Woman O'Brien, Catherine Cecily

Educator and Religious Sister
Alternative Names
  • Sister Mary Anselm

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Catherine Cecily O'Brien was born in 1893 in Merriwa, New South Wales, to Irish born James Thomas O'Brien, grazier, and his wife Catherine. She was educated at the Dominican Convent, Maitland, where she won a teacher-training scholarship. In 1914, Catherine O'Brien entered the Dominican Convent at Maitland and received the habit the following year, taking the religious name of Mary Anselm. She stayed at the convent until 1920 at Maitland, teaching in the local secondary school.

In 1921 Sister M. Anselm expressed the desire to undertake tertiary study and was moved to Santa Sabina Dominican Convent School, Strathfield, in order to be able to attend the University of Sydney. In 1924 she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with first-class honours in English and Latin and the University medal for English. She gained her diploma of education in 1925, and continued with her studies to obtain her Master of Arts in English literature, with first-class honours, in 1928. She was thus an unusually highly qualified Catholic secondary school teacher.

Sister M. Anselm enthusiastically taught English, Christian doctrine, French and Latin at Santa Sabina for twenty years (1925-1945). She became widely respected for her innovative methods and her many lectures and publications on English literature and Christian doctrine. She included Australian authors in her anthologies, which was not a common occurrence. In 1925 she co-founded with Frank Sheed the school branch of the Catholic Evidence Guild, thus breaking new ground in the teaching of religion. She published a monograph entitled The Catholic Evidence Guild in Secondary Schools in 1939.

Sister M. Anselm aimed at providing quality education for girls, ensuring that they were well prepared to take advantage of changing social conditions and increasing opportunities for women. She promoted both girls and Catholic schools, ensuring that neither were inferior. Advocating tertiary education, she built up the school's library at Santa Sabina, and organised regular weekly feature lectures on English and Latin literature for the senior pupils and the Sisters. Many of the lecturers were from published authors - her friends from university days - and she also frequently invited writers to the school.

Realising the importance of physical education for girls, in 1922 Sister Anselm convened the first meeting of principals of Catholic girls secondary schools to facilitate co-operation in sporting competitions, which became a feature of Catholic schools in the 1930s. She also helped to found the Volunteer Sewing Guild which continued for many years providing an opportunity for senior and former students to make clothes for the poor. In 1942-1945 Sister M. Anselm was provincial directress of studies, responsible for the supervision and education of young Dominican Sisters and teachers. She died in 1945; the library in the Aquinas Centre at Santa Sabina College is dedicated to her memory.

Published Resources


  • O'Brien, Mary Anselm, Magic Casements: A Book of Poems for Junior and Middle Forms, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, New South Wales, 1937. Details
  • O'Brien, Mary Anselm, The Catholic Evidence Guild in Secondary Schools, Dwyer, Sydney, New South Wales, 1939. Details

Online Resources