Frayne, Mary Clara (Sister Mary Ursula) (1816–85), Sister of Mercy, Australian foundress, and educator, was born 15 October 1816 in 29 Bride's Alley, Dublin, younger daughter among four children of Robert Frayne, cabinet-maker and auctioneer, and Bridget Frayne. She entered the Convent of Mercy, Baggot St., Dublin (2 July 1834), received the habit of the Sisters of Mercy (20 January 1835), taking the religious name of Sister Mary Ursula, and was professed 25 January 1837. She was appointed sister in charge of the convent in Booterstown from 1838 to 4 October 1841 and there had charge of the local national school.
Mother M. Ursula Frayne and Mother M. Frances Creedon (1811–55) led the first Mercy foundation to North America in St John's, Newfoundland, leaving Dublin 2 May 1842 on the Sir Walter Scott and arriving 3 June. A fee-paying school was opened (1 May 1843) and the sisters undertook visitation of the sick and poor. Mary Ursula returned to Ireland 18 November 1843 and remained in Baggot St. until 8 September 1845, when, in response to a request from Dr John Brady, bishop of Perth, she led the first Mercy foundation to Australia. They travelled on the Elizabeth from Gravesend and arrived in Perth, Western Australia, 8 January 1846.
The sisters visited transported convicts and men and women in the ‘lockup’, giving clothes to those who needed them. When Irish prisoners were transported to the Fremantle convict settlement, the sisters furnished the catholic chapel. Through home visitation, basic necessities such as food and clothing were given to the poor. Missing husbands working in goldfields were located through advertisements placed in the Melbourne newspapers.
The Sisters of Mercy, though the second group of nuns to come to Australia, were the first religious sisters to establish schools there. Fee-paying secondary schools and free schools which followed the Irish national board system of education were established. Mother M. Ursula and her sisters walked through the town and into the bush in search of pupils for the free school, persuading parents to send their children to it. A mutual respect and trust developed between Mother M. Ursula and the aboriginal people. St Francis Xavier's Benevolent Institution was opened in April 1847 for aboriginal girls and for destitute European children.
In response to a request from the archbishop of Melbourne, Dr James Goold (qv), a Convent of Mercy was founded in Melbourne 6 March 1857. Boarding and day fee-paying schools, free schools, Sunday schools for domestic servants, and a domestic training school for orphans were established. The sisters took charge of an orphanage in 1861. Mother M. Ursula concentrated most of her activity in Melbourne and only founded one other convent outside Melbourne, in Kilmore (1875). Expansion was limited by the number of native vocations, since very few sisters came from Ireland.
Prison visitation by the sisters was not allowed, because a Roman Catholic chaplain visited the prisoners. When Ned Kelly requested a visit from Mother M. Ursula it was refused. During the weeks leading up to his execution (11 November 1880) his sisters, Kitty Kelly and Mrs Skillan, stayed with the sisters in the Melbourne convent.
An employment bureau and a House of Mercy for the protection of unemployed young women of good character was established. Mother M. Ursula and the sisters went to the docks to meet girls and women who travelled to Australia under the terms of the state-assisted emigration scheme, and provided them with food and clothing. The government allowed indiscriminate employment of these girls by employers whose character had not been investigated. Mother M. Ursula persuaded many of them to come to the House of Mercy from where, following domestic training, they were placed in respectable situations. In direct opposition to government policy, she always readmitted girls who had problems with their employers. Between 1862 and 1869, 424 girls were provided with shelter. When the government-assisted scheme ceased in 1868, the House of Mercy was converted into a two-year residential domestic economy school for teenage girls who had recently left the catholic orphanage.
Mother M. Ursula Frayne died in Fitzroy, Melbourne, 9 June 1885, and is buried in a vault under the convent chapel. She was recognised as a pioneer educator, welfare worker, social reformer, businesswoman, and advocate of the poor and oppressed. The Ursula Frayne Memorial Chapel was built in Fitzroy by the people of Melbourne four years after her death at a cost of £7,500, and in 1979 the city of Perth dedicated a plaque to her on the pavement of St George's Terrace, the site of the first Convent of Mercy in Australia. By 1981 the Sisters of Mercy had become the largest religious order in Australia with 3,089 sisters in 355 convents conducting over 300 schools and 14 hospitals. On 23 October 1985 the mayor of Fitzroy named her as one of ‘Fitzroy's favourite sons and daughters' in recognition of her contribution to the development of the city, and in 1996 the annual Ursula Frayne Memorial Lecture was inaugurated.