Sister Mary Patrick: From Wealthy Aristocrat to Dedicated Missionary

Frances Moloney (née Lewis) began her life as a wealthy aristocrat. The daughter of an absentee landlord living in London, her family were well-connected in Irish and British high society, even sharing ancestry with royalty. At 24, she married a widowed British captain and governor of the Windward Islands, Sir Alfred Moloney. On her husband’s retirement from service, the pair decided to travel, frequenting mainland Europe as Frances wrote for several fashionable women’s weekly journals. At this point, Frances had no idea how much her life would be transformed through missionary work.

When her husband took ill, the two moved to Italy where, in 1913, Alfred’s conditions worsening, he died in hospital.

How Frances Became Patrick: A Spiritual Awakening

It wouldn’t be Frances’ wealthy family or knighted husband who would define her. Instead, she returned to Dublin in 1914 to assist Belgian refugees, setting in motion a trend of compassion and service that would compel her for years. In 1918, Frances felt a religious calling after attending a lecture by Fr John Blowick, an evangelist Catholic missionary who had recently founded the Maynooth Mission to China. Together, they created a congregation for women to engage in missionary work in Asia: The Missionary Sisters of St Columban. 

Preparing for her missionary work, Frances trained in midwifery and general nursing. She trained in a broad range of disciplines including “tropical medicine,” pharmacy, skin and cancer, and eye and ear medicine before the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland was officially established later in 1950. 

By 1922, Frances and John Blowick had opened a noviciate (training centre) in Cahiracon, Co. Clare for the newly approved congregation. That same year Frances and eight other initiates received their habits and took up their religious names, Frances choosing ‘Sister Mary Patrick.’ 

Sister Patrick’s Missionary Work in China

In 1926, at the age of 53, Sister Mary Patrick and five other sisters left for China, a country with severe internal turmoil on the brink of civil war. Despite anti-foreigner sentiment and distrust, Sister Mary Patrick and the others ministered to people in Hanyang and Sientaochen in very difficult conditions. Cholera, dysentery, and typhoid epidemics, poverty, and violence were constant accompaniments to their ministry. Even a massive 1931 flood in which the Yangtze River overflowed did not dissuade them; with nearly 800 people taking refuge in the compound for months. The congregation also worked to provide vaccinations for local people, curbing smallpox outbreaks in the area. Sister Patrick’s pharmaceutical knowledge was also helpful in reducing cases of opium overdose. 

Following her election of the third superior general of the congregation in 1936, Sister Patrick returned to Ireland where she promoted the work they were doing in China. Recruiting from universities and hospitals, she returned to China with renewed support. In Shanghai, she took over and staffed the Sancta Sophia school for children of exiled White Russians (those who supported the Tsarist regime during the Russian Revolution). 

mother mary patrick doing missionary work in china mother mary patrick in china sat amongst local women and sisters from Sisters of St Columban

Why Universities in Ireland Remember Sister Patrick

During her term in office, she oversaw two of the first four missionary sisters to study medicine at University College Dublin. She helped thousands of people through vaccination and charity and followed her religious conviction throughout her life. 

Mother Mary Patrick died in 1959 after a life of adventure and dedication.