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Mother Margaret Mary Bourke: A Legend in Her Lifetime

From behind the brick walls of Kilbreda Convent in Mentone for the past 58 years has emanated a warm, tender influence which has permeated the lives of thousands of Australian women.

And to three generations of past pupils, the spirit has been personified by its former Reverend Mother and Present Principal, Mother Margaret Mary, whose long association with the school was crowned by her golden jubilee last week

July 1962 marked fifty years since Mother Margaret Mary Bourke had been professed as a sister of the Congregation of St Brigid (csb). The Mordialloc News went on to say that the celebrations to mark the occasion were modest and that a substantial cheque had been presented. Typically Mother Margaret Mary preferred that it be put towards the Convent Chapel Building Fund, rather than a trip to Ireland, as some had suggested.

The young Brigid Bourke came to Australia in 1908 with two Brigidine relatives who had returned to Ireland for the General Chapter. Born at Ballinahinch, County Wicklow in 1887, Brigid was educated at the Brigidine Convent in Tullow, County Carlow and later by the Ursuline sisters in Belgium where she was said to have been taught ‘pure Sorbonne’ by the Parisian trained nuns there, becoming proficient in German, French and Italian among other things. While in Brussels, Brigid spent afternoons as secretary to a blind but gifted poetess who dictated her French poems which I wrote and reread to her.2

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A young Brigid Bourke, c1908.

On arrival in Australia, she lived at the Brigidine Convent in Mentone, where her cousin Mother Benedict Moore was Superior. The register for St Brigid’s College, as Kilbreda was then known, records her arrival along with Katie Scott from Ireland, who was later to become Mother Bonaventure. The following year she commenced her studies at the Teachers’ Training College in Carlton, and at Melbourne University, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma in Education with First Class Honours.

Entering the Brigidines in 1910, and following her profession in 1912, Mother Margaret Mary taught at the Brigidine Convent Albert Park for a few years, before moving back to Mentone in about 1918. In 1924, she took up the position of founding Principal at Malvern and is believed to have named it ‘Kildara’- the House of the Oak.3 In 1927, Mother Margaret Mary returned as Principal to Mentone and bestowed the name Kilbreda on the school a few years later. Spending 39 years as Principal, Mother Margaret Mary saw it grow from a school of 110 students to more than 1000 when she completed her term in 1965.

In addition to her duties teaching at Kilbreda and as Principal, Margaret Mary Bourke served on the Executive of the Catholic Teachers’ Committee, and was a member of the Provincial Council of the Brigidine Sisters in Victoria, acting as its secretary from 1966-68 on leaving Kilbreda. In 1963, Mother Margaret Mary was invited to the Italian Consulate, where a special medal struck in Rome was presented to her acknowledging her work in pioneering in Australia Italian language and culture and continuing to promote it at Kilbreda. 4

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M.M.Bourke receiving the medal from Italian Ambassador Dr Stringari.

Her work was such that it was recognised widely and comments such as these of Rev. Fr. Jones, College Chaplain in the early 60s, were often made: I regard Kilbreda as being the pre-eminent school of the Brigidine schools here in Victoria, the one with the greatest status, the one that is biggest in many ways… We should pay public tribute to the fact that this has been brought about largely through the efforts of Mother Margaret Mary.5

Mother Carmela Connell, who acted for a considerable time as vice-Principal to Mother Margaret Mary, was in a perfect position to comment on the innovative approach her Principal had taken in the College. It is entirely in line with the initiative which was always the characteristic of the College under Mother Margaret Mary’s direction. It was never the policy of the College to wait until a thing was tried and made certain of; it was the policy of the College to initiate changes, to investigate, to experiment.6

An example of her progressive actions at Kilbreda, was her stimulation of public speaking and the organising of public speaking classes to enable the pupils, when they leave, to cope with any situation.7 This emphasis had resulted in Kilbreda students reaching the finals on 9 of 12 occasions in the Junior Chamber of Commerce Youth Speaks for Australia competition and along with Melbourne High School, Kilbreda had two winners. When Kilbreda’s team was successful in HSV 7’s Parliament of Youth competition in 1962, Mother Margaret Mary appeared on TV to receive the award from the then Federal Treasurer, Mr Harold Holt.

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Mother Margaret Mary on TV.

Extracts from tributes received on her death in 1979 speak volumes. As an educator she was fifty years ahead of her time. Her interest was in her personal relationship with each pupil. Her understanding and breadth of vision made Kilbreda what it was.8 Joan Jones, nee Ilott, who still maintains her association with the school, commented, Kilbreda College and its pupils were the pride and joy of Mother Margaret Mary’s life. She demanded the best from every one, and although a disciplinarian, was loved by all for the personal interest she took in her ‘girls’.9
Others, like Frank Hahn, who spent some of his early primary years at Kilbreda, summed up the thoughts of many saying that he thanked God he was given the privilege of knowing her.10

In 2001, as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations, Margaret Mary Bourke was included in an Honour Roll of Victorian Women – Women Shaping the Nation. The Honour Roll cited 250 Australian Women who had made significant contributions to the community. A framed certificate marking this honour hangs in pride of place in the College as does a portrait painted by Don Cameron. For many years the portrait hung in the Margaret Mary Wing, a building constructed in 1959 which runs along Como Parade.

In 1966, after her strenuous years as Principal of our largest secondary school, Mother Margaret Mary joined the Provincial Administration where her wide experience and her diplomatic skills were of enormous value. All who knew her received with deep regret the news of her death on Saturday, May 19th 1979.11

Mother Margaret Mary’s life, which was celebrated at a requiem Mass in St Joseph’s Church Malvern, was largely attended and she was buried in the Old Cheltenham Cemetery in the plot dedicated to the sisters of the local Brigidine communities.


Damian Smith


  1. Mordialloc News July 1962.
  2. Autobiographical Notes by M. M. Bourke csb in Kilbreda Archives.
  3. (The oak tree was a central symbol to the Brigidine sisters since their founder Dr Daniel Delany had planted an oak in the grounds of the Tullow convent in its infancy).
  4. Notes Kilbreda Archives.
  5. Notes Kilbreda Archives.
  6. Notes Kilbreda Archives, Carmela Connell, csb.
  7. Notes Kilbreda Archives.
  8. Notes Kilbreda Archives
  9. Joan Jones, Kilbreda College Annual 1979.
  10. Frank Hahn, Kilbreda College Annual 1979.
  11. Kilbreda College Annual 1979.

Article Cat. People
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