Lucy Bridget Canty was born on 22 March 1879 in Greta, New South Wales, the 10th child of Daniel Canty, a miner, and his wife, Bridget Wade. In 1895 16-year-old Lucy was one of seven young Australian women recruited to join the Sisters of Mercy in Auckland. While still a novice, she began teaching at Thames and at the school attached to St Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland. She studied for her teacher's certification and passed her third-year examinations with high marks. She assumed the religious name Sister Mary Agnes and made her first vows in April 1898. She was then told that she was to join Sister Mary Gonzaga Leahy, who had left six months earlier to train as a nurse at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney.
They did not complete their training, however, because Mother Mary Ignatius Prendergast summoned them to return and staff the new Coromandel Hospital building. Gonzaga, as matron, and Agnes, were joined there by other nuns. They succeeded in nursing Coromandel through a typhoid epidemic without a single death.
In 1900 the Sisters of Mercy founded a hospital, Mater Misericordiae, in Mount Eden, and required trained nursing sisters to staff it. In 1902 Sisters Gonzaga and Agnes were sent to St Vincent's to complete their Australian registration, then returned to Auckland where Gonzaga took up the post of the Mater's matron, with Agnes as her deputy.
Together, over the next 20 years, they extended the original buildings and hospital services. As the hospital grew, so did the need for trained staff. It was considered inappropriate for the nuns to train in the local public hospitals, so they still had to travel to St Vincent's. About 1925 Gonzaga and Agnes started discussions with politicians and the Nurses and Midwives Registration Board about opening a Mater training school. They combined with several other private hospitals in their submissions, and the subsequent Nurses and Midwives Registration Act 1930 allowed for the establishment of training schools in registered private hospitals.
Agnes and Gonzaga had long dreamed of establishing a large general hospital, and in November 1928 the foundation stone of a new block was laid. Their success was the fruit of the complementary talents of both women: Gonzaga's financial and administrative gifts and Agnes's profound grasp of the heart and art of nursing. Agnes, however, was also involved in fund-raising in association with the Mater auxiliary guild.
In 1929 Agnes and Gonzaga made a three-month tour of major hospitals in the United States. They were able to make a significant contribution to the plans for the new hospital, which opened in 1936. Of its 120 beds 40 were free, and it boasted the most advanced hospital features and medical equipment then available in New Zealand. It also incorporated a training school for nurses. As the principal had to be qualified in maternity as well as general nursing, Agnes went to Wellington's St Helens Hospital for six months to complete her maternity registration.
In January 1937 the school of nursing was opened, with Agnes as matron and tutor of the first 16 students. The training school day began at 5.45 a.m. with prayers, presided over by Agnes in the lecture hall, followed by an inspection of all the nurses before they went on duty. Lectures were added to the day's duties. The basic tutoring was done by Agnes, but consultants gave their time free to lecture the trainees in their various specialities.
The first classes graduated in June and December 1940, and the training school produced some 456 graduates until changes in nursing education forced its closure in 1973. Mater graduates figured prominently in the honours and distinction credits in state nursing examinations.
Sister Agnes impressed on her nurses the need for a great love and particular care for the sick poor. She exemplified this herself by the long hours she spent in the wards in addition to her tutoring. While some nurses regarded her as a strict disciplinarian, others recalled only her great kindness and special care of the trainees living at a distance from their families.
Agnes's health began to decline in the 1940s but her vision and forward planning for the hospital complex did not. The heart of the hospital was the chapel, and Gonzaga and Agnes oversaw its extension in 1948; nurses and patients were encouraged to use it along with the nuns.
The founding of a hospice for the terminally ill was dear to Agnes's heart. She prayed constantly that a suitable property would be found, reminding St Cajetan (a sixteenth century Venetian saint who founded a hospital for indigent incurables) by ringing a bell every year on his feast day. She died at Auckland on 6 October 1950. Just two years later, a property adjoining the Mater was purchased and converted to a hospice. In 1958 this was extended, refurbished and named the Mary Agnes wards in her memory. It was a fitting memorial to one who had dedicated her life to the service of others.