Sunday, October 24, 2010

Gertrude Abbott (1846-1934)

Founder of St Margaret's Hospital for Women

Gertrude Abbott began life as Mary Jane O'Brien in Sydney (1846). Her father was a school teacher who moved from New South Wales to Dry Creek, SA and took up farming. "Gertrude" entered Sister Mary McKillop's congregation at Penola, South Australia (1869) and became Sister Ignatius. Influenced by Father Julian Tennison-Woods, she and another young nun claimed to have had visions - there was a scandal when the other nun was found to have faked her visions. Sister Ignatius was blameless but left the congregation (July 1872) two months after she had made her final vows.

She returned to Sydney - but not under her own name, instead she became Gertrude Abbott. She leased a house in the Sydney suburb of Surrey Hills and gathered about her a group of pious women. They lived by dressmaking and adopted the rule of contemplative congregation. Gertrude hoped that the Roman Catholic Church would give the group the status of a religious order.

However, one fateful night, things took a different turn. On that night (1893) a policeman presented a young women at her door. Gertrude had no money or food herself, yet she took the girl in, and one hour later a baby was born. Soon other girls can to her home, and so began what would become St Margaret's Hospital for Women, the third largest obstetric hospital in Sydney.

In the first years of St Margaret's Hospital, Gertrude took in 9 married and 23 unmarried women, and trained 3 nurses in midwifery with the help of her great friend and certified nurse Magdalen Foley (who took a degree in pharmacy so as to dispense medicines). Regarded as a quasi-religious community, the women eventually acquired status within the Catholic Church as their services to the community were recognised. The Hospital was run on donations.

The Hospital began to treat the diseases of women (1904). Soon it had outgrown its present buildings and was forced to move to larger premises in Darlinghurst which Gertrude leased and then bought. Her friend and mentor Father Tennison-Woods died in her care (1889) and left her his entire estate, as did her friend Magdalen Foley (1926). Despite the growth of the hospital she was still quite lonely. Gradually she withdrew as matron and manager.

Gertrude died 48 years after that fateful night, aged 88yo. In the year of her death, the Hospital recorded 760 patients treated, 619 births registered and no maternal deaths. In her will, she passed her Hospital into the hands of the Sisters of St Joseph, whose order she had left unhappily 62 years before.

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