Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Hickey, Mary St Domitille

Page 1: Biography

Hickey, Mary St Domitille


Catholic nun, school principal, historian

This biography, written by Marie Gabrielle Wright, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Mary Margaret Hickey was born on 13 April 1882 in a thatched whare at Opunake, Taranaki, New Zealand, the first of 11 children of Hannah Stack and her husband, John Cornelius Hickey, a constable in the Armed Constabulary. Her father later built a house and leased land on the outskirts of Opunake, where he took up farming. Mary displayed courage and persistence from an early age. A story is told that when she was five her mother went into labour while her father was away, and Mary was sent out into a dark, windy night to fetch a midwife. She struggled for about a mile through flax and undergrowth and across a stream, only to find that the woman was loath to move out on such a wild night. However, she knocked on the door repeatedly until the midwife finally relented.

Mary Hickey attended Opunake School and then taught there as a pupil-teacher from 1898 to 1901. From 1901 to 1903 she taught as a pupil-teacher at West Infants' School, New Plymouth, and the following year as an assistant teacher at Stratford District High School, gaining her teacher's certificates by correspondence. In 1905 she joined the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions in Christchurch and took her name in religion, Sister Mary St Domitille. She taught at Sacred Heart Girls' College and attended Canterbury College, completing her BA in 1914. A senior scholar in history in 1915, in 1916 she graduated MA with first-class honours in history. In 1925 she was awarded a doctorate in literature, the first woman in New Zealand to achieve this distinction. Her thesis, on the history of Canterbury from the beginning of the province until the end of the first Superintendency in September 1857, is a comprehensive account describing the geology, flora and fauna, early Maori inhabitants, settlers and the historical development of the people.

Mother Mary St Domitille was principal of Sacred Heart Girls' College from 1916 to 1939, prioress from 1939 to 1943, and provincial from 1943 to 1945. She was innovative and liberal in her teaching methods, emphasising the needs of the whole person, the uniqueness of the individual and the importance of character training in the young. In 1921 she wrote a textbook, A graphic outline of the Great War, which was used in colleges where the sisters taught. She also educated her pupils to appreciate art. In 1923 she inaugurated the Catholic Women's Conferences in Christchurch.

Always alert to educational movements, when she visited England in 1925 as a delegate to the congregation's chapter, she met Maria Montessori and on her return she established a Montessori school in Christchurch. It was largely due to her enthusiastic support that the New Zealand Catholic Schools Journal began in 1932. She contributed articles to that and for many years was involved in producing the 'Catholic Teachers' Bulletin'.

A strong supporter of St Joseph's Maori Girls' College, Greenmeadows, Mother St Domitille insisted that mission sisters should encourage educational opportunities there. Her counsel was listened to with respect, and in 1947 she herself invited Apirana Ngata, formerly native minister, to the college and he arranged for craft material, particularly for tukutuku work, to be supplied.

Mother St Domitille had qualities of good judgement and leadership. She instilled confidence in those she taught and prepared them well for family and public life. Pupils benefited from her strong personality, deep human interest and lively faith. Her school assemblies became forums where she exhorted and flattered students into an understanding of local and international affairs, often referring to her charges as 'Canterbury mutton' in a bid to coax them 'out of the rut of dull ordinariness'. Pupils remembered her sayings, such as 'The most important virtue is Common Sense, but often it is the least commonly found', and 'God must love the ordinary person because he has made so many of them'. For her services to education she was awarded the Coronation Medal in 1937 and in 1953.

An omnivorous reader of newspapers, periodicals and books, on one occasion Mother St Domitille reproved Listener editor Oliver Duff for his 'sentimental and undemocratic attitude to sheep'. In her view the farming of these animals was leading New Zealand to ruin, as it 'bred loafers, gamblers, snobs, men and women too proud to work, whole families afraid to dirty their hands'. A tall woman, large of frame, with grey eyes, her face was frequently drawn and stern but sometimes expressed wry humour. Her smile, however, 'was unforgettable; then delight and charm lit her face and her happiness shone forth'. A woman of vision but always humble, she died in Christchurch on 20 June 1958, quite suddenly, on her way to chapel for evening prayer.

How to cite this page:

Marie Gabrielle Wright. 'Hickey, Mary St Domitille', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h21/hickey-mary-st-domitille (accessed 13 July 2024)