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Story: Gill, Mary Gabriel

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Gill, Mary Gabriel


Catholic prioress

This biography, written by Mary Augustine McCarthy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Victoria Margaretta Gill was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 22 June 1837, the eldest daughter of Andrew Gill, a wealthy brewer, and his wife, Ellen Maria. Victoria was educated privately, then at Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham. From the age of nine she boarded at St Catherine's Dominican Convent, Sion Hill, in Booterstown, before accompanying her parents on a continental tour.

In 1853 she left home dressed for a ball, then determinedly fled across snow to Sion Hill, reputedly to avoid marriage. There she stayed, despite her parents' entreaties, later receiving the Dominican habit and the name of Sister Mary Gabriel of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Seventeen years later, after experience as a teacher, mistress of schools and mistress of novices, Mother Gabriel left for Dunedin, New Zealand, as prioress with Bishop Patrick Moran, Father William Coleman and nine sisters. They arrived at Port Chalmers on the Gothenburg on 18 February 1871 to find that little preparation for their coming had been made by the small Catholic community of mainly poor Irish immigrants. With Bishop Moran as their friend and counsellor, Mother Gabriel and her sisters worked to improve the standard of church worship and to provide a high quality of education for pupils of all religions.

Mother Gabriel, with her regal bearing, piercing gaze and stately manner, soon earned the admiration of the Dunedin people. Always planning for future growth, she founded a boarding school, St Dominic's Priory, at Wakari in 1874; this was transferred to a town site after two years. She then raised funds for the new St Dominic's Priory, designed by F. W. Petre and opened in 1877. Sisters were sent to teach at Invercargill, Ōamaru, South Dunedin, Queenstown, Milton and Lawrence. Because of her strong administrative skills and devoted leadership, Mother Gabriel became known to her sisters as 'Mother of the Missions'.

In 1886 she returned to Dublin in search of more teachers. Her attempt to found a novitiate at Drumcondra failed for lack of funds and support from local church authorities, but she obtained 14 sisters and on her return to Dunedin in 1888 was appointed mistress of novices to continue their training. Mother Gabriel was re-elected prioress in 1889, and on 5 October 1890 opened St Dominic's College, a bluestone wing to the priory providing classrooms and boarding facilities.

At the 1894 elections Mother Gabriel's rule as prioress came to an end. She was venerated by the older sisters, but many of the younger sisters regarded her as autocratic and too faultfinding, which led to her relegation to sub-prioress. This she accepted with dignity, but she was always conscious of her special position as founder. Her stern demeanour covered a sensitive nature with a need for affection. Constant struggles with illness had given her compassion for the sick, and her help was always given to the needy.

The death of Bishop Moran in 1895 severed another link with the old order. During a visit to Sydney in 1898, Mother Gabriel was approached by Bishop William Kelly of Geraldton with a request for sisters. She enthusiastically promoted this new endeavour and was chosen to head the pioneer band. The news of her leaving Dunedin caused some dissatisfaction because she was needed there; a grudging permission for a year's absence was won from Bishop Michael Verdon. Overwhelmed on her departure in April 1899, her iron self-control threatened, she was unable to say goodbye to the remaining sisters and slipped out a side door to her carriage. As it drove away she could not bear to look back at the priory.

During the final six years of her life Mother Gabriel singlemindedly pursued her goal of bringing Catholic education to the West Australian goldmining districts, despite a rigorous climate, meagre resources and physical privation. Sickly and emaciated, but hardworking and indomitable to the end, she died of pneumonia at Day Dawn on 22 April 1905. She was buried amid general mourning at Cue; in December 1915, her body was disinterred and reburied in the Dominican cemetery, Dongara.

Mother Gabriel possessed foresight; she insisted on high standards in teacher training and in her schools, which were centres of culture and learning. Many New Zealanders still reap the benefits of the religious, scholastic and musical training given by the sisters. Their leader, Mother Gabriel, was honoured as a dedicated teacher and nun; the years have endorsed that judgement.

How to cite this page:

Mary Augustine McCarthy. 'Gill, Mary Gabriel', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2g8/gill-mary-gabriel (accessed 26 June 2024)