Mother Mary Teresa White

A biography written by Majella O'Keeffe rsm

Of all the Sisters, Sister M. Teresa has more of my spirit and I trust more to her guiding the Institute as I wish than to any other Sister.” Thus spoke Catherine McAuley of Sister M. Teresa (Amelia) White, the eighteenth Sister to enter Baggot Street on 2 May, 1833. She was professed on 9 December, 1835, her motto being: ‘Jesus, I am Thine forever’.

Born in 1809 in Kilcarry Cross, Co. Carlow, Amelia was daughter of Stipendiary Magistrate Laurence White and his wife Jane Esmond White. She had three sisters - Jane who became Sister M. de Sales, Caroline - Mrs. Plunkett and Christina - Mrs. Scallon. Her brother Matthew Esmond White became a doctor, while another brother William died in 1839. There may also have been a third brother.

Amelia and Jane had come to Dublin to be presented at the Vice-regal Lodge. Their aunt who had met Catherine, asked them to visit Baggot Street before returning to Carlow. Amelia was so struck by the austerity of the convent and the charm of the Superior, that she immediately requested to be admitted as a postulant. Catherine in her wisdom, sent the girls home, but very soon Amelia returned, followed by Jane two years later.

The family seem to have been personal friends of Mother McAuley as evidenced by the letters she wrote to Sister Teresa and her sister, Sister de Sales. She also wrote to their sister Caroline about another sister Christina who was ill at the time. There are in fact, eight extant letters from Catherine to Sister Teresa and she is mentioned several times in letters to other Sisters.

In 1837 Sister Teresa set out for Carlow from Baggot Street with Mother McAuley and two other sisters. She was again the travelling companion of the Foundress to the new convent in Cork later in 1837. In 1839 she went on a foundation to Bermondsey with Mother McAuley and returned with her to Dublin two months later.

Trained by Catherine herself, Sister Teresa, professed in 1835, was by 1838 Superior in Kingstown. Initially purchased in 1835 ‘as a place of convalescence for sick sisters, the condition of the poor girls in Kingstown had moved Catherine early on to open a poor school in a renovated coach house on the grounds’. Catherine unwittingly became responsible for the costs incurred. As the controversy continued, the Sisters were forced to withdraw in 1838, Answering a letter from Sister M. Teresa at this time, Catherine tells her that

[God] knows I would rather be cold and hungry than [that] the poor in Kingstown or elsewhere should be deprived of any consolation in our power to afford.

She also tells her ‘....I leave you free to do what you think best. I am satisfied you will not act imprudently, and this conviction makes me happy as far as you are concerned.’ Catherine would not be disappointed in the trust she put in Teresa, as she wrote to Sister M. de Pazzi Delaney, Assistant Superior, Baggot Street: ‘I cannot express the consolation Sister M. Teresa has afforded me by her manner of concluding the Kingstown business, and the few quiet lines she sent to Fr. Sheridan.’ During this difficult time in Kingstown, Sister Teresa used to say: ‘If an action has a hundred faces, always look at the best one,’ which she obviously did all her life.

Catherine had been invited to establish another foundation by the Bishop of Galway, Rt. Rev. George Joseph Plunket Browne. In 1840 the Parish Priest - the V. Rev. Peter Daly who was also the mayor of the town - interviewed Mother Catherine in Baggot Street and refused to leave until she had given him an affirmative answer. As Catherine herself said: ‘he would prove to be the greatest master they ever had’.

By 1840 negotiations for a convent in Galway had been completed and the Sisters to go there designated - Sister Catherine Leahy with Sister Teresa White as Superior. The Galway Annals tell us that Catherine ‘had the firm intention of withdrawing Sister Mary Teresa after six months to be her successor in Baggot Street, as she felt her health failing. God decreed otherwise. Sister Mary Teresa worked, slaved and prayed in Galway until 1854 she left Galway to found a convent in Clifden.....she was one of the ablest of the first generation of Mercy Sisters, owing much to the training and example of the Foundress.’ It is interesting to note that when Catherine McAuley lay dying, according to Mother Vincent Whitty’s letter of November 16th, she ‘told Sister de Sales not to allow Sister M. Teresa from Galway [to] come for some time at least.’ But Teresa came as soon as she received word of the gravity of Catherine’s condition, only to arrive four hours after the death of the Foundress. Perhaps she wished to clarify her position in Galway and her intended return to Baggot Street. However, Sister M. de Pazzi Delaney was now Superioress in Baggot Street, so there was nothing left for Sister Teresa but to return to Galway after the funeral.

