Mother Mary Philomene Maguire

A biography written by Helena Doherty rsm

Mother Philomene Maguire lived in Ireland during the harrowing days of the Famine and its aftermath when the Catholic poor were destitute with thousands emigrating to foreign lands to eke out a better life for themselves and their families. Many died along the roads of our country. It was out of this scene that Mother Philomene Maguire set out on her foundation to the North Eastern corner of Ireland predominately populated by the Scottish Presbyterians, who with their admirable Protestant work ethic had greatly prospered as farmers, linen manufacturers and in trade.

As the destitute famine stricken Catholics flocked to Belfast in search of work, their circumstances became more and more dire - families crowded into small insanitary dwellings surrounding the mills and factories. Sickness and disease were rampant. There was very little help for the Catholic poor and it was this situation which led some Catholic gentlemen to approach Mother Vincent Whitty to send Sisters to Belfast. The Bishop of Down and Connor had already requested Sisters for Downpatrick , but was willing to allow the Sisters to go to Belfast first, having received a promise of Sisters as soon as Sisters could be spared from Belfast.

In 1853 Mother Vincent Whitty chose a small band of Sisters for the Mission in the North. The Sister chosen as leader of the Down and Connor foundation was Sister Philomene Maguire. She was one of four Sisters who entered Baggot Street shortly after the death of Mother McAuley. They were the daughters of Richard Maguire, a wealthy grazier of Newgrange, County Meath, and his wife Margaret. The eldest was Elizabeth, who with her sister Annie, entered Baggot St. Community on 1 May 1843, received the habit and the name Sister M.Cecelia Xavier and was professed on 26 November 1845. On 26 September 1848, she was elected Novice Mistress and on May 25 1855, Superior of Baggot St. Community, a position which she held for one term. In 1859, she set sail to make a foundation in Geelong, Australia, where she died on 30 August 1879.

The third sister Maria entered Baggot St on 15 August 1850 and received the name Sister M. Bernard at her reception. While still a novice she was sent out with a small group to found a Convent in Loughrea, Co. Galway. She returned to Baggot St., and was sent out once more to Ballinasloe, a daughter house of Loughrea, in March 1853. She made her Profession in Loughrea, while still a member of the Baggot St. Community, to which she was again to return, only to be sent out for her third foundation to Longford, in April 1861; was first Superior there and filled this office for twelve years and Mother Assistant for a further four years. Her health broke down, and she was hospitalised in Belgium, where she died on 30 October, 1882.

The fourth and youngest sister, Henrietta, entered Baggot St. and received the name Sister M. Joseph Aloysius. In May, 1861 she went to Belfast and was professed there in October of that year. In 1864 she went on the foundation to Ashton - under - Lyne, in England, and later to Bolton. She returned with the Bolton Community to Ireland to make a foundation in Belturbet, County Cavan in 1868. She died in Belturbet on 4 April 1931.


Mother Philomene entered Baggot St. Convent where she was received and professed on the same dates as her sister Elizabeth and received the name Sister M. Philomene. On 17 March 1853, she was missioned to lead the new foundation to Belfast and on 16 January 1854, she, accompanied by Sister M. Ignatius Crolly, Sister Mary Lister and a young monitress, Kate Molloy, set out from Dublin for their journey north. Sister Philomene got very sick on the way, and stopped off at Lurgan but continued later in the evening where a warm welcome awaited them. The Sisters were accommodated temporarily in a large dwelling in the very centre of the town - a fashionable house facing the White Linen Hall. Not far away were the mills and factories and poverty-stricken hovels of the poor. Within days of their arrival the Sisters had commenced their rounds of visitation and also started day and evening schools, for children and for young women who worked all day in the mills but who literally besieged the Sisters' dwellings in the evenings for places in the classes in which were taught reading and writing and the rudiments of arithmetic. Education was a major urgency of the time. The Sisters' evening classes became renowned.

On 17 March 1854, Sister M. Philomene was appointed Superior of the new small Community by the Bishop, Dr. Denvir. She was a power of strength and a figure of admiration not only for the poorer Catholic population and the more well to do Catholics and clergy, but also for the members of the Protestant business class who gave the Sisters welcome and support.

She was affable, learned and accomplished; she had a countenance expressive of an enduring enthusiasm; no task was too difficult for her, no check, nor cross nor frustration could apparently sink her heart or diminish her hopefulness.

By 1855 the new Community was firmly established in Belfast. There were now six professed Sisters (Sister Mary Lister had returned to Dublin), three Novices and two postulants, and the time had come to make the foundation to Downpatrick as promised. On 21 June 1855, Mother Philomene brought her small party of Sisters to Downpatrick - Sisters M. Gonzaga Morrin, M. Aloysius Brady, M. Borgia Fortune and M. De Sales Walsh.

