Mother Laurence O'Brien
Mother Laurence was born Veronica Louise O’Brien, daughter of Mary (McEwen) and Michael O’Brien, early Irish pioneers of the South Australian colony.
Mary (McEwen) O’Brien was the only daughter of Timothy McEwen to migrate to South Australia. She had married Michael O’Brien of Corrofin, County Clare where the couple lived prior to coming to Australia with their two sons and a baby daughter, Veronica Louise. The family was welcomed in South Australia by Mary’s two brothers namely, Thomas who was six years her junior, and John who was fourteen years her senior. Michael was an educated man who must have brought capital with him, for his brother in law, John McEwen, had been instructed to select land for him. The family therefore was expected to settle in Gawler; however, Mary refused to move there because of the primitive conditions and instead they settled at Willaston.
Veronica Louise was but a ‘little babe’ when she arrived here. She was Mary’s ninth child. Six little girls died shortly after birth so Veronica Louise was, indeed, a precious little daughter.
Her two brothers were much older and soon left Gawler to join their Uncle Michael in the Victorian goldfields. It is known that they arrived there safely but further to that, mystery surrounds them they were never heard of again.
Family legend holds an explanation of the nick-name of Veronica Louise. In the family circle it seems she was fondly called ‘Beanri’ because this Gaelic name means ‘Woman of the King’ or ‘Follower of the Royal One’, and following such trauma and sadness with the loss of so many little girls the mother hoped for life and strength for this little one.
Veronica was very bright and promising so her parents determined to give her every opportunity of a good education and upbringing. When Mary saw the pioneering conditions of the mid-north in the 1860’s she knew that an education such as she envisaged for Benre would not be possible. Michael yielded to his wife’s persuasion and moved off the land to become Town Clerk of the Mudla Wirra District Council. Opportunities for primary schooling were available but there was little more possible for girls in the Colony. Mary was determined that Benre should return to the homeland for further education. Michael made all the necessary arrangements and the parents accompanied their daughter to the Port Adelaide wharf for departure. Whilst awaiting embarkation, Michael, who was to accompany his daughter, suffered a fatal seizure and died whilst being supported by a kindly man whose own daughter later became a Sister of St Joseph. (Name unknown).
Mary O’Brien was a strong character and a deeply religious woman. She bore the untimely death of her husband with the same endurance that she bore the loss of her missing sons. Some little compensation came to her in her disappointment regarding her plans for Benre’s education, when a Miss Curran joined the staff of St George’s Grammar School. Veronica became a pupil. This was a splendid school with an academic record second to none in the Colony. It had opened classes for girls some time before Miss Curran joined the staff. (Mother Laurence used to speak with great esteem of her, particularly of Miss Curran’s fine teaching ability.)
In 1867, the Sisters of St Joseph opened a school at Gawler. Benre met them and their foundress, Mother Mary of the Cross MacKillop, and was strongly drawn to them and their work, but her mother was at first prejudiced against this new kind of religious, so different from those she had known in Ireland. She did all in her power to keep her daughter away from them, but the attraction remained.
Today very few would fail to support the mother in her opposition to an only daughter of fourteen years entering the convent; yet we find that in spite of all opposition Benre, who had been born on 23rd December 1854, entered the Sisters of St Joseph on 15th February, 1869. She received the habit on 24th June, 1869, and was professed on 2nd July, 1870. The future revealed that however young this girl might have been, the mother knew that she fulfilled completely the early promise of childhood and youth. She developed into a warm-hearted, generous woman with a remarkable openness of heart and mind, and was endowed with a kindness beyond compare. Practical, courageous and farsighted she was even avant-garde in matters of education. In later years when Mother General of her Order, from 1918- 1931, she was to take Sr Mary Francis, the Mistress of Method at the Mount Street Training College, overseas to visit, observe and gather experience from leading schools and training Colleges in Europe and the United Kingdom.
In 1870 -1871, the time of Mother Mary’s difficulties with her ecclesiastical superior, the young Sister Laurence was teaching at Macclesfield. Her mother went there immediately she heard of the dispersion of some of the Sisters and brought her daughter down to Adelaide to see Mother Mary and to receive her directions. Mary O’Brien and her daughter stayed where the latter could keep in touch with Mother Mary. When an appeal came to the foundress from the Bishop of Brisbane for sisters to teach in the pioneer mining town of Copperfield in Central Queensland (1874) she sent for the seventeen year old Sister Laurence who shortly afterwards, set out with two other sisters for that very distant and isolated mission. One cannot help thinking of the void that departure made in the heart of the long suffering Mary O’Brien.
In 1879 Sister Laurence returned to South Australia and remained there until twelve years after her mother’s death.
