Mother Ursula Frayne

A biography written by Berenice Kerr rsm

In the archives of the Mercy International Centre in Baggot Street, Dublin is a series of pen and ink illustrations sketched by ‘A Sister of the Religious Order of Our Lady of Mercy’ in 1840 during her visit to several of the Irish convents. Copies of the originals can be found in many Mercy institutions and places of living.

The sketches illustrate the early Sisters of Mercy engaged in ministry, more specifically in performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. They depict the sisters teaching, caring for the sick and dying, visiting the poor in their homes or in prison. While the drawings are certainly not portraits, it is obvious that they are modelled on situations taken from real life. It is possible, even probable, that the author had witnessed some of the scenes she sketched in Booterstown, a branch house of Baggot Street situated about seven kilometres to the south. We now know that the sketches are those of Mary Clare Agnew and we also know that the superior of Booterstown in 1840 was Clara Frayne - Sister Ursula Frayne. Is it too big a leap of logic to conclude that amid the sketches there is at least one depicting Ursula Frayne carrying out the Works of Mercy? We will never be sure but it is a tantalising thought!

In Australia Ursula Frayne is honoured as the first Mercy Sister to set foot on our soil.  On January 7 1846 she and seven companions – three professed sisters, three novices and an intending postulant, impelled by Mercy, waded ashore at Fremantle, Western Australia.

Important though this be, Ursula had played a part in the Mercy story prior to her Australian mission. She was the eleventh woman to be professed by Catherine McAuley and, having received the entirety of her religious training from her, without doubt took her as a role model.1  As postulant and novice, as trainee teacher and friend, then as nurse and carer Ursula formed a bond with Catherine and absorbed her ideals. She was named as one of the sisters charged with preserving the spirit of the young Institute.2 Ursula it was who was called to Baggot Street late in 1841 to care for the ailing Catherine and it was she who informed the communities of her death.3

Entry for Ursula (Clara) Frayne in the Register of the Convent of the B.V.M. (Blessed Virgin Mary) Mercy of Dublin. © 1992 Mercy International Association

The following year Ursula led a foundation to Newfoundland where, before too long, she was called to put into practice Catherine’s injunction to preserve the spirit of the Institute. Rather than sanction episcopal interference in matters of the Rule, she returned to Dublin. When, in 1845, John Brady, the newly appointed Bishop of Perth, which comprised all of Western Australia, arrived at Baggot Street recruiting sisters, Ursula was an outstanding candidate for the position of leader of the foundation, the lack of a good reference notwithstanding.4

Thus it was that 170 years ago the sisters arrived in Australia, the most precious item in their luggage being the good news of God’s mercy interpreted in the charism of Catherine McAuley.

With regard to that arrival two stories have embedded themselves in Mercy folklore.  The first is Ursula’s impression of the two Aborigines she saw on the banks of the Swan River - ‘perfectly erect, very tall and most majestic in appearance, as if they felt they were the lords of the soil … They seem to be remarkably intelligent’.6 Ursula was subsequently to carry out a rewarding ministry to the Aboriginal people, one built on the respect evident in that statement.  The other story concerns the discovery that the Bishop had made no arrangements for the sisters’ accommodation in Perth - in fact no one in the colony had any inkling of their arrival. Her assessment of it all - ‘We stood in the wilds of Australia … and … we could truly say with our Divine Model, “we have nowhere to rest our heads”’7 – fails to recognise that this did not augur well for the future.

Let us pause for a moment to examine the context into which those pioneer sisters had arrived. In Dublin, when making his plea to the superior of Baggot Street, Bishop Brady depicted a town where, in seven schools, four thousand pupils awaited instruction. In addition he referred to a neglected indigenous population for whom he intended to open schools where they could be brought to Christianity. Some of what the bishop stated was indeed true; the rest was pure fantasy.

