Mother Mary Ligouri Gibson
A biography written by Bernadette Roche rsm
Jane Frances”Fanny” Gibson was born in Manchester on 12 July 1819, the third daughter of Michael and Elizabeth Gibson. They moved to Eaton House West Derby, a village on the outskirts of Liverpool, when Fanny was about five. The Gibsons were a solid and wealthy Lancashire catholic family, and were connected to other well-known English catholic families such as the Hardmans in Birmingham.
One of Mr Gibson’s brothers, George, and a nephew, Thomas, were diocesan priests. Mrs Gibson had been educated by the Benedictine sisters in Winchester, and she sent her three daughters there as boarders, Fanny attending from the age of 10 until she was 16. The family were examples of all the forms of Christian vocation. Fanny’s elder sisters both married Catholics. One of Mrs Leigh’s daughters, Polly, became a Benedictine sister, Dame Walburga. Fanny’s elder brother, Michael, became a diocesan priest and eventually rector of Ushaw College, near Durham, the main seminary in the north of England. Her younger brother, John joined the Redemptorists.
The family were great benefactors to the church in Liverpool, for example, providing generously for the building of the spire at St Oswald’s church, Old Swan, after 1839, and supporting the Benedictine fathers. They were friendly with numerous clergy including the then bishop of Liverpool, George Brown, and the Vicar General for the diocese, Thomas Youens. Fanny appears to have had a settled and happy childhood1. After finishing school, in 1835 she continued to pursue the activities usual for a well to do young woman of the time, such as keeping a journal and travelling. She went to Scotland and London, where in 1837 she witnessed preparations for Queen Victoria’s coronation when their touring party visited Westminster Abbey.
In 1840, Bishop Brown was in correspondence with Catherine McAuley regarding the possibilities of a Mercy foundation in Liverpool. She, however, was preparing for foundations to Galway and Birr that year as well as receiving postulants (in April 1840) for her second English foundation in Birmingham. She was unable to find enough sisters for an immediate foundation for Liverpool, despite appeals to some of her earlier establishments. Undeterred, Dr Youens, the Vicar General appears to have written some time in early 1841 to Francis Warde in Carlow, requesting sisters for a foundation. Dr Youens was a friend of Rev Maher, the parish priest of Carlow who knew the sisters well. The latter may have impressed Dr Youens of Francis Warde’s suitability as a foundress for a new Mercy community in Liverpool.
In March 1841, Fanny wrote to Catherine McAuley, requesting admission to the community in Baggot Street. In it she reveals that she had been thinking for a long time of asking to join the order, but had deferred for fear of upsetting her parents. She enclosed a note for her friend, Juliana Hardman with the letter and it may have been a combination of Juliana’s example and her knowledge (through family connections) of Bishop Brown’s admiration for the order of Mercy and its foundress that drew her there. She wrote2:
Dear and Respected Mother, I take the liberty of addressing you as a child, to beg a favour which I have long-wished for of being really admitted as one among your community. I deferred writing until I could take this decisive step, and now the consent of my parents enables me to do so. I think you know the difficulty I have in obtaining this, being the only daughter with them, and how much I feel leaving my present happy home: but I have long had a strong desire to dedicate myself to God in the admirable Order of Our Lady of Mercy, and I think I have met with sufficient trials to prove that this desire comes from the Almighty …….I trust our good God will give me grace proportioned to my necessities………. Believe me ever, with sincerest respect, your most obedient child, Fanny Gibson, Eaton House, March 26th 1841
It seems that Catherine was much taken by Fanny’s letter and she gave a gracious and warm reply by return of post on March 28.3
My Dear Miss Gibson I have been favoured with your very pleasing communication, and am delighted at the near prospect of receiving you as a member of our community. Your note to Sister Juliana excited great pity. What pain indeed it must give you to wound the affection of your very estimable parents, who make this generous sacrifice for God’s glory and your happiness. It is a great triumph over nature: the grace must flow from our Divine Redeemer who came on earth not to bring the delusive enjoyment which we call peace, but a Heavenly sword, sharpened on the cross, to cut those dearest ties that have such a strong hold on the heart, and thus to draw all to himself: you, who in obedience to his call, will enter into his immediate service, and your respected parents who co operate with His design by not placing an obstacle in your way… earnestly begging God to grant you every grace and blessing, I remain with sincere affection. My dear Miss Gibson, your ever faithful, etc, etc, Mary C. McAuley
At this stage it seems Catherine was unaware of Francis Warde’s negotiations with Dr Youens regarding Liverpool.
