Mother Mary Bernard Garden

A biography written by Marion McCarthy rsm and Jean Parkes rsm

Mother Bernard Garden (pictured front centre). From GB Union Elgin collection and dated c. 1880s

Mother Mary Bernard Garden was a truly remarkable woman who, despite all the time she spent travelling in the British Isles, when travelling was so difficult, uncomfortable and inconvenient, managed to found seven Convents of Mercy: one in South Wales, five in Scotland and one in England. As a Sister of Mercy, whenever she was approached by Bishops or priests to make a foundation to help the poor, she responded immediately and positively. She certainly had “Get up and Go” just as Catherine McAuley had.

She was born in Aberdeen on 25 March 1824, the daughter of George Garden Esq., and Christine Garden, nee. Gordon. Her baptismal name was Margaret. We don’t know whether she had any siblings, as none are mentioned in any of the documentation we have. We do know, however, that she entered the Convent of Mercy, St. Ethelburga’s, Liverpool, for the Scottish Mission, on 14 October 1845 when she was 21, she Received the habit in April, 1846 and was Professed in Baggot Street by Archbishop Murray of Dublin on 6 July 1849. Her religious name was Sister Mary Bernard of The Crucifixion. Her Motto was “With Christ I am Nailed to the Cross.”

In the Liverpool Annals it is recorded that Sister Mary Bernard was a good singer and a skilled nurse. Because of her nursing skills she was sent, still a novice, with Sister Ann (surname unknown) to Baggot Street to nurse Mother de Sales White, their Superior. She was seriously ill and had gone to Dublin to consult an eminent physician. He was unable to help her, but while they were in Dublin, arrangements were made for Sister Mary Bernard to be Professed by Archbishop Murray. The ceremony duly took place on 6 July 1849 shortly after which, she and Sister Ann, accompanied Mother de Sales, (now on a stretcher) back to Liverpool, where she died on 5. October of that year.

A short time afterwards, Sister Mary Bernard was sent to Limerick with a Father Colgan, from where a group of Sisters had recently left Ireland to make a foundation in Glasgow. It is strange that Sister was not sent to join them but the following account from the Limerick Annals of 1849, may explain why.

“In the early part of this year, a foundation was promised to Glasgow. It was first arranged to go there from the convent in Liverpool where a Scottish postulant entered for the mission, but the illness and unexpected death of the Superior, Mother de Sales White, led to the application being made to us from Baggot Street where she was then in a dying state. However, she was able to return to Liverpool and died there in her own convent on 5th. October. It was anxiously wished that the young (Scottish) Sister who had served her novitiate in another community, should come here now for holy Profession which, however, was not obtained. Yet it was wisely stipulated that she should not go to the new establishment on the opening of the House, but that before forming a member of the Glasgow community, she should spend some time at this convent, St. Mary’s, which she did on the death of her Mother Superior in October – after our Sisters had gone – two months before, to Scotland.”

So Sister Mary Bernard was left in Limerick for some time, perhaps to gain experience of another community. But the Most Rev. Dr. Murdoch, under whose authority Sister Bernard had been professed, was not prepared to wait for her to return to Scotland. He came to Limerick for her himself as recorded in the Limerick Annals of 1849.

“…….and so anxious was he that she should be allowed to return that his wishes were yielded to. The result proved, however, that it would be well had his Lordship not made the request which the Superiors here found much too difficult to refuse …….”

From the circumstances quoted above, it would seem that Sister Mary Bernard’s return to Scotland to join the community in Glasgow, may not have been to everyone’s liking, as it is recorded there:- “On the evening of 17th. May, 1851, Mother M. Catherine, three Professed Sisters, two Novices and four Postulants, returned to Limerick from the Glasgow foundation. As had been feared, amalgamating a Sister from another community with different training and a short novitiate, was not productive of the best results.”

There was definitely some friction in the community in Glasgow in 1851, but this was not due to Sister Mary Bernard being appointed Superior (as the Limerick Annals seem to suggest). The tension and conflict was between a certain Father Forbes in Glasgow and Mother Elizabeth Moore, the Superior in Limerick, from where the Glasgow foundation had been made. In May 1851, Mother Elizabeth wanted to withdraw two professed Sisters who had been lent for the foundation. Father Forbes strongly objected and tried to have the arrangement changed, but without success.

