Mother Elizabeth Moore
A biography written by Angela Bugler rsm
The plight of the Catholic population, residing in Limerick’s Old Town in the 1830s, was utterly incredible, so wretched and miserable was their lot. Extreme poverty with its attendant afflictions of hunger and disease had left the people destitute. Catherine McAuley felt she had no choice but to make a foundation in Limerick as early as possible in 1838. The person who would lead the sisters there would be the young and energetic Sister Elizabeth Moore.
According to Rev. Thomas Enright, the curate in St. Mary’s Parish, no less than 25 families were living in one house in 1834. Henry D. Inglis, the English traveller who visited Limerick in the same year, gives a chilling account of his experiences during his visit and a lurid description of the scenes he witnessed there: “I spent a day in visiting those parts of the city where the greatest destitution and misery were said to exist. I entered upwards of forty of the abodes of poverty; and to the latest hour of my existence I can never forget the scenes of utter and hopeless wretchedness that presented themselves that day.… Some of the abodes I visited were garrets, some were cellars; some were hovels on the ground floor, situated in narrow yards, or alleys. I will not speak of the filth of the places….The inmates, were some of them old, crooked, and diseased; some younger, but emaciated, and surrounded by starving children; some were sitting on the damp ground, some standing, and many were unable to rise from their little straw heaps.” In addition, and resulting from such poverty, a pall of helplessness and despair and universal misery hung over the city.
Most Reverend Dr. John Ryan, Bishop of Limerick, was painfully aware of the plight of his flock and duly concerned for them. He had heard of the wonderful work that Catherine McAuley’s sisters were doing for the poor in Dublin. In 1837, at the instigation of Miss Helena Heffernan, a benevolent Limerick lady who promised financial assistance, he besought Mother McAuley to establish a foundation in Limerick. Having recently lost five sisters through death and established foundations in Carlow and Cork, Catherine had not a single sister to spare. She promised, however, that when she had sisters to send, she would do so.
Prior to that time there had been religious communities in Limerick but, for one reason or another, they failed to persevere there. In 1812 the Poor Clare Order had established a foundation in the historic Peter’s Cell and soon opened a school there. Though contemplatives, they continued to teach poor children, but owing to financial difficulties and the death of their Abbess in 1830, they had to disband. Three of the sisters, Anne Hewitt, Mary Shanahan and Catherine Shanahan remained on within their enclosure hoping and praying that God would send a community of nuns to join them. Sadly, in 1834, Sr. Catherine died a victim of the cholera plague that had been devastating the city. Prior to that, in 1833, the Presentation Sisters came to Peter’s Cell and worked in the school. They struggled there for three years, but seeing no prospect of vocations they became discouraged and left. They re-settled subsequently in Sexton Street, in another parish of the city. Previously, in 1826, a group of Ursuline Sisters had founded a community in the North Strand, but they too disbanded after three years.
Bishop Ryan was hoping to secure the establishment of a community of Sisters of Mercy in Peter’s Cell, the Poor Clare Convent, and he was determined to brook no opposition to that plan. Meanwhile, haunted by the horrific descriptions she had been hearing of the poor in Limerick, Catherine McAuley felt she had no choice but to accede to Bishop Ryan’s request, sooner rather than later. She decided, therefore, to make a foundation in Limerick as early as possible in 1838. The person who would lead the sisters there would be the young and energetic Sister Elizabeth Moore.
Anne Moore was the daughter of James and Catherine Moore of St. James’ Parish, Dublin. Born on Pentecost Sunday 1806, she was the only child in the family to have survived beyond infancy. Her father died when she was just seven years old. Anne spent much of her early years with her maternal grandmother who had some premonition about the little girl. It is said that on one occasion she laid her hand on her head and prayed:
“May God bless you, my child! You seem marked out for a great end.”
Anne received her education in a ladies’ seminary conducted by “the Misses Reynolds.” She possessed a good knowledge of English, French and Music and had a sweet singing voice. She acquired as much Arithmetic as was deemed necessary for young ladies at the time. Dr. Michael Blake, her confessor and friend, desired that she should train as a catechist and made her president of the Sunday school that he had established in the parish of Saints Michael and John.
On Pentecost Sunday, June 10, 1832, Anne Moore entered the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street on her 26th birthday. She had previously entered the Sisters of Charity, but did not persevere there. She now joined the fledgling community of the Sisters of Mercy which consisted of Mother McAuley, the two sisters professed with her, the early Associates who had been received five months previously and a few postulants. On October 8th she received the religious habit, taking as her patron saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary who was renowned for deeds of charity.
Sister Elizabeth’s novitiate formation took place under the guidance of Catherine McAuley who was Novice Mistress from 1831-1835. The Rule was not yet confirmed nor even completely written, but, having the foundress herself for her guide, she received a thorough grounding in the principles and duties of the religious life as well as experiencing and imbibing at first hand the charism of Mercy. She was professed on October 8 1834.