Entering Baggot Street
Fanny left home on 4 May 1841 and went to stay with her father’s brother Rev. George Gibson in Dublin, until she entered Baggot Street on 16 May. Fanny imminent arrival is mentioned by Catherine in a letter to Aloysius Scott4in Birr dated 28 April. Catherine would be in Birr, for a change of air for her rapidly declining health, on 16 May. In a letter dated 13 May to Juliana Hardman5, she gives tongue –in- cheek advice on how Juliana should welcome her friend Fanny and impresses on her the importance of making sure that she gives a good account of her (Catherine)!
“I hope you will have ‘Sister Fanny’ on Saturday. Give her my most affectionate welcome. Don’t tell her I give severe lectures and sharp reproofs! Speak of me as a quiet, easy, simple, good natured person, such as you know I am. Tell her how I sympathise with poor sisters addicted to crying; how tenderly I compassionate their weakness. In fine tell her all that will make a favourable impression at first! If I should, unfortunately, fail to realise it, she will perceive the kindness of your intention and admire the charity with which you speak of your Superior.”
Catherine met Fanny for the first time later that month and comments how she “looked very delicate; a nice person”.6 Fanny was dogged with a less than robust constitution for much of her life and was frequently sick. Her subsequent work for Mercy is all the more remarkable when this is considered. Catherine herself was becoming more unwell when she made this observation. The two women would know each other for less than six months before Catherine died in November. Catherine gave the novices some instructions during Fanny’s time when Cecelia Marmion (the novice mistress) was in Birmingham. Fanny recalled later her initial awe of the foundress, and how she received one of Catherine’s “sharp reproofs” when she seemed to be showing slight overconfidence in her manner, an understandable trait perhaps in the “universal favourite” 7 of her family. She was asked to give a message to Mother McAuley, who was in the community room. Greatly excited, she went to the door, knocked several times only to find it opened by Catherine, who dropped a deep curtsey, led her in and introduced the embarrassed postulant to the rest of the community as “Her Grace, the Duchess of Knock.” 8
Negotiating the Foundation
Bishop Brown, subsequent to Fanny entering Baggot Street and seemingly, like Catherine, unaware of any contact with Carlow, appears to have written in July 1841, again requesting a foundation to Liverpool. Mother McAuley was much preoccupied at this point with preparations for Birmingham, as well as trying to deal with the deteriorating situation in Bermondsey under Sister Clare Agnew. However, she still made time to consider this new mission. She writes to Aloysius Scott on 19 July of “some proposals for Liverpool and believe we shall have some postulants over”9. She seems to have heard of Dr Youens’ negotiations with Francis Warde soon afterwards, for she writes to him on 24 July, generously praising the suitability of Francis’s ideas for Liverpool, and offering Fanny as a founding sister for the new Carlow venture.10 She encourages Francis Warde to press ahead with her plans, noting the “Dr Youens is so anxious, it is a pity to have any impediment”11
The matter was finally settled in favour of a Baggot street foundation for Liverpool by Bishop Brown. Catherine received a letter from Dr Youens in early August12 which explained the Bishop’s views on the desirability of a Baggot Street mission as well as hoping that the foundation not be before November as the land on which the convent was to be built was not fully secure until then. We can imagine Catherine’s wry amusement at this detail, as aware of her own ebbing strength, she was struggling to keep Baggot Street going, let alone envisaging further new foundations for 1841.
Fanny started her preparation for noviciate with an 8-day retreat on 7 August; unaware that one of her elder sisters, Mrs Leigh, had died.13 Her brother, Michael, asked that she be told of it, but Catherine felt it wiser for her to make her clothing retreat first. The news was a great blow to her. Fanny received the habit on 19th August 1841, taking the name Sister Mary Ligouri, in a ceremony which included the professions of Juliana Hardman, the Birmingham foundress and Vincent Whitty. Sister M. Ligouri was to remain friends with them until her death. The following day, the Birmingham party sailed for Liverpool. Mother McAuley requested Sister M. Ligouri as a travelling companion for the trip. On return from Birmingham, she wrote to Francis Warde14 “I had with me the young novice Sister Gibson. She has had great family afflictions. Her poor Papa now in London, after some severe operation and her Mamma’s letters [are] such as ‘tis wonderful she could bear [up]. Never did I see a vocation so proved! Dr Youens who is an intimate friend had her Mamma to meet us at his home. We dined with him as the Packet [boat] did not sail till near eight. He brought us to look at the place where he intends to build a convent. It is very well situated, quite close to the town, with three good approaches to it. We dressed for dinner, so he and his partners now have seen the full costume which they like very much. He seems quite ardent in the matter”. She never forgot the month she spent with Catherine in Birmingham, nor the foundress’s consideration for her family.
