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Source: Auckland Council

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, every day this week we’re exploring the stories behind great Auckland women and the legacy they’ve left behind. You can also check out the buildings around the city honouring them.

For Wednesday, discover the life of Mother Mary Cecilia Maher who founded the first order of religious women in New Zealand.  

“She was kind, compassionate and firm, leading the way herself and never asking of others what she had not herself undertaken.”

Life and Work

Mary Cecilia Maher was born as Ellen in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1799, taking her vows as a nun in 1840 and going on to become mother superior just a few years later.

In 1849 a call went out for sisters to teach to New Zealand and Mother Mary Cecilia answered. That August she sailed for Aotearoa with eight of her fellow sisters and founded the Sisters of Mercy in Auckland.

On arrival, they immediately took over a girls’ school on Wyndham Street and over the next few years they started another two schools open to all denominations.

The sisters learned te reo Māori from the Catholic Bishop of Auckland Pompallier on their voyage over. Their language skills helped them forge a relationship with Māori communities in Auckland as they took charge of St Anne’s school for Māori girls at Mount St Mary and later opened a hostel for Māori women visiting the city for trade.

Mother Mary Cecilia opened a convent and chapel for the Sisters of Mercy; St Mary’s Convent – blessed by Bishop Pompallier in 1866. It acted as the ‘mother house’ for the church’s congregation and accommodated 60 sisters.

Mother Mary Cecilia and her sisters went on to open up more schools and convents in Parnell, Onehunga and Otahuhu during the 1860’s and were noted for their work caring for the sick, visiting prisons and looking after orphans.

St Mary’s Chapel, 2018. Photograph from Auckland Council.


St Mary’s Convent and Chapel is still standing today after being restored in 1979 and is a scheduled and protected heritage site in the Auckland Unitary plan. Designed and built by renowned architect Edward Mahoney in the Gothic Revival style, the chapel is built from kauri with ornamental timber buttresses and tall arched windows.

One of the large stained-glass windows depicts St Cecilia, patron saint of Mother Mary Cecilia Maher. Mother Mary Cecilia herself was laid to rest in the convent grounds in 1878.