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Mother Mary Kostka (lay name Kate Kirby)(1863-1952)

Roman Catholic Mother Superior, meeting prejudice with mercy

Mother Mary KostkaDunedin's first Catholic nuns were Dominicans. They lived an 'enclosed' life in their central city convent. Except when teaching school they remained apart from the everyday world. This made it difficult for them to meet the social needs of Dunedin's growing Catholic population. In 1897 a second group of nuns arrived: the Mercy Sisters. These Irish Sisters were what was called 'walking nuns'. Their mission was to the poor and sick and they travelled out from their convents to do their work.

The Sisters were out visiting the sick within days of arrival. Within weeks they were running the South Dunedin Catholic schools. St Vincents Orphanage was opened soon after, a boys orphanage followed in 1920. The Sisters walked about the city in pairs, becoming a familiar sight on the streets of South Dunedin in their long black habits. Kate Kirby - Mother Mary Kostka - was their first Superior. She was an inspirational leader, a woman of great personal holiness. The Sisters lived a life of great austerity, funding their work largely from the music lessons they offered. In 1918 Mother Kostka sent her Sisters out to nurse victims of the Influenza Epidemic in their homes. Wards were set up in the Sisters' schools as well as a creche for the children of the sick. These brave gestures did much to soften the traditional prejudice of Dunedin Protestants towards Catholic nuns.

(Photograph, Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

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