Father Forbes then “came to the conclusion that, as the Reverend Mother had only been lent in like manner, she had better return with them and thus prevent any further recurrence of the same manner.” The conclusion proved, however, most disastrous in its results. “When Reverend Mother Catherine and the two professed Sisters were about to leave, other Sisters felt it best that they leave as well. So on Friday 16th. May, Reverend Mother and seven other dear Sisters left Glasgow to return to their Mother House, leaving behind them two young professed Sisters, Mary Bernard Garden and Mary J. Butler, three choir novices and two choir postulants. Sister Mary Bernard was then appointed Superior by Bishop Murdoch. Most of the Sisters being young and inexperienced, the difficulties were many and the labour proved to be so great that by the end of the year, Reverend Mother Bernard’s health completely gave way and two of the other Sisters became very unwell.”

Help was then sent in the form of a Superior and two Sisters from Liverpool.

From the book “Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain 1839-1978” we learn: “It is interesting to record here that away back in the 1850’s during a period of stress and strain the Superior of St. Ethelburga’s, Liverpool, kindly agreed to lend a Sister to the city on the Clyde (Glasgow). This was no less a person than Sister Mary Bernard Garden, that remarkable woman who was later to found convents in North East Scotland. She accepted the office of Mother Superior for one year and then returned to Liverpool.

In the same book, we are told that “Only three years after her profession, Sister Mary Bernard Garden was sent to found a convent at Pontypool, South Wales, where she was joined within the next twenty years by many Sisters, some of whom went further afield – one, Sister Mary Xavier Doherty, went to make a foundation in New Zealand.” (P.118) .

We don’t know though, how or indeed if, Sister Mary Bernard stayed all this time in South Wales herself, because of all the travelling she was doing in the intervening years, in the British Isles. All we know for certain is, that when Pontypool closed, she went to Scotland with 12 Sisters (possibly the whole community.)

In the course of twelve years from 1849 – 1862 she journeyed: from England to Ireland, at least three times; from England to Scotland, four times, from England to Wales, several times, and in England she seemed to be constantly on the move. It makes you wonder how she managed to found any Convents at all. Here are outlined some of her travels in England to and from Liverpool often; to Skipton, Yorkshire a number of times, (once to prepare the new Convent being prepared for the Sisters); to Lancaster at least five times; to Newcastle-on-Tyne; to Aberdeen with a companion, Sister Mary Evangelist Smith, to nurse her mother, Mrs. Garden, who was seriously ill, and she even managed to get to Birmingham a couple of times, where it is recorded in the Handsworth Annals,

“During November of 1892 Mother Bernard, foundress of a Convent of Mercy in Elgin, paid us a visit. She was on her way to found a Convent at Newcastle in Staffordshire. Canon O’Hanlon requested her also to establish a branch house in St. Michael’s Parish, Birmingham, and a few months later, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart having returned to their Mother House, Mother Bernard sent members of her community to take charge of the Home for poor girls and to teach in the Mission Schools.”

It was not until 1870 when she was 46 years old, that Mother Bernard began her mission in the Highlands of Scotland at the request of her father and uncle, a priest in Aberdeenshire, where she founded five Houses – in -Dornie (Loch Duich) Ross-shire 1870 (The upkeep of the Convent was financed by Mother Bernard’s relatives); Elgin in 1871; Fort Augustus in 1872; Keith in 1873; and Tomintoul in 1880. In the meantime, she had founded a House in Pontypool, South Wales, (date not known.)

