that scorns the sick and dying and labels them as a burden to society. To put it bluntly, these people are told that they are better off dead. This is where Eileen comes in!
“Eileen’s very being teaches us the stark opposite of the culture of death! Her essence is that of the dignity of human life! Eileen’s small and fragile body was consumed with the most intense pain her entire lifetime! She was bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound, yet she accomplished more in her short 28 years than you or I will ever accomplish in our lifetimes! This little woman embodies human dignity itself!
“God gave the gift of her life to the people of Australia in the early 1900s to help the sick poor, but he also gave her to us in 2022 to reteach us the dignity of life! Her story is timeless and I can’t wait to see how her life will continue to be an example for us as her cause for canonisation unfolds!”
With thanks to Michael Kenny and The Catholic Weekly, where this article originally appeared.