Woman Daly, Dame Mary Dora (1896 - 1983)


Cootamundra, New South Wales, Australia
Charity Worker
Alternative Names
  • Daly, May

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

May Daly was born in the Cootamundra, New South Wales in 1896, the eldest child of solicitor Thomas McMahon and his wife, Mary. Educated at Loreto convents in Normanhurst and later Ballarat, she worked in her father's law firm before marrying medical practitioner, John Daly, in 1923. Two children were born to the marriage.

Daly's introduction to philanthropy came in World War I when she volunteered for both the Red Cross and the Voluntary Aid Detachments. Settling in Melbourne after her marriage she joined an auxiliary supporting St Vincent's Hospital, the executive committee responsible for St Anne's Catholic Hostel for young women and the Loreto Old Girls' Association. Her fund-raising skills were quickly recognised and in 1933 she became president of the St Vincent's Hospital committee. The only woman on the Catholic Welfare Organisation (CWO) founded at the outbreak of World War II she rose to the position of president in 1941, taking responsibility for funding its canteens in Victorian training camps, the collection and distribution of food and clothing to war torn areas, and the programs devised to provide pastoral care for Catholic servicemen and women. While 'war brings out the worst in men', she commented, 'it certainly brings out the finest in women' (Argus, 21 August 1951). When the war came to an end the CWO continued its collection and distribution work as an overseas aid organisation.

After the death of her husband in 1953, Daly expanded her range of causes to include the Caritas Christi Hospice, Australian Catholic Relief, the Ryder-Cheshire Foundation, the Girl Guides Association, the National Heart Foundation the Anti-Cancer Council and the Victorian Society for Crippled Children, supporting its work through the profits from books she had written for children. In 1973 she chaired the hospitality committee for the International Eucharistic Congress. Described as 'a militant but dedicated general' she led the 'army of women' charged with inspecting the 1550 homes that offered accommodation to pilgrims and staffing the centres set up across the city to offer help and advice to international visitors (Age, 12 February 1973).

Archbishop Daniel Mannix declared 'Dame Mary undertook the seemingly impossible, but never anything she did not follow through' (Argus, 21 August 1951). Asked how she managed to fulfil her multiple commitments Daly commented, 'my children always come first ... I always try to spend my mornings at home and whatever happens I have lunch with them' (Warne). Like most Catholic women Daly did not challenge the hierarchy, however, in 1949, she did defend women who chose to have smaller families (Warne).

Daly was awarded a silver jubilee medal in 1935, an OBE in 1937, the CBE in 1949 and the DBE in 1951, as well as the papal Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 1952. She died in 1983.

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