The Swan River colony had been founded in 1829, two decades before the sisters’ arrival. It was a vast area, sparsely populated. Its early years were characterised by slow economic growth with few managing to become wealthy.  The Catholic population comprised mainly labourers or indentured servants. John Brady had established a mission there in 1843, and, two years later, was named its first bishop largely on the basis of his report to Rome that there were 8,000 Catholics in the colony and two million indigenous people. In the light of the official Census of 1848 which reported the total number of Europeans in the colony as 4,622 of whom 337 were Catholic, we can safely conclude that accuracy was not Brady’s strong point.Neither, it seems, was administration although he did have a strong pastoral sense.

What became apparent quite early is that Brady held in little regard his agreement, signed in Dublin, to uphold the duty of ‘obedience of the Superioress in Australia to the Rev Mother Superioress of St Catherine’s [Dublin] in all matters regarding Constitutions, Rules, Duties, Practices, etc.’.9 He wanted the sisters to obey him in all matters and Ursula, schooled in Catherine’s teaching, was not inclined to give him absolute authority.

This set the scene for the relationship between Ursula as superior and Brady as bishop. In November 1846 Ursula reported to Cecilia Marmion that the bishop was insisting that she obtain his permission for any persons to come to the convent, the doctor included. Then he tried to pressure her to allow the novice Sister Baptist O’Donnell to be finally professed nine months early.10 Ursula’s refusals and her reminders about the agreement he signed in Dublin met with rage, formal interdict, threat of excommunication.11 Later, in response to a perceived insult, Brady refused to admit two young women as postulants. This time Ursula threatened to abandon the mission and return to Ireland - indeed Cecilia Marmion had previously sent the wherewithal for her to do so.12 Eventually Brady consented but what little trust there had been between them had been seriously eroded.

The misunderstandings between Ursula and the bishop were played out on a larger stage, however. Within the  Perth diocese mismanagement had escalated to momentous proportions and financial ruin was imminent. One writer speaks of leadership problems having ‘spiralled out of control and created a chain of discontent’.13 Joseph Serra, a Spanish Benedictine from the Abbey of New Norcia to the north of Perth, was appointed the Coadjutor Bishop in 1849 with a mandate to fix the finances. The following year in the wake of a very public and acerbic quarrel, Brady was ordered to resign and Serra was made diocesan administrator, retaining this position until 1862.  The politics behind these decisions were complex and the fallout bitter. Although he left his diocese in 1852 following continued disputes with Serra, Brady never resigned and died in Europe in 1871, still officially Bishop of Perth.

Against this disturbing backdrop Ursula and her sisters continued to carry out the mission of mercy: opening schools, instructing in the faith, caring for orphans, visiting prisons and raising money to support these ventures because, more often than not, the diocesan coffers were empty.  But try as they might they could not avoid being caught up in the ‘chain of discontent’.  Ursula took the position of strict neutrality and she advised those around her to follow her example.14 But her ingenuity and her resourcefulness continually met with hostility.  Prepared to endure Brady’s humiliations when she was the only one affected, she became uncompromising when those in her charge were attacked.15

This was the Ursula with whom those in authority could not cope.  Bishop Serra, in charge of the diocese from 1850, expected the sisters to live a cloistered life similar to that of Spanish orders of female religious.16 The active ministry of the ‘walking nuns’ of Catherine McAuley depicted in Clare Agnew’s sketches was incomprehensible to him. So when he began to make demands which seemed to her to be overstepping the limits of his authority, she became assertive, refusing to comply.

Is it that she had a problem with authority? Could it be that she was in some way responsible for provoking the ire of bishops, coadjutors and vicars general? Was it utterly impossible to work collaboratively with her? Did she deliberately set out to antagonise? These questions merit some examination. 

Ursula Frayne, it must be said, was a feisty woman. She could never have merited Catherine’s epithet of ‘creep-mouse’! When it came to the mission, she had the soul of a zealot; when it came to carrying out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy she was indefatigable; when it came to obedience to the Rule and Constitutions in which she had been trained by Catherine, she was uncompromising and when it came to preventing what was tantamount to interference in the internal affairs of the sisters, she was adamant.

