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From humble beginnings

The Sisters of Mercy Catholic Order was founded in Ireland by The Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley on 12 December 1831.

Throughout her life Catherine was particularly committed to women and children, the sick and dying. Her approach to her Mission was characterised by innovation, collaboration and high professionalism. She wanted to meet the needs that nobody else was addressing.

The Sisters of Mercy took their Mission to those in need; they went into prisons, hospitals and homes offering care and support. As nurses, social workers and teachers, the Sisters brought care, solace and inspiration into thousands of homes.

On 10 May 1861 Mother Mary Vincent Whitty and a group of five Sisters of Mercy settled in Brisbane and established a congregation at All Hallows, Fortitude Valley.

Hospital facilities were virtually non-existent at this time. The former Convict Hospital built during the stewardship of Captain Patrick Logan, at North Quay, was the only hospital, struggling to operate with minimal assistance and relying on a small number of subscribers.

Mother Mary Patrick Potter succeeded Mother Vincent in 1892 and within the first year of her appointment in 1893, the Sisters bought 10 acres of land at South Brisbane for £7000 and earmarked it for a hospital.

However, funds were limited and the Sisters were unable to build a hospital at that time.

The first Mater Private Hospital

It wasn’t until 1906 when an opportunity enabled the Sisters of Mercy to open their first hospital—in a private house named ‘Aubigny’, at North Quay.

‘Aubigny’ was a temporary facility to be used until the Sisters of Mercy could raise enough money to build a hospital at their South Brisbane site. The combination of this small fee-paying private hospital and an intensive fundraising effort secured the funds to construct a hospital within the South Brisbane site.

The first Mater Misericordiae Private Hospital, located in rented premises in Brisbane’s North Quay, opened its doors on 4 January 1906 with accommodation for 20 patients. By the end of its first year, the hospital had treated 141 patients.

The house, named ‘Aubigny’, overlooked the Brisbane River and was designed by the distinguished nineteenth century Queensland architect, Benjamin Backhouse, for merchant Samuel Davis, a founder of Brisbane’s Jewish congregation. Built in 1865, the house, with a small synagogue in its grounds, was a handsome three-storied building surrounded on all sides by verandahs.

For the Sisters, a fee-paying private hospital was both a means of addressing the new hospital’s immediate financial needs and a stepping-stone to their ideal of providing a free public hospital for the poor.

Crossing the river

The private hospital remained at North Quay for almost five years. In keeping with their vision to provide public healthcare, construction commenced on two brand new Mater hospitals on 10 acres of land purchased by the Sisters of Mercy in 1893. The site, now called Mater Hill, is located south of the river and overlooks South Brisbane and Woolloongabba.

Building the Mater Private and Mater Public Hospitals was only one challenge faced by the Sisters. The other was gaining support from the medical fraternity and attracting private patients. Many believed that doctors would never ‘cross the river’ to treat patients in the new hospital—a theory that was quickly dismissed once the new hospitals opened.

The ‘Telegraph’ reported in March 1907 that ‘rumours’ had been circulating for weeks that a new hospital was being built on a hill ‘facing the cool summer breezes, and protected by the rising hill behind from the westerly winds’. The reference to the perfect Brisbane aspect is likely to have been no chance remark, but carefully placed to help overcome the reluctance of doctors and patients to venture to the southern side of the river.

Quality was the keynote. The plans were in the experienced hands of the Brisbane architectural firm, Hall and Dods, architects of the Lady Lamington Nurses’ Home at the Brisbane General Hospital (now Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital). Mater Private Hospital was to be a three-storied brick building with verandahs on all sides. Many elements of the design were characteristic of Robin Dods, one of the most distinguished Australian architects of his generation.

Cardinal Moran of Sydney laid Mater Private Hospital’s Foundation Stone in May 1908. The event was a cause of great celebration and attracted about 12 000 people.

Sixteen months later, on 24 September 1909, Archbishop Dunne laid the Foundation Stone for the Mater Public Hospital. Also designed by Robin Dods, the hospital was built further down Mater Hill.

On 14 August 1910, the new hospital was officially blessed by Cardinal Moran and opened by the Governor, Sir William MacGregor. The hospital grounds were brightly decorated with flags and bunting and crammed by a crowd of 8000 people overflowing to the hillside.

On 8 September, the hospital’s first patient, Mrs Bolger from Fortitude Valley was transferred from Aubigny at North Quay to the new facility.

Five months later, on 2 February 1911, the new Mater Public Hospital was opened without fanfare or special celebrations. The construction and outfitting of the V-shaped building had attracted tremendous community support. The women’s wards were furnished by an anonymous donor and Brisbane’s jockeys and horse trainers furnished the men’s surgical ward.

A great deal had been accomplished in little more than five years. Mater Private Hospital was a great success and the Sisters’ desire to provide service and compassion to the poor and afflicted had become a reality. Like the Sisters, Brisbane’s medical community and patients had "crossed the river."

Mater Health Services would like to acknowledge Helen Gregory, author of Expressions of Mercy. Mater has used information, as appropriate, from this publication to support the creation of this website.