Death of Mother McAuley
Catherine McAuley lived for only 7 weeks on her return from Birmingham; for the last 10 days of her life, she was confined to her room. An anecdote in Leaves from the Annals15 relates how Sister M. Ligouri, passing Catherine’s room, was invited by her to enter. She seems to have realised Mother McAuley was dying, and became distressed, hugging her and asking her to stay with them. “What would the Order do if you died?” she asked. Catherine is reputed to have replied
My child, never say that again: if the Order be my work the sooner it falls to the ground the better; if it is God’s work it needs no one.
Sister M. Ligouri was one of the sisters who accompanied Catherine’s body to her grave in the grounds of Baggot Street, and left a written record of Mother McAuley’s funeral and internment:
“The crowd was so great that forty Sisters were obliged to retreat to the gallery. Here they listened to Bishop Kinsella who in a voice instinct with emotion expiated on the virtues of his cherished friend and bade her children never to enter the cemetery in which her sacred remains were to be laid out but in reverent mood, for it would truly be unto all ages holy ground”16
Dr Youens, writing to Sister M Ligouri, on 15 November 1841, paid this tribute to Mother McAuley
“Though I had not had many opportunities of seeing your dear departed Reverend Mother, yet I had seen sufficient to satisfy me that she was a lady of very superior mind and of eminent and enlightened piety. She also appeared to me to be under the special guidance of heaven, and therefore I had always great satisfaction in thinking that our young colony for Liverpool would derive no small advantage from her wisdom and piety.”17
Foundation to Liverpool and Early Years
Sister M. Ligouri was professed on 12 July 1843 (her 24th birthday) with Aloysius Consitt, another Liverpool woman. Bishop Brown had received a special dispensation for them to make vows before coming to Liverpool. The founding party sailed from Dublin on the Iron Duke on 28 August, having enjoyed a farewell feast the night before. Sister M. de Pazzi Delany and Sister M Vincent Whitty accompanied the founding group which consisted of Sister de Sales White (sister of Sister Teresa White in Galway) as superior, Sister M. Ligouri Gibson and Aloysius Consitt, as professed sisters, Teresa French and Baptist Geraghty, as novices and Martha Walplate, a lay sister.
Their impending arrival had caused consternation to Dr Youens, as the convent in Mount Vernon was still somewhat unfinished. Leaves from the Annals16 relates the frantic rush on the night of 28 to get some sort of order in the building. The sisters were the first in the city, and their arrival at the pier Head caused a stir - crowds of the curious came to see them. They had little furniture initially one chair, eight stools and one table! The sisters settled to the works of Mercy and within a month had begun visitation of the sick, teaching in the poor schools and had opened a House of Mercy, although the circumstances were difficult and the needs of the poor seemingly endless. There were only four catholic churches in Liverpool at this time and no other female religious community. The population was beginning to grow rapidly, particularly as the effects of the Irish potato famine (1843-1849) were beginning to be felt. Many poor Irish families came to Liverpool either en route to America or Australia or to stay in the town. The sisters were supported by generous benefactors of all Christian denominations, with the Gibson and Consitt families being particularly helpful with food and donations as the fledgling community found its feet.
Sister M. Ligouri was appointed Assistant and undertook instruction of converts as her special apostolate. She became seriously ill in November 1844 with a “brain fever” but recovered. The community slowly grew in size and undertook care of the orphanage in Faulkner Street in June 1845 Sister M. Ligouri took responsibility for the formation of the lay sisters in 1846, and then the novices in 1847. This proved to be a difficult year for the community as the city was hit by a severe outbreak of typhoid fever, which spread rapidly through the fetid slums where the sisters visited. Thirteen priests died of typhoid. The sisters had so many poor to feed that they had to send out an appeal for funds to feed them. Dr Youens became ill with typhoid the following year. The sisters nursed him in the convent until his death on 31 May 1848. Sadly, Sister M. de Sales seems to have injured herself badly nursing him and her health rapidly deteriorated. Despite going to Baggot Street in January 1849 for a change of air, she returned to Liverpool a sick woman in July and resigned as superior. Sister M. Ligouri Gibson was elected superior on 12 July. She was 30 years old. Sister de sales died on 5th October 1849.
Apart from a spell of three years in the 1870’s, Mother M. Ligouri remained in the office of superior for the rest of her life, as was common practice in the early days of the Order.
She responded generously to many requests for sisters in the north of England and beyond, as well as maintaining links with other Mercy communities. The annals record frequent moves of sisters to “help out” other communities in Ireland, England and Scotland, returning to Liverpool afterwards. For example, both Sister Bernard Garden and Sister Aloysius Consitt spent time with in Glasgow, founded in 1849, Aloysius being Reverend Mother for a term from 1852.