It was inevitable, therefore, that she would clash with those who considered themselves deserving of absolute and unquestioning obedience. Those in charge of the diocese of Perth in the first two decades of its existence were not given to accepting women who could make decisions and whose executive capacity was at least as good as  their own.  Serra was difficult. He has been described as authoritarian, vain, imperious, bad-tempered and touchy, suffering from what today would be termed a persecution complex.17 He reported Ursula and her sisters to Rome describing them as ‘contumacious malcontents’ and the ‘Guildford Rebels’.18 Vicar General Urquhart,19 obviously in a fit of pique, wrote to Vincent Whitty, the then superior of Baggot Street with the following complaint:20

I have been considered not worthy of trust and confidence by the great, independent, self-willed and master-minded Madam Mary Ursula Frayne who acted with so much secrecy, trickery and legerdemain.

These accusations do not sit well in the record of one schooled in the way of Mercy by Catherine McAuley.

There must be some reason why there was such dissension and discord in the Perth Diocese during its early days.21 Actually there are many and, in all fairness, neither Ursula herself nor her sisters was responsible. The frontier characteristics of the Swan River colony in the mid-nineteenth century demanded competent leaders and administrators.  The behaviour of the men in authority in the Perth Diocese during the first two decades showed them to be inept, imprudent and belligerent and the fights among them caused great damage. Ursula in particular, but the other sisters as well, unfortunately was caught in the cross-fire.22 

Ursula was what we would today call an ‘ecclesial woman’.  She was conscious of her role in the church and, despite its imperfections, tried desperately not to cause scandal or to promote disunity. She was not unreflective, nor was she reluctant to seek advice. During the quarrels with Brady, for example, she questioned if she were ‘over-scrupulous with regard to the Rules and Customs of Baggot Street’.23 In need of advice during Serra’s time, she wrote asking counsel and guidance from Cardinal Cullen in Dublin.24 In 1856 an invitation from James Goold, Archbishop of Melbourne, provided Ursula the opportunity to leave the bitter disputes in the West and start afresh in his diocese. For three months during 1856 Ursula and some of her sisters had been confined to a house in Guildford under a sentence of excommunication. Once the ban was lifted it was clear to Ursula that if the work of God were to flourish in the West it would be better if she were somewhere else. Goold’s request seemed to indicate the will of God for her.  Thus in January 1857 she departed from Fremantle, Melbourne bound. 

Before we allow Ursula to leave Perth and Western Australia, let us pause to assess her contribution there. Let us consider if it was all worthwhile.  It is important to remember that in the eleven years she spent in the West, no native-born Australians entered the Order. The entire workforce had to be recruited from overseas – notably Ireland.  The demands of the harvest always exceeded the capacity of the labourers. And money was always scarce, forcing her to use every facet of her imagination to raise a few shillings to support the ministry.

Despite these constraints, Ursula can be credited with opening the first Mercy school in Australia.25 She introduced secondary education into Western Australia and founded the first permanent school there.26 She cared for orphaned children; she established relationships of respect and mutuality with the Indigenous people providing shelter and education for their children. And this in a remote and poor colony where church relationships were at best incompetent, at worst scandalous.  Faithfully she had fulfilled the request of Bishop Brady for sisters to ‘break the bread of instruction’ for the Catholic population and minister to the needs of the Indigenous people.27  

The Melbourne to which she arrived was vastly different.It was an established city with a population of more than 450,000 and a reputation for elegance and culture. But it was not all polish and opulence. The gold rushes had brought wealth to some but on the other hand had left many families deserted and destitute. Shanty towns had sprung up in the less salubrious areas. There the underprivileged - mostly women and children - tried to live, beset by all the problems of urban poverty.

Into this city stepped Ursula Frayne, anxious to begin her mercy mission. Goold had secured a property for the sisters in Fitzroy.  There, six weeks after their arrival, Ursula and her two companions opened the first Catholic secondary school in Victoria, the pre-cursor of the Academy of Mary Immaculate which still occupies the site. Her initial plan of establishing a school for the poor had been modified by the bishop who suggested that she turn her attention to educating ‘the poor rich’ who in his estimation had a greater need. Ursula complied with his wishes. Additions to the property soon enabled her to add boarding facilities and cater for additional students.  Young ladies studying at Mary Immaculate were taught the traditional curriculum for pension schools but they were also instilled with a strong sense of faith-inspired social justice.  Once she was satisfied she had fulfilled the bishop’s request she turned to what was closer to her heart – a school for needy children, subsidised by the fees paid at the pension school.  More followed.

