Mother Mary Angela Dunne

A biography written by Mary Lyons rsm

Margaret Dunne was born in 1788 in the townland of Rahinhole, Co. Laois. Her parents were Jeremiah, known as Darby, and Hanoria Dunne. Margaret's upbringing and education enabled her to become a truly committed Catholic, independent, prudent, cautious. When she left home, she moved to Dublin and lived at South Earl Street. On the 10 February 1828 her brother John - gentleman - signed an indenture promising to pay her £300 sterling and an annuity of £30 during her life.

Margaret's desire to help the poor of Dublin led her to become associated with Catherine McAuley at Baggot Street. Initially she had reservations because of the impermanence of the institute. However, she was influenced by Dr. Blake who reassured her, and on 8 September 1829 she joined the group in Baggot Street. She showed extraordinary compassion and courage, when she and Mary Ann Doyle remained with the unfortunate young woman - Marianne Redmond - while her leg was being amputated in Baggot Street. Anaesthetic was not usually used at the time.

Margaret Dunne was one of the first seven to be received in Baggot Street, she was given the name of Sister Mary Angela. On 24 January 1833 Archbishop Murray received the vows of Sister Mary Angela and three others. She was older than her companions. She was one of those at Baggot Street while Catherine and her companions were in the Novitiate at George's Hill. They undertook severe fasts and penances which Catherine McAuley judged to be incompatible with the hard work of the Institute in the schools, hospitals and visitation of the sick poor in their homes.

The new Institute of Mercy grew in strength and numbers and Catherine received requests for foundations. The third independent house was founded at Charleville in north Cork, close to the Limerick border. The history of the town goes back to Norman times. In 1671 Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery requested the Stuart King, Charles II to grant the status of Chartered Borough to the town. He renamed the town, Charleville. This status was revoked by an Act of Parliament in 1840. In pre-famine times it had a large population of very poor people. A traveller wrote of it, that several of the small houses of the poor had no furniture other than an iron cooking pot.

Mary Clanchy, the daughter of a local wealthy family, earnestly wished for a religious foundation in the town for the benefit of all but especially the poor. Two previous attempts had not succeeded. When in Dublin, Mary visited Catherine in Baggot Street to present her request. She would give a house and £500. The parish priest, Fr. Croke, was in full accord, as was Dr. Crotty - Bishop of Cloyne - who made the formal request. Catherine agreed to the foundation.

Sister Mary Angela was chosen to be the founding Superior in Charleville. Although a reluctant one, she had maturity and the experience of presiding in the branch house at Kingston. The founding party, comprised of Catherine, a travelling companion for the return journey, Sister Mary Angela Dunne and two novices, set out for Charleville on 29 October 1836, feast of St. Colman of Cloyne. They travelled by canal packet to Tullamore where they broke the journey to visit their dear sisters of the first foundation. They discovered Fr. Croke was already there to meet them and accompany them on the remainder of the journey. They continued by canal packet to Limerick where they spent a restful night in the Presentation Convent in Sexton Street. Next day they drove to Charleville where they received a great welcome. We can imagine the loneliness and bewilderment of Sister Mary Angela, apart from the fatigue and discomfort of the journey. Miss Clanchy's house proved to be a big disappointment. It was small and poorly furnished for their purposes. It was exceedingly damp. They found Dr. Croke cold and reserved, although later he proved a great friend and support of the community. The next day Bishop Crotty travelled from Cobh to bless them and inaugurate the Mother Superior. With an austere and scrupulous temperament, Mother Mary Angela must have suffered intensely from the many difficulties that beset the early years in Charleville. Even Catherine wavered as to the wisdom of remaining in such an unhealthy house, with such poor prospects of receiving postulants.

The sisters were a great source of amazement to the poor people of the town They referred to them as "the ladies from Dublin" and "the moving nuns". When Catherine heard a poor woman exclaim "sure it was Almighty God drove ye in amongst us", she decided the sisters should stay. She would write in December 1837 "are not the poor of Charleville as dear to God as elsewhere? And while one pound of Miss Clanchy's five hundred lasts, ought we not to persevere and confide in his providence?" Mother Mary Angela's appeals to Catherine to withdraw the sisters from Charleville were not granted. In the same letter Catherine states clearly how disturbed she was while on the Cork foundation, when a curate and a christian brother called on her making the same request. The different approach of the two women to the "sick branch" at Charleville must have caused considerable suffering to both. But from it we gain a gem in that beautiful maxim

Put your whole confidence in God. He will never let you want necessities for yourself or children.

Mother Mary Angela, always particular about religious obedience, admitted a postulant of whom Catherine did not approve. Catherine complained that she had not been consulted and it was Fr. Croke who informed her. Nevertheless, the young woman persevered and proved satisfactory. In the early years several postulants presented themselves but remained long enough to cause a good deal of trouble before leaving or being dismissed. Mother Mary Angela was a remarkably prayerful and humble person. She had a special gift for comforting the sick. Mary Clanchy, who married and became Mrs. French, remained a good friend. The sisters taught in Primary and Industrial schools, and did visitation of the sick in their homes. Later a secondary school was added. Catherine's prophesy "It has hitherto been a sick branch but it will be a strong one yet" became a reality.

Mother Mary Angela resigned the office of Superior on 27 November 1844. She was re-elected on 12 May 1856. She died peacefully on 12 November 1863, and was laid to rest in the Convent cemetery. Fr. Croke said of her "she did not have a single unmortified passion". She tended the "sick branch" until it truly flourished and sent out sisters to Buttevant, Bathurst, New Inn, Kilmallock, the Crimea and Midleton. What more could the saintly Foundress of Charleville have done?

  1. The Annals of Convent of Mercy, Charleville
  2. The Life of Catherine McAuley by Mother Teresa Austin Carroll. The Vincent Press, St Louis, Mo. 1866
  3. Catherine McAuley, The First Sister of Mercy by Ronald Burke Savage, S.J. M H Gill & Son Ltd 1950
  4. Mercy Unto Thousands by Sister M. Bertrand Degnan R.S.M The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland 1957
  5. The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1827 – 1841. By Sister M. Angela Bolster .1988. The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, Diocese of Cork and Ross