After her daughter entered the Sisters of St Joseph, Mary O’Brien lived on in her Willaston home. She did not give up hope – never fulfilled – that one day her lost sons might return.
Dorothy Ann Williams, nee Lloyd, told a moving story of how her mother, the former Kitty McEwen (first cousin to Mother Laurence) accompanied Mary O’Brien on an epic journey searching for her two sons – the older brothers of Mother Laurence. Someone had told Mrs O’Brien that two O’Brien men who could possibly be her sons were living in the Port Lincoln district. A description of these two seemed to tally with the mother’s hopes and nothing would satisfy her but a trip to find out for herself. Mrs O’Brien and Mrs Lloyd set out from Wallaroo on this distant journey into the unknown. Accompanied by two Aboriginal people, who were most probably Sandy and Nellie of the Gawler River farm of Mary’s brother John, the woman made the long trip by land around the Gulf, travelling in horse and buggy. There surely would have been a stop en route at the farm of her brother Thomas; but for those who know the route it was an heroic venture. Mary O’Brien’s sight was failing and she knew well that complete blindness threatened her. Still nothing would deter her from following up a clue which might solve the mystery of the lost sons. Mother Laurence confirmed this story and said that the party camped overnight at Hummocky Hill – the site of Whyalla in the future. They followed tracks that kept them reasonably close to the Gulf and away from the Mallee-timbered country. Those who have done the trip by Coach through this area even one hundred years hence will have some idea of the tenacity and endurance of these two women. Sad to say, the two O’Briens in the Port Lincoln district were not Mary’s sons; the journey back was bereft of the hope that had inspired them on the forward trip.
Mary O’Brien’s sight deteriorated. She became totally blind yet her independent spirit kept her able to live on in her own home until infirmity made her recognise her need for help. According to arrangements made for her she went to live and be cared for at Goodwood. Unfortunately, while she happened to be alone one day in the house, she went too near the fire. Her clothing caught alight and she was burned to death on 12th July 1898. She was buried at Willaston in the McEwen grave in plot 3B3. So ended a life that was beset by many and severe trials which were unfailingly borne in silent endurance thus proving that her relatives made no mistake in acclaiming her great strength of mind and will and her deep religious spirit.
As already stated, Mary’s daughter, Sr Laurence, remained in South Australia from the time of her return to Adelaide from Copperfield in Queensland, until a decade or so after her mother’s death. During this time she was superior in a number of convents in South Australia. While she was at Caltowie, where the Sisters of St Joseph had a boarding school, several first cousins benefited from her training and tuition.
In 1896, Sister Laurence was elected by the South Australian Sisters of St Joseph as their representative in the General Chapter of the Institute held in that year. Three years later, she was again a delegate in the 1899 Chapter. In 1910, she was elected third General Councillor and in the 1916 Chapter was re-elected as a General Councillor and appointed Superior of the Mother House of the Order in Mount Street, Sydney. In 1918, she was elected Mother General and was re-elected in 1925 for a further six years. Her name is still warmly remembered by those who knew and experienced her loving concern and caring. In 1931, she retired to South Australia and lived at the Kensington Convent where her latter years were devoted to promoting the cause of the beatification of Mother Mary of the Cross. Far and wide she sought prayers for the success of this cause.
The present Holy Father has urged its progress. The testimony that Mother Laurence gave may be read in the preliminary process of beatification. It was given a few years before she died.
Her long years of religious life were full beyond measure. When death came to close her earthly sojourning on 24th August, 1945, she had worn the habit she loved so well for over seventy-six years. These same years had clothed her in a sweet, serene cheerfulness that was a benediction in itself for one knew that it flowed from a soul anchored in the love of God.
It is fitting that the story of our McEwen family record should close with the story of Benre. Born in Ireland, she had been a link with the past and present McEwen’s of five generations. In the hearts of the relatives who knew her, and of those of new generations she holds a unique place. Her letters were treasured and the small bundles of religious periodicals which found their way from her to those living in country areas were gladly welcomed and read.
Many of the traits found to be dominant in McEwen forbears were in her refined by a long lifetime of living close to God. The strong will of the fourteen year old girl, the driving energy of her youth, her gift of leadership and powers of organisation, her clear vision and her courage to forge ahead were illuminated by that human kindliness and understanding which is most effective when it is rooted in deep Christian living.
Veronica Louise (Mother Laurence) had learned life’s lessons and met its challenges at considerable personal cost in her early years. Her relatives felt that the fine serenity of the long evening of her life was part of the recompense.
The text above is an edited version of the family and life context of Mother Laurence O’Brien as held by her extended family and edited by Margaret P Kenny rsj in 2009.