Ursula’s ministry in Melbourne was not confined to education, however.  As early as 1860 she had established in Nicholson Street Fitzroy a House of Mercy for unprotected girls of good character, in particular unsupported Irish immigrants. Each week the Sisters would go to the wharves to find girls in need of care. They would offer them accommodation and training in the skills necessary to enter domestic service. In her first ten years in Melbourne Ursula is said to have assisted more than three hundred ‘girls at risk’ to find employment in ‘respectable’ establishments.28

In 1861, in response to a request from the bishop, the sisters commenced ministry in an orphanage for boys and in another for girls, children orphaned or neglected as a result of their parents following the dream of making a fortune in the gold fields.  Ursula was the official administrator of both for more than ten years. During that period there were two government inquiries and numerous state inspections all of which noted the quality of the care the children received.  The cleanliness of the buildings was publicly acknowledged as was the fact that during the measles and scarlet fever epidemics of 1861-1876 there were few deaths at the orphanages – directly attributed to the care of the Sisters of Mercy.

A traditional work of Sisters of Mercy is visiting those in prison. It goes without saying that Ursula and her sisters carried out this ministry in both Perth and Melbourne. Amongst the many inmates visited by the sisters, the stories of two are remarkable.

The infamous ‘Hurford’ case in Western Australia involved a Catholic woman, Bridget Hurford, who was convicted of murder and hanged outside Perth jail in 1855.  As Ursula was in Guildford when it all took place, she was not directly involved. Nevertheless the arrest, trial, sentencing and execution had a profound effect on her. She described in a letter how the sisters visited Bridget, instructed her and were a comforting presence on the night before her execution. Written many years later, the letter is palpable testimony to Ursula’s empathy for a suffering woman.29

The second story concerns a much more notorious prisoner, namely the bushranger Ned Kelly. Following his trial and sentence Ned requested a visit from the Sisters of Mercy to ‘receive instruction and consolation’.  Ursula’s formal request to visit Ned was refused.  However, there is evidence to suggest that in the weeks prior to his execution Ned’s sisters Kitty and Margaret stayed with the sisters in Fitzroy and were thus able to spend time with him.  Mercy will find a way.30

Ursula’s years in Melbourne stand in stark contrast to those in the West. There are no indications of quarrels between herself and Goold. In fact it is said that she ‘never expressed any dissatisfaction with him in the twenty-eight years he was her bishop’.31

When she arrived in Melbourne and found she had to pay off the mortgage on the Fitzroy property - £2600- she must have wondered for a moment if the financial struggles of the West were revisiting her. However, satisfied with the bishop’s explanation, with her customary vigour she set out on foot seeking interest-free loans to enable her to pay the first instalment of the mortgage. Having perfected in Perth the art of fundraising, she wore out many a pair of shoes raising money for her building projects.  She was blessed as well to have many local girls join the ranks of the sisters. In her first ten years twenty three postulants entered, eleven of whom persevered.

Ursula was not perfect, however. She found it difficult to cope with the illness and death of her assistant Sister Catherine Gogarty, the stress of which had an adverse effect on her own health.32 And the quarrel with Xavier Maguire, herself a ‘first generation’ Sister of Mercy and the leader of the Mercy foundation in Geelong indicates, at the very least, a certain stubbornness.33 After the falling out, neither, it seemed, was inclined to repair the damage.  It was left to Vincent Whitty, another of Catherine’s novices, visiting Melbourne en route to her new foundation in Brisbane, to restore good relations. Xavier subsequently wrote to Baggot Street:34

I am rejoicing to tell you … I am friends in Melbourne again. I am so happy about it for besides the disedification given by our coldness it is to me a great comfort to be able to speak to dear M Ursula. She will be a great help...

Who knows where the fault lay in this squabble?  Was it a case of ‘sibling rivalry’? Whoever was responsible, the maintenance of bad blood does point to an incapacity to ‘bear wrongs patiently’, maybe in both of them.