Within a short time they were firmly established there, conducting their schools and engaging in the usual works of Mercy and eventually building their gracious Convent. Mother Philomene did not remain in Downpatrick, but returned to Belfast to resume the leadership there and soon set about building of a "proper Convent". Land was purchased on the outskirts of the city and the building of the Convent and schools started in 1855 and in September 1857 the work was completed and the Sisters moved into their new home. The new Convent was a beautiful structure of red brick and Scotch sandstone, designed by the "Irish Pugin", James J. Mc Carthy, the great Gothic revivalist. The Convent was named St. Paul's. Soon schools and an orphanage were functioning on the Crumlin Road, served by the Sisters in residence. The original schools and a penitentiary in the centre of the town were retained and the Sisters travelled each day to attend to these. New members were joining the community and the Sisters were much involved in the local parishes and institutions. However disaster struck. The building funds had not kept pace with the speed of construction . By 1861 payment for the building was much in arrears, and pressure was put on the community for thousands of pounds overdue to the contractor who could not wait any longer. Mother Philomene confronted with this great debt, appealed to the bishop and Archbishop, but to no avail. She was advised to return to Dublin. The Sisters had to leave the Convent, the novices went to Downpatrick and the Sisters were given shelter by some great benefactors. Eventually the cloud lifted. Funds were raised, debts were paid and the Community returned to their beautiful Convent to take up again the full complement of their work.

By 1862, Mother Philomene had served as Superior of the Belfast Community for nine years, so her gaze was fixed on pastures new and she had a pioneering spirit. She heard the call to serve the thousands of Catholic labourers and their families in the crowded industrial town of Britain. Requests from the Bishops of Birmingham and of Salford reached Belfast, and in the Summer of 1862 Mother Philomene felt it was time to move on. Accompanied by Sisters Ignatius Crolly, De Sales Walsh and two novices, she set off for Worcester. Sisters from Dublin and England joined her but not much is known of their work there. She remained there for seven years, but anti-Catholic hostility and antagonism proved so aggressive that eventually the Sisters were advised by the clergy and people of the town not to remain. The 1860s were years of great social and religious unrest, fuelled by the slowness of economic and political reform.

The decision to leave England was clinched by a request from her sister in Belturbet to assist with a young foundation in Ballyjamesduff, a branch of Belturbet. Mother Philomene and her whole Community came back to Ireland in June 1869. Tenders for proposed additions and alterations to Ballyjamesduff Convent appeared in the Anglo Celt on 26 June 1869. The Community from Worcester had been welcomed in Ballyjamesduff. They once again got involved in all the works of the mercy Apostolate and on 28 September 1870, the local parish priest commended the 'nuns' for giving schooling to the 'high and the humble' caring for the poor and the sick and taking in neglected female children to whom they gave a 'course of education' which would help them if they were to emigrate.

Things had gone well in Ballyjamesduff, but again Mother Philomene's pioneering spirit was unsatisfied and her gaze was set towards the distant continent where, her sister Mother M. Cecelia Xavier was already in Geelong where she had founded a Mercy Community. On a visit to Baggot Street, Mother Philomene met Bishop Goold from Victoria, Australia, who informed her that he was in great need of Sisters to work with Irish immigrants who were settled in the Western District of his jurisdiction. Her zeal evidently enthused her faithful companions for, early in 1872, she and all eight of her Community set sail for Australia.

After a three month voyage from London on the ‘Windsor Castle,’ the Sisters caught a glimpse of the Victorian coastline in May 1872. Mother Philomene and her Assistant left the ‘Windsor Castle’ for the pilot boat and landed in Queenscliff, where they were met by Mother Xavier Maguire and went on to Geelong. Here they heard of a property suitable for a Convent was for sale in Warrnambool. By 17 May, negotiations were complete and the nuns purchased the property known as Wyton House. The six remaining Sisters remained on the ‘Windsor Castle’ until it berthed at Williamstown on 6 May 1872. Here they were met by the Fitzroy Mercy Sisters, probably by Mother Ursula Frayne and a companion. They rested with the Sisters for a few days before travelling on to Geelong where they remained until the property deal was completed in Warrnambool. On arrival in Warrnambool, the Sisters were met by a large group of parishioners and driven to their new home.

By 31 May the Sisters were advertising in the Warrnambool Examiner that they would be opening a day and boarding school for young ladies at the Convent of Mercy, Wyton on 1 July 1872. Preparations began immediately, but due to lack of funds, the Sisters had to do most of the work themselves. The school was not confined to taking in Catholic girls only, Protestant and young boys also came to the Convent school for education.. This select school once functioning, the nuns were somewhat self sufficient and able to branch out into other apostolates - taking over schools and branching into social work - working with the poor, especially with the wives and children of miners who had been killed in the deep-lead mining on the Ballarat fields. The Sisters turned their attention to the many orphans and a first extension to Wyton was a wing built in 1881 to accommodate the Orphans, leaving a debt of £3000. By 1888, the Sisters of Nazareth came to Ballarat and took over the care of the Warrnambool orphans.

The Sisters continued their good work in Warrnambool. The facade of Wyton House was renewed in Gothic style (as was Mother Philomene's first foundation house in Belfast) and to add to the 1881 orphanage wing, a chapel was built in 1887 and a school wing added in 1906.

From Warrnambool. Mother Philomene Maguire sent out a branch of the Order to Ballarat East in 1881, which in turn established a house in Colac within the decade (1888). In 1907 the Warrnam-bool Sisters missioned Sisters to Terang.

Mother Philomene died in the Convent in Warrnambool in 1888 and is buried there.


Information for the contents of this paper is largely taken from Marie Duddy, RSM, Story of the Sisters of Mercy of the Diocese of Down and Connor, Ireland 1854 - 1994. My thanks to Sister Marie for allowing me to use this information.