Page 1: Biography
Kirby, Mary Kostka
This biography, written by Julie M. Lawrey, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Kate Kirby was born in Limerick, County Limerick, Ireland, on 9 July 1863, the daughter of John Kirby, a clerk, and his wife, Kate Synan. Kate Kirby grew up in a close-knit Catholic family and was educated primarily by the Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. On 24 September 1881 she joined the Sisters of Mercy at Ennis, County Clare. The Institute of Our Lady of Mercy had been founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley. It aimed at forming a link between the rich and the extremely poor by providing education for the children of working-class families, protection and training for young women, and care for the sick. The congregation had developed rapidly, spreading throughout the English-speaking world, and would become the largest religious society founded by an English-speaking Catholic.
Kate Kirby believed in Catherine McAuley's concept of women working for the betterment of society. At the end of 1881 she volunteered for mission work in Singleton, New South Wales. She received the habit in July 1882 and was professed two years later. While at Singleton she was placed in charge of an orphanage. In 1897 she was one of a group of sisters who left Singleton to start a new mission in Dunedin, New Zealand; they arrived at Port Chalmers on 17 January. An old weatherboard cottage, said to have done service as a hotel and then as a presbytery, was their first home and on the day after their arrival they answered requests to visit the sick. Within a few days Kate Kirby was appointed mother superior by the bishop of Dunedin and became known as Mother Mary Kostka.
On 2 February 1897 Mother Kostka and three other sisters took charge of St Patrick's primary school which had previously been staffed by Dominican sisters. To earn an income they gave music lessons. A small high school, St Philomena's, was also established, and boarding facilities were added later. The living conditions of the sisters were spartan. One room served as a classroom by day, as a room for the sisters to gather after school hours, and as a dormitory by night.
Influenced by her orphanage work in Singleton, Mother Kostka quickly set about establishing a home in South Dunedin for orphans and children of destitute families. In June 1897 the foundation stone of St Patrick's (later St Vincent's) Orphanage was laid and on 25 September 1898 the orphanage was officially opened. A home for boys was opened at Waverley, Dunedin, in 1920. For many years these institutions provided a home for hundreds of children. In spite of her very busy life, Mother Kostka took time to receive and welcome each child personally.
Mother Kostka held the office of mother superior until 1909 and again from 1912 to 1918. She was mother assistant from 1909 to 1912 and mistress of novices from 1918 to 1924. During these years she was joined by more than 90 young women who dedicated their lives to the ideals of the congregation. Mother Kostka helped establish convents at Mosgiel, Winton, Wreys Bush, Alexandra, Riverton, Nightcaps and Mornington, Dunedin. Schools were run in these locations, music was taught and the sick and lonely were visited. During the influenza epidemic in 1918 the sisters nursed the sick in their homes and set up wards in the schools in South Dunedin, Mosgiel, Gore and Riverton to which the health authorities sent patients. Mother Kostka also organised a crèche in South Dunedin to care for the children of those who were ill.
After the epidemic Mother Mary Kostka continued her work in education and the care of children in Dunedin and in other parts of Otago and Southland. She was a woman of great faith, vision and courage. She died at the Convent of Mercy, Dunedin, on 18 August 1952 and was buried in the Andersons Bay cemetery.