Ursula must have counted it a blessing when, in 1883 she was visited by a man who claimed to be Willie, the long-lost nephew of Catherine McAuley. In Geelong Willie had made several attempts to contact Xavier Maguire who seemed to doubt his story.  Not so Ursula. Overjoyed, she made him welcome, giving him the address of another of Catherine’s novices Frances Warde, now in the United States, and urging him to write to her.35 

Little did she know that within ten years one of Willie’s daughters, Frances, would join the Sisters of Mercy and exercise a long and fruitful ministry in Kyneton, a Victorian country town.36

Ursula died in June 1885. She had been ill for some time beforehand but illness had not diminished her zeal. She was buried in the grounds of Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, and later reinterred in a chapel built on the site.  At the time of her death there were thirty eight sisters in the Melbourne community.

As Mercy people celebrate 170 years since Ursula’s arrival in Australia we can only guess at the number of children and young girls who, thanks to her, received an education; the number of orphans and neglected children who were cared for and given skills to equip them for later life; the number of young women who were sheltered at the House of Mercy and found suitable employment. We can only guess at the number of people she visited, the sick she comforted, the dying she consoled. 

And her impact? Perhaps it is the generations of women who, following her, brought the message of God’s mercy to Australia, be it to the East or the West of the continent, in foundations from Ireland, England, New Zealand or Argentina and who attracted Australian women to join in their mission. Perhaps it is evident in young people in Mercy Schools who strive for justice, who carry out the works of mercy in various aspects of their lives. Perhaps it is the many faith-filled mercy women and men who work alongside sisters and who find their inspiration and fulfilment in Catherine McAuley’s particular interpretation of mercy.

In St George’s Terrace, Perth, a bronze plaque honours Ursula for her contribution to education. In that same city a diocesan school is named after her. In Mercy institutions there are buildings named after her. There are Ursula Frayne scholarships, foundations, debating competitions, mental health centres …

I believe that Ursula would not be particularly interested in any of these. She would urge us to look beyond her. She would say quite emphatically that this was not about her.  It was about the mission of God as it was refracted through the Mercy lens of Catherine McAuley. 

2015 was named by Pope Francis as the Year of Consecrated Life.  The pope called on all religious to ‘wake up the world’.  Ursula Frayne woke up her world.  She woke it up and demanded that it recognise its obligation in justice to pay attention to the needs of the underprivileged. This was Catherine’s legacy to her and it is her legacy to us. 

Were the ‘Sister of the Religious Order of Our Lady of Mercy’, (Mary Clare Agnew) to visit convents or places of mercy ministry in Australia in 2016 she would see what she saw in 1840 –  Sisters of Mercy engaged in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. And she would see more. Close at hand, engaged in those same works of mercy she would observe mercy women and men who likewise have been inspired by Catherine’s vision. On the surface her sketches might differ from those she made in 1840 but in essence they would illustrate the same reality. Among Mercy people engaged in Mercy ministries in Perth and in Melbourne, she would discern a direct and affectionate link to Ursula Frayne. She would find, however, that the link went beyond Ursula. She would perceive that it was a link to Catherine and through Catherine to God who is infinite Mercy.


  • Allen, M.G., The Labourers’ Friends, Melbourne, 1989.
  • Killerby, C.K-, Ursula Frayne, a Biography,  Fremantle, 1996.
  • O’Brien, O, Martin Griver Unearthed ,Strathfield, 2014. 
  • O’Dowd, C., ‘Bickering Bishops at the Swan River’, The Record, 8/10/13,
  • Sullivan, M.C., Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy, Dublin, 1995.         
  • The Inquirer: January 14 1846,
  • Walsh, A., A Woman of Mercy,Melbourne, 1997. 


