Gaynor, Anna (‘Sister Mary John’) (1826–99), Sister of Charity and first superior of Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, Dublin, was born 17 March 1826 in Athlone, one of six children (five daughters and one son) of John and Anne Gaynor of Roxborough, Co. Roscommon. One of the girls, Sarah (qv), who married Dr George Atkinson (qv), was a woman of considerable literary talent and is still remembered for her writings, especially her biography of Mary Aikenhead (qv). Anna and Marcella entered the congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity. The Gaynors were fortunate in their parents, who not only afforded them a liberal education but gave a living example of care and concern for those in need. During the famine years they were active in providing for the needs of the poor and hungry people of the neighbourhood.
When Anna was about 12 the family moved to Dublin. She completed her education in Germany, and on her return to Ireland entered heartily into the social life of a cultured and literary circle of friends. At the same time she followed in the footsteps of her parents, visiting and caring for the poor in their homes. While still in her teens she felt called to serve God in religious life, but was reluctant to make the sacrifice involved in leaving her family and friends. However, in November 1854 she entered the noviciate of the Sisters of Charity in Harold's Cross, where she was professed in May 1857, having received the name ‘Sister Mary John’ at her reception. Her first assignment after profession was to St Vincent's Hospital, where she was to remain for nineteen years, working as secretary to the superior and as guestmistress to the constant stream of visitors who came on business, to see patients, to seek admission for relatives or friends, or simply to look around, since a hospital run and staffed by sisters was still something of a novelty. Her natural charm and friendly manner won her many friends, whose help she enlisted on behalf of the poor.
In 1876 the superior of St Vincent's Hospital, Mother Scholastica Margison, was elected head superior and went to live in Harold's Cross. Sr M. John moved with her as secretary. In 1878 she was given an assignment that she must have enjoyed – that of assisting her sister Sarah in gathering information about the foundress of the congregation, Mother Mary Aikenhead, for the biography she was about to write. The book was published in 1879 and was very well received. In September of that same year the noviciate was moved from Harold's Cross to Milltown and the head superior moved there together with the novices. The vacated accommodation in Harold's Cross was to be used as a hospice for the dying, and Sr M. John was to be responsible for its establishment. According to one who knew her, ‘she naturally loved all that was bright and beautiful and her whole nature shrank from the gloom of death and the constant contact with loathsome disease’, but she gave herself wholeheartedly to the task and with her companions set about preparing for the intake of the first patients. These were a young carpenter, a pensioner and a young boy, all suffering from consumption, a shoemaker, a governess, two servants, and an old woman designated ‘a roomkeeper’. The inaugural opening ceremony took place on 9 December 1879, and the Freeman's Journal of the following day reported: ‘Yesterday Our Lady's Hospice for the Dying, recently established under the care of the Sisters of Charity, Harold's Cross, was solemnly opened. . . It is truly a work of the noblest charity. . . Amid the thousand forms of tender mercy to which these good sisters devote themselves, there is none higher or more noble than this.’
Once a beginning had been made, Mother M. John lost no time in filling every available bed with poor patients, and the need for more accommodation became more and more obvious. This called for fund-raising on a large scale. Her trust in Divine Providence and her dedication to the suffering poor were combined with a clear brain, foresight, and initiative. She used her literary talent in composing appeals. From its beginning, reports on the needs of the Hospice, its expenditure, donations, bequests, and balance were available. She insisted that the ordinary food of hospitals would not satisfy the dying because, especially in consumptive cases, ‘nature craves a supply for the waste of the system’. She was determined that spirit, soul, and body would find comfort and consolation in Our Lady's Hospice. Under her direction the Hospice continued to expand and to improve its facilities for patients.
From what has been written of her by those who knew her, Mother M. John seems to have been a person greatly loved by all – gracious, compassionate, understanding, with a real love for the patients, despite her initial repugnance to terminal illness. Her smile brought sunshine to the wards and often left laughter where there had been tears. After a year's illness she died on 5 March 1899 and was buried in the convent cemetery in Donnybrook, Dublin.