November 9, 2023. It is with deep sadness that Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor has announced the death of Sister Margaret Mary Birgan oln in her 58th year of religious life. A well-known and respected figure in Newcastle’s Catholic community for more than 40 years, Sr Margaret Mary died peacefully at Lake Macquarie Private Hospital on 9th November 2023. She was accompanied by family, friends and companions from Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor and the Sisters of Charity during her journey home.
Born in Brisbane, Sr Margaret Mary was educated at St Ignatius Primary School, Toowong, and then at All Hallows’ Convent School, Fortitude Valley. Speaking in a profile collected for the archives of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor a decade ago, Sr Margaret Mary said she grew up surrounded by love in her family. “My father died when I was only seven years old but through my mother, my three brothers and I were brought up with great love – love for each other and love for our faith,” she said. “Daily devotion to our Blessed Mother, Mary, was a way of life. “It was developed then and continues to this day.”
During her youth, Margaret became aware of the lonely plight of elderly ‘shut-ins’ and the desperate poverty of people who were living in the midst of some of Brisbane’s more affluent suburbs. She felt compelled to help. “All my life, I knew I wanted to be a nurse and somewhere there I also felt a persistent calling to religious life,” she said. “It was a simple desire to ‘Love the Lord, peel potatoes and swell the numbers if that was His Will. Because I had been given so much love, I felt I had so much to give.
“I had a close affinity with the Brown Nurses but I wanted to make sure I had something to bring, so I continued with my nursing training. Theresa ‘Cissie’ McLaughlin (one of the foundation nurses and the congregation’s first Mother Superior after it was recognised as a religious order in 1953) told me to join when I was ready.”
Sr Margaret Mary trained at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Brisbane; Queen Victoria Hospital, Melbourne; and Maternal & Child Welfare, Brisbane. “When I finally decided to join in 1966, a great calm came over me,” she said. “I have never experienced such a sense of spiritual peace.”
Sr Margaret Mary worked at the congregation’s ministries in Brisbane, Newcastle, Kings Cross and Mt Druitt during her long vocation. “When I began, welfare services – both government and non-government – were not as prevalent as they are now,” she said.
“We were dealing with the poorest of the poor, which was heart wrenching, often physically draining and at times, repelling. Many of these people had nobody but us. Often we have been the only people standing by their graves in silent witness to their precious existence as a worthwhile person.
"Even today, many of the poor, sick and disadvantaged – the mentally ill, the desperately poor, the aged without families, the mothers with children – don’t have the skills, the physical capability or the spirit to reach out and make their plight known. These people are beaten before they even start. These are Eileen’s ‘special poor’ and wherever they are is where we are needed.”
Sr Margaret Mary paid tribute to the many benefactors and volunteers who have assisted the Brown Nurses over the years. “I am inspired by the love and generosity of the committees of men and women, especially here in Newcastle, who work tirelessly to provide the financial assistance that allow us to continue on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
“Many good people really want to help the poor and they do it through us. We couldn’t survive without their vision and assistance. They too inspire me and help me to keep focused on our life’s work as our prayer to start the day begins, “All for Mary, with Mary, all for Souls”.
Sr Margaret Mary, who served as Congregational Leader of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor between 2011 and 2017 and later as the Sister Responsible for the Cause of Eileen O’Connor, said she never regretted her vocation. “God’s love gave me my religious life and it continues to sustain me today,” she said.
“Would I do it again? Oh, yes! There have definitely been physical, emotional and mental challenges at a personal level but I really do believe that we stand on sacred ground when we stand with the poor and people in need. I recall with comfort the truth in Eileen O’Connor’s own words: It is worthwhile!”
Sr Margaret Mary is pre-deceased by her parents, William (Jock) and Philomene (Phyllis) Birgan, who were married at St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane, in 1935. She is survived by her three brothers and their spouses, Laurence and Dorothy; Jim and Maureen; and Michael (Paddy) and Carmel.
A Mass of Christian Burial for Sister Margaret Mary Birgan oln will be offered at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hamilton, NSW, on Thursday 16 November 2023 commencing at 11 am.
Then Congregational Leader Sr Margaret Mary Birgan oln addresses the Mass of Thanksgiving marking the Centenary of the Foundation of Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor held at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney in 2013.