  1. She received the habit on January 20 1835 and was professed January 25 1837.  Clare Augustine Moore, one of Ursula’s contemporaries renowned for her artistic ability, illuminated Ursula’s details in the register of entry and profession with a painting of Saint Ursula. Killerby, C.K-, Ursula Frayne, a Biography (Fremantle, 1996), p.21. 
  2. A number of Sisters were named in a codicil to Catherine’s will and were given this charge. See Killerby op.cit., p.46.
  3. ‘Our dear and much beloved Reverend Mother is gone to receive the reward of her good works. She departed this life after receiving the last sacraments between the hours of 7 and 8 yesterday evening. May almighty God strengthen us all and enable us to submit with calm resignation to His hold will in this heavy affliction.’ Sullivan , M.C., Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy (Dublin, 1995), p.25.
  4. The diocese of Perth was erected in 1845 and John Brady consecrated as its first bishop on May 9 of that year.
  5. According to the local newspaper the missionary party comprised ‘[T]he Rev. Dr. Brady … accompanied by six Sisters of the Order of Mercy, and by a numerous body of Priests and Assistants, whose mission, we believe, has reference, not only to the spiritual wants of our Roman Catholic brethren, but has been directed also for the conversion and improvement of the Aboriginal tribes.’ The Inquirer: January 14 1846, accessed 03/08/15.
  6. Ursula Frayne to Cecilia Marmion, 10 January 1846, quoted in Killerby, op. cit. p.111.
  7. Frayne, Ursula,Sketches of Conventual Life in the Bush, letter Seventh, quoted in ibid.,p.113.   
  8. See O’Brien, Odhran, Martin Griver Unearthed (Strathfield, 2014), pp.48-50 for a discussion of the state of affairs in the colony mid-nineteenth century.
  9. Killerby, op.cit, p.95.
  10. His motive, it seems, was to obtain the 200 pounds Baptist’s brother had promised to the sisters on her profession. ibid., p.150.
  11. See: Ursula Frayne to Cecilia Marmion, November 1846, quoted in Killerby, op.cit., p. 150
  12. loc.cit
  13. This is explored in O’Dowd, C., ‘Bickering Bishops at the Swan River’,The Record, 8/10/13,, accessed 24/11/15.
  14. See Killerby, op.cit.,p. 189. ‘It is now the duty of the Sisters of Mercy in Perth to remain quite neutral, taking no part in the matter and the people will do well to follow their example’.
  15. Killerby, op.cit., p. 151.
  16. O’Brien, op.cit., p.94.
  17. O’Dowd loc.cit.,and O’Brien, loc.cit.
  18. Quoted in Killerby, op.cit.,  pp.215, 218.
  19. Urquhart was an Irish Cistercian monk recruited by Serra whom Brady appointed as his vicar general in 1850. Urquhart’s modus operandi was such that officials at Propaganda Fide had seen cause to warn Serra against employing him on account of his being spiteful and divisive– a warning which had arrived too late. See Killerby, op.cit., p.149.  Another source describes him as ‘mentally unstable’ O’Dowd, loc.cit.
  20. Dominic Urquhart to Vincent Whitty, July 1850. Quoted in Killerby, op.cit.,p.176.
  21. O’Dowd, loc.cit.
  22. SeeKillerby, op.cit.,pp 189-191; 201-211.
  23. ibid., p.151.
  24. ibid., p.203.
  25. The Sisters of Charity had arrived in NSW in 1838 and engaged for the most part in social work.Their first permanent school was opened in 1858.Ursula was the first to establish a system of education which had been devised by Catherine.
  26. By August 1846 – a mere 8 months after the sisters’ arrival, there were 100 girls enrolled in the school. Killerby, op.cit., p. 128
  27. loc.cit.
  28. Walsh, A., A Woman of Mercy (Melbourne, 1997) p.47.
  29. ibid., p.25.
  30. ibid., p.27.
  31. See Killerby, op.cit., p.225.
  32. ibid.,  p.122.
  33. In 1859 Bishop Goold obtained a second group of sisters from Baggot Street into his diocese.Led by Mother Xavier Maguire, they settled in Geelong.
  34. ibid., pp.239-240.
  35. Prior to her appointment to Booterstown, Ursula had spent some time in Carlow with Frances Warde.While there she perhaps absorbed some of Frances’ zeal for God’s mission.
  36. Frances McAuley was professed in Kyneton on April 17 1894.At reception she was given the name: Sister Mary Catherine. She died on September 11 1952.