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The case for Australia's next saint

More than 100 pilgrims gathered yesterday in the small chapel of the congregational order of Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor on the 84th anniversary of the death of one of Australia's saints-in-waiting, Eileen O'Connor.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that as the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, considers whether he should take O'Connor's case for canonisation to the Vatican, Bernadette Salame (pictured at Eileen O'Connor's grave), from Kingsford, has no doubt she is Australia's "best-kept secret".

Suffering crippling pain caused by a childhood spinal fracture and from the complications of tuberculosis, O'Connor founded the Coogee-based congregational order dedicated to tending the poor in their homes at the turn of the 20th century.

Never growing beyond the height of a child, she was famed for her feistiness, determination and conviction. She clashed repeatedly with the church hierarchy in Australia and in the Vatican. At one time O'Connor took defamation action against church authorities, although this proved unsuccessful. She died aged 28 in 1921, never a religious sister but connected with visions of the Virgin Mary.

When her body was exhumed to be transferred to its final resting place beneath the order's chapel floor, her body was found to be incorrupted, her hair still glossy, her nails perfect and the body not cold - the signs of a saint.

Every 10 January, except for the past two years, the top to O'Connor's vault is removed to reveal her coffin upon which pilgrims lay rosary beads.

Travelling to Coogee from Melbourne each year, Mauritius-born Noelle Parsons has no doubts about O'Connor's saintliness. Chronic back pain had plagued her since 1992. She "discovered" O'Connor in 2000 and two years later two of three bulging discs had, to the surprise of her doctors, repaired themselves.

Ms Salame testifies to a friend who touched O'Connor's bed on display in the order's museum. She "felt an electric shock up her arm and she's never had shoulder pain again".

The order's head, Sister Anne O'Shaughnessy, is careful not to overstate claims of healing or to push hard the case for sainthood.

Still, a sizeable following of O'Connor is building. Followers pray in her name and, while this is a prerequisite for the case for sainthood, each of her devotees knows that promoting her name and good works must begin in earnest if O'Connor is to step out from the shadows of Mary MacKillop, who has already been declared by the Pope as blessed.

The congregation sisters of Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor now number 16. The campaign for sainthood may - unless the Vatican's need for evidence of miracles is softened, as is now under discussion - have to outlast that of the order's sisters. "We might never see it [finalised] and others may need to take the case on," Sister Anne says.

The case for Australia's first saint by the seaside (Sydney Morning Herald 11/1/05)

Eileen O'Connor & Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor (Radio National's, The Ark)
Our Lady's Nurses for the Poor (National Vocations Directory)

Eileen O'Connor - Australia's second saint? (CathNews 29/10/04)
Little rebel on long trip to sainthood (CathNews 9/12/04)

11 Jan 2005