From the Diocesan Year Books of 1867, 1868, and 1869 we learn that there were Convents of Mercy in Pontypool and Ledbury, Herefordshire, and that the Sisters were running boarding and day schools in the area and taking care of orphans. They advertised in 1867, page 238, as follows:

Convent of Our Lady of Mercy Pontypool, Monmouthshire.
“The Sisters of Mercy, Pontypool, take charge of three day and night schools attached to this mission. Two of these schools are at two miles distant from the convent. A suitable building for one of these has not as yet been provided, and as the mission is extremely poor, the Sisters would be most grateful for any subscription which may be charitably offered…. There is accommodation in one part of the convent for a limited number of boarders and the situation of the convent is both beautiful and healthy.”

Convent of Our Lady of Mercy Pontypool, Monmouthshire (1868, page 302) 
Schools for a limited number of young ladies. For particulars apply to the Rev. Mother as above.

1869, (page 173) we learn that there was also a convent in Ledbury.
Convents of Mercy, Pontypool, Ledbury.
Same notice as in the previous year.

1879, page 173, only Pontypool is mentioned (page 334), Ledbury had probably closed.
Convent of Our Lady of Mercy, Pontypool, Monmouthshire.
A Middle-class Boarding School on moderate terms and an orphanage at Abersychan branch house.

By the time the 1879 Diocesan Year Book was published, the Sisters of Mercy must have left Wales, as they are not listed in communities of religious women.

The Sisters of Mercy in Pontypool seem to have had serious difficulties to overcome with the then Bishop of Newport, Bishop Thomas Brown, who had written to Fr. Anselm Knapen, O.S.F. seeking answers to six questions he raised about the Sisters. Fr. Anselm wrote to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, seeking clarification, in the light of the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy.

  1. “The honoured Prelate instituted the first Superior and asks if this institution is valid?” as he later discovered “that the chosen lady was very unpopular with those who knew her better.” He was told the act was valid as it was stated in the Sisters’ Constitutions “when there are not seven professed to make the election, the Bishop shall name the Mother Superior”. This he had done.
  2. “Is their (the Sisters) Profession valid?” He had become aware that some professed Sisters at Pontypool had made part of their noviciate at other houses independent of Pontypool, although they were all Sisters of Mercy. He was told their profession was valid, as they made only simple vows, but unlawful.
  3. “Is a Noviciate valid if made in a house rented for a year?” The house was later bought by the community, who had borrowed the money, without the Bishop’s consent. The Bishop was told “The Sister Superior must not decide on any matter of importance without the consent of the Bishop,” and that “The Sisters are held to obedience in these matters.”
  4. He next asked, “Whether the Superior can send subject Sisters to other places, even outside the diocese without the previous consent of the Bishop.” He was told “Yes, as provided in the Rule for the running of schools and visitation of the sick.” It seems “two Sisters are now in search of alms in Belgium after questing in France against the express will of the Bishop.” He was told - “It follows that the Bishop as the principal superior and upholder of discipline has power to forbid these wanderings and trips. If the Sister Superior in such a grave situation refuses to obey, there seems to be a canonical reason to depose her.”
  5. “Is it lawful for the Ordinary to allow the profession of Sisters who do not have sufficient means of support?” The Bishop was of the opinion that the dowry should be at least fifteen pounds a year. The answer – The Constitutions are explicit “that the number of novices shall be admitted which the resources of the house permit and no more, with the exception of one whose dowry is sufficient for her upkeep and all other needs.”
  6. The final question. “Is it lawful for a Superior of Sisters of Mercy to send novices to teach in schools for poor children in other parts of the diocese when they have to stay for weeks or months away from the discipline of the noviciate day and night. Does a noviciate of this kind invalidate subsequent vows?” The answer; “There is no doubt that such vows are valid, because we are dealing with simple vows and because no rule of the Church of this particular Congregation invalidates vows because of defect of noviciate.”

It was in 1870, in the face of these difficulties with Bishop Brown, who was known to be ‘legalistic’ that Mother Bernard left Pontypool and began her very prolific ministry of opening houses in the Highlands of Scotland, accompanied by twelve Sisters (perhaps the whole community from Pontypool).