In 1850, the community opened their new poor school next to Mount Vernon Convent named St Thomas’s in memory of the patron saint of Dr Youens. It was a flourishing venture.
In 1851, on July 24, in response to a request in June by Fr Maddocks of St Oswald’s parish, Old Swan, (the village took its name from an old coaching inn), Mother Ligouri opened a branch house. The house was about two and a half miles from Mount Vernon. The generous parish priest gave up his own house for the four founding sisters to use. They soon established a school for poor children. The orphanage in Faulkner Street was handed over to the Notre Dame Sisters.
In 1853, on 24 April, Mother Ligouri opened another house, St Walburga’s, this time in Lancaster, the founding sister being Sister Mary of the Cross Dunn, Sister Ignatius and Sister M. Joseph Walmsley The request for sisters had come in October 1852. Again the sisters quickly set about establishing a poor school and commencing the visitation of the sick.
In 1854, Dr Hogarth, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, pleaded for sisters to minister to the poor, sick and uneducated of Newcastle. According to the Liverpool annals, Sister Catherine Morgan went up in July of 1854 to explore the possibilities for a foundation. In November of 1854, Mother Vincent Whitty, Mother Ligouri’s great friend and noviciate companion, came to Liverpool to ask for 2 sisters to travel with her to the Crimea where they had been sent by the Irish Bishops to nurse the soldiers injured in the conflict. This group of sisters was under the leadership of Mother Francis Bridgeman of Kinsale, rather than Mother Clare Moore. Sister M. Elizabeth Butler and Sister Magdalen Alcock were sent with the party soon joined by Sister M.Winefride Spry from Lancaster. They had a long and weary journey to the Crimea arriving in Balaclava in October 1855. Sadly, Sister Winefride Spry died on 20th October, having contracted cholera through nursing the sick and injured soldiers. On 23rd February 1856, Sister Elizabeth Butler died, also of cholera. Mother Ligouri’s mother provided the money for a beautiful stone memorial to the two sisters (now in the grounds of Old Swan convent cemetery) who were buried on a hilltop overlooking Balaclava. Their funerals were attended by thousands of soldiers who provided a guard of honour for the coffins of their much-loved nurses.
The first post reformation convent in Newcastle upon Tyne was opened on 30 May 1855. The family of one of the founding sisters, Sister Mary of the Cross Dunn, provided the building and were generous benefactors for many years afterwards. Initially, Newcastle was a branch house of Mount Vernon, but became an independent foundation in 1856.
1856 was a difficult year for Mother Ligouri. In January, The great supporter of the community, Bishop Brown died, and she learnt of the death of Sister Elizabeth in the Crimea. Her brother, Michael, in Ushaw became very ill. She nursed him until he died on 27 August. She lost her parents in 1857, her mother dying in April and her father dying in November.
In 1858, Sir Charles Tempest, of Broughton hall near Skipton, asked for two Mercy sisters to nurse his sister, Monica. Mother Ligouri had sent two sisters to nurse her. Monica was a devout and generous woman who was eager to start a convent in the market and canal town of Skipton, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Despite advanced TB, she laid the foundation stone of St Monica’s Convent in May 1860 .She died in November of that year. Mother Ligouri opened the new convent on 4 June 1861 with 5 sisters, who quickly set about teaching and visiting the sick poor. For reasons unknown, the convent was transferred in January 1866 to the care of the FCJ sisters.
1859 saw Mother Ligouri responding yet again to a request for sisters, this time in the south dock area of Liverpool in the parish of St Vincent’s Hardy Street. This was a very poor part of the city. The convent opened on 19 July 1859 with the poor schools established quickly.
Her old friend Vincent Whitty came to Liverpool in December 1860 on her way to found a new Mercy community in Brisbane. She managed to “borrow” St Catherine Morgan for the foundation, who had to move from Hardy Street and pack, and be on board ship in less than half a day!
In 1865, Mother Ligouri responded to call for sisters to go to establish a foundation in Bathurst, Australia. Sister M. Ignatius McQuoin and companions set sail on August 14 with 6 companions for Australia. Mother M. Ligouri founded three further communities. On 30 April 1866, she opened a branch house in Douglas, Isle of Man, for the purposes of initiating catholic education and visitation of the sick poor. Sister M. Stanislaus McQuoin (sister of Ignatius) was first superior. Mother Ligouri wrote to her brother John in October 1866 that “The sisters find plenty of interesting work in Douglas and the people are very civil and kind”18. However, this proved to be a difficult foundation as, due to bigotry against Catholics, some of the Manx proved to be anything but civil and kind, with the sisters being stoned on occasion and spat at. One letter to a local paper described them as “these wretched women who crawl our streets in the funeral garb of the Sisters of Mercy”. Remarkably, they persevered until 1878, when Mother Ligouri withdrew them due to continuing antagonism, they returned in 1882, after her death.