Sister Elizabeth took part in all the activities and duties of the convent. From the moment of her entry in 1832 she accompanied Catherine McAuley to Townsend Street to tend the victims of the cholera epidemic that was ravaging Dublin and the country at that time. There she saw the appalling wretchedness of the victims and witnessed the fervent devotedness of Catherine and the sisters as they tended the sick. She learned, too, of the “cure,” - heated port-wine - that they administered to the poor patients and which seemed to bring welcome relief.
Two years after her Profession she was placed in charge in Kingstown until she was chosen by Catherine to be the superior of the new foundation in Limerick in 1838.
Arrival of the Sisters of Mercy in Limerick
On the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, 24 September 1838, at eight o’clock in the evening, Catherine McAuley and her foundation party which comprised Elizabeth Moore (superioress), Sister Vincent Harnett, a novice, Eliza Liston, a postulant and Sister Aloysius Scott, (on loan for a time) came via Cork and Charleville to Peter’s Cell, the Poor Clare Convent in Limerick. Darkness was beginning to fall and, because the laneway from the main street leading to the front entrance was too narrow and unsafe for a vehicle to turn in it, they had to enter through a door in the garden wall at the rear of the convent.
The two surviving Poor Clare Sisters, Anne Hewitt and Mary Shanahan, who had remained in their convent after the departure of their companions eight years previously, were waiting in the darkness at the garden door, with lighted candles in their hands, ready to give a big welcome to the Sisters of Mercy. Waiting with them was a young woman, Ellen Potter, who had been a postulant in Baggot Street, but who had to leave because of ill health. Now, her health restored, she was determined to enter again, this time in Limerick.
Sisters Anne and Mary, who were overjoyed at the coming of the “new nuns,” gave them a warm welcome into the convent. They had prayed and asked God to send them a community to which they could affiliate. They waited—and their waiting was rewarded. After a hearty meal and a good night’s rest, they all assembled for prayer in the convent chapel. The story goes that during the prayer the bell of St. Mary’s parish church rang out for Mass. Catherine, fearing that there would not be Mass in the convent, stood up, beckoned to her sisters who followed her, donned their street cloaks and went out to Mass. The two Poor Clare sisters had never seen religious leave the enclosure except in their coffins. They were filled with astonishment and came to the conclusion that, like the other congregations before her that had come and gone, Mother McAuley had changed her mind and had taken her nuns back to Dublin! They began to sob and weep, as this, they felt, was their last hope. When the chaplain came to say Mass they told him their sad story. He assured them that they had been mistaken. Great was their delight when Catherine and the sisters returned from Mass. Catherine had the highest regard for the two Poor Clares whom she considered to be two old saints. They were soon affiliated to the Mercy Congregation and became two wonderful Mercy sisters. Henceforth the convent would be called “St. Mary’s”
The door through which Catherine, Elizabeth and the founding party entered had, until 1988 been indicated by a statue of Our Lady. In that year, to mark the sesquicentenary of the Limerick foundation, a mosaic was commissioned for the doorway, depicting the arrival of the “black” sisters (the Mercies) being welcomed by the “brown” sisters (the Poor Clares).
Limerick Foundation – Initial Anxieties
There were initial anxieties regarding the Limerick foundation. Catherine, Elizabeth and the sisters soon realised the extent of the poverty, destitution, despair and universal misery that surrounded them. Knowing that three congregations before them had failed to survive, Catherine must have wondered whether they would be able to cope or whether the same fate would befall her Sisters of Mercy as had befallen the other congregations.
Writing to sister Teresa White in Kingstown on 12 October, 1838, less than a month after arriving in Limerick, Catherine pleads for prayers for the new foundation: “Get the sisters to invoke their patron saints,” she writes, “and implore saint Teresa, who loved foundations, to intercede for poor Limerick where no seed has yet taken root” Two weeks later, on October 25, in a letter to Sister Frances Warde, in Carlow, she informs her of the difficulties she is encountering in Limerick, which, she feels needs her presence for longer than the usual month she was wont to spend with new foundations: “I cannot go for a full month. No person of less experience could manage at present, and I am very insufficient for the task” Later appalled by the hopeless condition of the poor, she writes again to Frances Warde:
“The poor here are in a most miserable state. The whole surrounding neighbourhood (is) one scene of wretchedness and sorrow”
A more immediate cause of anxiety, however, was the obvious change in personality that had occurred in Mother Elizabeth Moore, the superioress. The once staunch, brave and energetic Elizabeth seemed to have become a prey to nervousness and timidity and did not seem at all equal to the role of superioress. This was a cause of concern to Catherine who referred to it in her letter of October 25 to Sister Frances Warde: “As for Sister Elizabeth (Moore), with all her readiness to undertake it, we never sent such a faint-hearted soldier, now that she is in the field. She will do all interior and exterior work, but to meet on business, confer with the Bishop, conclude with a Sister - you might as well send the child that opens that door … she gets white as death and her eyes like fever.” She adds, however, “She is greatly liked, and when the alarms are a little over, and a few in the House, I expect all will go well.” – an expectation that was to prove prophetic.