Page 1: Biography
Leahy, Mary Gonzaga
Catholic nun, hospital matron
This biography, written by Pauline F. Engel, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Ellen Leahy was born on 12 June 1870 to Bridget McNamara and her husband, Daniel Leahy, who farmed in the Waimea West district near Nelson, New Zealand. The family later moved to Blenheim where Ellen was educated by the Sisters of Mercy. She entered the novitiate of this congregation at St Mary's Convent, Auckland, on 19 November 1894 and as Sister Mary Gonzaga made her first vows on 24 September 1897.
In November that year she was sent to St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, to train as a nurse. Her training was interrupted when she returned to New Zealand in December 1898 to become the first matron at the new Coromandel Hospital. The superior of St Mary's Convent, Mother Mary Ignatius (Mary Prendergast), had responded to an appeal in 1896 for Sisters of Mercy to nurse at the hospital. The request had come from the secretary of the Coromandel Hospital Board, whose father had been impressed by the Sisters of Mercy working with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.
Gonzaga was joined at the Coromandel Hospital by Sister Mary Agnes (Lucy Canty), who had also been at St Vincent's. The two women were to work together for over 50 years. In 1900, the golden jubilee year of the Sisters of Mercy's arrival in New Zealand, Mother Ignatius used a small legacy and a gift from past pupils of the Mercy convent schools to buy a 3½-acre property in Mount Eden. The house on the site was converted into the first Catholic hospital in New Zealand, the Mater Misericordiae Hospital. Sisters Gonzaga and Agnes returned to Sydney in 1902 and gained their nursing certificates. They then joined the staff of the Mater hospital where Gonzaga was appointed matron. She held the post until 1950, and for many years was also in charge of the operating theatres.
Gonzaga was not only a fine nurse, but also an outstanding financial manager. The hospital expanded rapidly during its first 20 years, and at each stage of development there were sufficient funds to secure the additional buildings. By 1928 there were 35 beds in the existing buildings, all the debts had been cleared and there was a surplus account for further buildings and equipment. Gonzaga and Agnes had dreamt of establishing a large modern hospital, and on 19 November that year the foundation stone was laid for a new four-storeyed block. The cost was estimated at over £40,000 and Gonzaga already had a fifth of the amount in cash.
The building of the new block was strongly supported by Bishop Henry Cleary and his coadjutor, James Liston. Cleary had travelled widely and been impressed by the facilities in Catholic hospitals in the United States. At his urging, Mothers Gonzaga and Agnes embarked in 1929 on a three-month fact-finding tour of American and Canadian hospitals. The trip was an unparalled experience for two nuns at that time and paid great dividends for the building of the new Mater and the standards of nursing care it provided. At the opening ceremony in 1936 the architect publicly credited Gonzaga and Agnes for the plans, which incorporated in the 120-bed hospital the most modern equipment and technology then available in New Zealand. Gonzaga's astute financial planning had also ensured that the debt was manageable, despite the cost being almost three times the original estimate.
An amendment to the Nurses and Midwives Registration Act in 1930 made it possible for some private hospitals to apply for registration as a training school. In January 1937 a school of nursing was opened at the Mater with Mother Agnes at the helm. In order to qualify for the position she had spent six months of the previous year doing her maternity training at St Helens Hospital, Wellington. During 1937 Mother Gonzaga launched the Mater's auxiliary guild to raise funds for its 40 free beds.
The Mater Misericordiae Hospital had been founded to provide accommodation for the sick poor, irrespective of their religion. In 1928 Mother Gonzaga had noted that free treatment was given to those unable to pay for it, 'up to, and even exceeding, the limit of our resources'. Gonzaga's services to nursing and the wider community of Auckland were recognised when she was made an OBE in 1939.
A hospice was established at the Mater in 1952. The idea had been promoted by Mother Mary Agnes before her death in 1950. Mother Mary Gonzaga outlived her friend by nearly eight years, dying at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital on 17 January 1958. For most of their life in religion the two women had complemented each other's nursing and administrative talents. They are buried in the same grave at Hillsborough cemetery.
Photographs of the young Gonzaga, fine featured and fair complexioned, contrast with the doughty, unsmiling photos of her older years. Although she was an uncompromising taskmaster when ensuring a patient's well-being, the sisters who worked under her remembered her kindness and warmth towards them.
The Mater hospital was renamed Mercy Hospital in 1988. It remains a leader in private hospital care in New Zealand: a lasting tribute to the remarkable collaborative vision, acumen and professionalism of Mothers Gonzaga and Agnes.