Woman Uhr, Marie-Louise

Biochemist and Catholic Activist

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Marie-Louise Uhr was born in Brisbane in 1923, the second child of Clive and Marie Uhr. She studied applied science at the University of Queensland and, after working for several years for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, was appointed lecturer in biochemistry at the University of Canberra. Having fought against the sexism she encountered in academic life, in the 1980s she transferred this struggle to the place of women in the Catholic church.

Two incidents inspired her shift to activism within the church. The first was the exclusion she felt while attending a very traditional Catholic mass in 1984, and the second, the sense of rightness experienced when she participated in a Eucharist presided over by Alison Cheek, an Australian Anglican woman ordained as one of the controversial Philadelphia 11 in the United States [Uhr, Eureka Street, 1996, p. 26]. She was an associate of Patricia Brennan in the early years of the Movement for the Ordination of Women of which she was national vice-president from 1989-91. Two years later she was co-founder, with Zoe Hancock, of Ordination for Catholic Women (OCW) Inc serving as its convenor until her death.

Following the Pope's 1994 proscription of further discussion of the issue of women's ordination within the church, Uhr turned her attention to the secular arena. 'If we cannot speak in churches and in the catholic press', she declared, 'then we must speak in public ... whenever the opportunity arises' [Uhr, undated]. She undertook theological studies at St Mark's College in Canberra, focusing her attention on the issue of authority. 'The arguments used by the Vatican', she argued, 'need to be challenged [Uhr, undated].

Uhr refused to be forced out of the church, despite her increasing discomfort with many of its teaching, but rather positioned herself as a prophet awakening the church to its present limitations [Uhr, Eureka Street, 1996, p. 29]. 'I believe that opposition to the ordination of women is so strong because the ordination of women into the catholic church would be a powerful iconoclastic act', she wrote. 'It would shatter not only the image of the male-only priesthood but also the image of the male God. And it would declare the full humanity of women. This ... is ... why it arouses such passion and fear' [Uhr, 1994]. Aware that those who were dependent on the church for their livelihood could no longer speak out, Uhr called on other OCW members to 'remain active in the public sphere' as 'visible signs ... of our refusal to obey' [Uhr, 1999].

Uhr died in 2001, 'a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church' until the end. 'To remain a person of faith', she wrote, 'I need to remain in community. My faith depends on the faith of others' [Uhr, 1999]. OCW Inc continued its work for a further eight years before being subsumed within the larger and less gendered organisation Catholics for Ministry.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia

  • Biographical cuttings on Marie Louise Uhr, Convenor, Ordination of Catholic Women, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals, c. 1900 - c. 2000, 532838; National Library of Australia. Details

National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection

  • Papers of Marie Louise Uhr, 1977 - 2001, MS 9835; National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Macneil, Sarah, 'Marie Louise Uhr (1935-2001): academic and activist', St Mark's Review, Obituary, no. 186, 2001, p. 31. Details
  • Uhr, Marie Louise, 'Do not pass go [Ordination of women in the Catholic Church]', Eureka Street, vol. 6, no. 5, June 1996, pp. 26-30. Details

Online Resources

See also