In June 1869, she opened Blackbrook convent, near St Helens, Lancashire. The sisters were asked to take charge of the reformatory school there, which accepted girls released from prison. Sister M. Elizabeth Hostage and two companions opened the branch.
In 1871, she made her last foundation, taking over St Elizabeth’s Industrial, Residential School in Breckenfield Road, Liverpool. The school helped to train poor children for trades.
Liverpool was the main destination for anyone seeking to sail to the Americas and Antipodes. Unsurprisingly, Mother Ligouri and the community gave hospitality to many sisters en route to carrying the Mercy message around the globe, some of which are recorded in the Liverpool, annals. The house had barely been opened two months when Francis Xavier Warde and companions stayed on their way to the first Mercy foundation in America. They stayed from 6-10 November 1843 Francis showed great interest in the Foundation and managing to give converts instructions in the few days she was there, waiting for a ship! In September 1845, Cecelia Marmion, Mother Gibson’s old novice mistress, and Ursula Frayne came from Baggot Street. Ursula was on her way to the first Mercy foundation in Australia. They continued on to Gravesend where they sailed to Australia. In 1859, the annals record that an Sister M Paula Cullen and Sister Ignatius Murphy from Westport and companions stayed in Liverpool, also on their way to Goulburn, New South Wales Australia, with another set of Australia bound Mercies lead by Mother Mary Norris of Baggot Street staying in September of that year. Mother Vincent Whitty came to Mount Vernon, searching for postulants for her Brisbane foundation in 1870. She gave two postulants for the mission and gave an altar piece. Sisters on their way to New Orleans (1871) and Buenos Aires (1879) were also given Mercy hospitality by Mother Ligouri and community on their way to join foundations.
Mother Ligouri remained in Mount Vernon. She was frequently unwell; the Liverpool annals record her moving away for periods for changes of air. She remained in the office of Reverend Mother for most of her life. She was able to celebrate her silver jubilee in 1868 when she was given a crown of ivy leaves by the sisters. Each leaf had the names of two sisters and the prayers they were to say for her. In the 1870’s her health gradually failed, until in 1880 she suffered several painful abscesses of the lungs and neck. From July 1880 until her death in 1881, she needed nursing and was unable to perform her duties as superior, although the Bishop refused to accept her resignation. She died on 6 July 1881, aged 61, and was buried in St Oswald’s cemetery on 8 July, with the Annals recording “many thousands” attending her requiem. The community received many wonderful tributes on her death. With her death, and that of Sister Aloysius Consitt in 1882, the community lost their last direct link to the Foundress as they had been the last sisters to whom Catherine McAuley had given the habit.
Mother M. Ligouri seems to have been a warm and affectionate person, who had the gift of making and sustaining friendships. Her photograph certainly gives the impression of a calm personality, at peace with herself. She was deeply mourned by the community; but the many tributes received after her death indicated that many felt she had inherited some of the saintliness of the Foundress, and was now at rest.
- Carroll, A. Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy in four volumes. Volume II. O’Shea, Publisher: New York (1881) p.358
- ibid p.355
- Bolster. A: The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1827-1841. Congregation of The Sisters of Mercy-Dioceses of Cork & Ross (1989) Letter 194. (Original- Archives of Sisters of Mercy, Liverpool)
- Ibid. Letter 208
- Ibid. Letter 210
- Bolster op.cit.Letter 211
- Carroll, Leaves from the Annals Vol II p.362
- ibid p.363
- Bolster op.cit Letter 221
- ibid Letter 222
- ibid Letter 223
- ibid Letter228
- Carroll Leaves from the Annals Vol.2 p.364
- Bolster.Letters No. 242
- Carroll Leaves from the annals Vol 2 p.369
- Burke Savage SJ Catherine Mcauley, The first Sister of Mercy Gill & Son: Dublin 1949. p 380.
Carroll Leaves from the Annals Vol 2 Ibid.p377
- Annals Liverpool
- Carroll Leaves from the Annals Vol.2 p.402
- Annals, Liverpool
- Bolster. A The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1827-1841.The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy Dioceses of Cork and Ross (1989).
- Burke-Savage,R. Catherine McAuley. The First Sister of Mercy Gill and Son : Dublin (1949)
- Carroll, A Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy. In four Volumes. Volume II. O’Shea Publisher: New York( 1883).