  • Dornie which was in existence from 1870 – 1897 (27 years)
  • Elgin 1871 – where the Sisters are still ministering to the people -132 years later.
  • Fort Augustus 1872 where the Sisters stayed for only one year. The Sisters of Mercy had been invited to the area by the then Abbot; they opened a small boarding school and day school. They also did the laundry and mending for the monks. But this changed when a German monk (possibly the next Abbot?), invited Benedectine nuns to Fort Augustus – these replaced the Sisters of Mercy who then left the area.
  • Keith 1873 (where the Sisters ministered for 118 years) until 1991.
  • Tomintoul 1880 – 1977 (97 years).

It is from the Elgin Annals that we have a very interesting piece of information - Mother Bernard was installed as Superior in Elgin by Bishop John Macdonald, Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District on 17August 1871. It must have been a task at which she excelled, because it is further recorded in the same Annals, that
“At the request of the Community and sanctioned by the Right Reverend Dr. John Macdonald, Bishop of the Diocese of Aberdeen, she (Mother Bernard) was Permanently appointed Reverend Mother by our Holy Father Pope Leo XIII in 1882.

Now we come to Mother Bernard’s last foundation – this time in England. Because of financial difficulties in the Convents in Scotland, Mother Bernard was advised to send the novices elsewhere for training so without delay on 4 October 1892, she travelled to Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Staffordshire with two other Sisters: Joseph Mary and Mary Veronica and opened a Convent of Mercy at No. 11 London Road. They had been invited by the Parish Priest of Holy Trinity, Father Maguire, with the approval of Dr. Ilsley, Bishop of Birmingham. In the small rented house there was accommodation for only two, but by the 10 October Father Maguire had procured Brook House in the parish for the Sisters, while Mother Bernard herself had been given hospitality by the Sisters of Mercy in Alton. Soon they were joined by two groups of Sisters from Elgin, Mary Columba and three novices and Mary Philomena and four novices.

At first, the Sisters were not self-supporting and were totally dependent on the local people. The Community started work immediately by setting up evening classes in the Three R’s for young people, while Saturday afternoons were devoted to teaching young women to sew. All the other works of Mercy were carried out and they also instructed converts and did sacristy work. In a short time they had helped to establish St. Patrick’s All-age School in the parish and the Sisters began teaching there.

The 6 April 1893 was a very important and impressive day for the parish, when seven novices were Professed in Holy Trinity Church: Sisters Mary Imelda Kearney, Mary Borgia McGrath, Mary Rose Russell, Mary Vincent Hickey, Mary Camillus Caplice, Mary Ursula Pyne and Mary Walburga Russell. The Right Reverend Dr. Ilsley, Bishop of Birmingham officiated at the ceremony, assisted by seventeen priests. Admission was by ticket only. By this time Mother Bernard’s health was failing. She was 69. Her attendance at this ceremony was her last public appearance. She died three months later on 31 July 1893 and is buried in Newcastle-Under-Lyme cemetery.

Here, our presentation of Mother Mary Bernard Garden, a much loved, much travelled as well as a controversial Sister of Mercy, ends with just two further touching paragraphs, one from her foundation at Newcastle-under-Lyme: “Mother Bernard being of an amiable disposition, was loved by all. Though she died when the Newcastle foundation was still in its infancy, she had the consolation of knowing that she left a group of zealous Sisters to establish the foundation she had so courageously undertaken.”

Our final tribute comes from the Log Book of Dornie, written in 1893, page 228.
“A week’s holiday (from school) in August on account of the death of Mother Mary Bernard Garden, first benefactress of the Mission School in Dornie. The children in deep grief assembled at the tolling of the church bell for prayers. R.I.P.


Grateful thanks are expressed to the following archivists who supplied much of this information from their Convent Annals. The archivists in :

  1. Barnsley
  2. Elgin
  3. Glasgow
  4. Handsworth
  5. Limerick
  6. Liverpool
  7. Mercy International Centre, Dublin
  8. Newcastle Under Lyme
  9. Sara Karly Kehoe, student at Glasgow University
  10. Mr. D. Chidgey, Cardiff Archdiocesan Archivist, who put me in touch with
  11. The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, re. the Pontypool foundation. They sent 13 pages of the late Bishop Brown’s papers (all in Latin), which were translated by:
  12. Father Michael Killeen.