Mary Austin Carroll quotes a letter from Mary Teresa White, written forty years after Catherine’s death, which says:

I saw her in death, and was one of those who placed her in her coffin. I was Mother Superior in Galway at the time, and came to Dublin hoping to see and speak to her for the last time, but she had departed four hours before I arrived, and I never felt such grief before or since. I cried for many hours without ceasing.

By 1852 the Appeal for that year, mentions the following works of mercy in Galway:

  1. A house of Mercy - with 33 young women.
  2. A free school for females - 300 children; another school in progress of being fitted for 300 more.
  3. The School of St. Vincent for the education of the well-off at ‘a moderate cost of 8 guineas per annum.’
  4. An Asylum for Penitent Females - 25 constantly in residence.
  5. The Female Free School of Albano - 3 miles from the town with 150 children as well as adults on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
  6. The Parish Female Industrial School of the Claddagh - with 150 females.
  7. Visitation - sick poor in their homes.
  8. Visitation - prisons and hospitals - giving the inmates moral and religious instruction.
  9. Visitation - The Workhouse - moral and religious instruction.

This is truly an amazing amount of work being carried out by the 28 Sisters in Galway at the time.

Over the years, the Parish Priest, Fr. Peter Daly, about whom Catherine remarked ‘we all love him’, acted as accountant for the Sisters. He invested the Sisters’ dowries and insisted that no applicant should be taken who could not provide the requisite dowry, even, according to Catherine, objecting to ‘a very nice young person to whom an uncle had left £300 because previous to that, she was for a few months only, at a most respectable dress and millinery warehouse in Clare Street. He said the Co. Galway people would find out anything, and that it would be a certain injury.’

In 1853 Mother Teresa, accompanied by three professed Sisters and Fr. Daly, went to Castlebar, where she installed her Sisters in the new foundation there. She returned to Galway two weeks later where she continued to work tirelessly.

In the elections of May 1855, Mother Teresa White, having served as Superioress in Galway for 15 years, was appointed Novice Mistress. A request for Sisters to come to Clifden in 1854 was finally answered in 1855 when Mother Teresa, three other Sisters and a Novice answered the call. The three Sisters returned to Galway while Mother Teresa and the Novice remained. Clifden at that time, was a town of proselytisers and while there was great rejoicing at their coming and many people welcomed them, there were also many who insulted and abused them, including those who had converted to Protestantism. Though the Sisters had a sturdy house, they had no furniture whatever, no tables, no chairs, not even a stool. However, this did not prevent them from setting to work, visiting the poor and the sick and indeed counteracting the work of the proselytisers. So efficient were they, that they soon earned the title of ‘the Scourge of the Proselytisers’.

Meanwhile in Galway, the newly elected team had kindled a new fire of hope and renewal. It was felt that in the later years of Mother Teresa White’s reign, there was a lack of openness with the Sisters, which was not good for the spirit of the community. The new Bursar was unhappy with the way the accounts were presented, and having asked Fr. Daly for some explanations, got no satisfactory answer. She wrote to Mother Teresa in Clifden who replied that she is ‘pained with what has been written to her.....the Superioress in Galway was being unfair to Fr. Daly, a man who had guided them through many crises, a man who had acted as their chaplain and adviser for so many years without ever receiving a penny from them for all his services....she still has her rights in Galway and intends to return to St. Vincent’s when the convent in Clifden is on its feet.’ The result was strained relations between the Galway community and Fr. Daly and the Galway Sisters and Mother Teresa.

There followed a long drawn-out dispute between the Sisters and Fr. Daly, in which the Bishop was also involved. The Sisters, having got clerical and legal advice on the matter, decided not to go ahead with the intended court case, and eventually, after the intervention of one of the diocesan clergy, who succeeded in getting Fr. Daly to comply with the Bishop’s wishes, the Sisters’ property and funds were returned to them - some, it must be said, in the form of Fr. Daly’s silverware, of which we have a few pieces in our Archive Centre.

This dispute was probably the reason that Mother Teresa remained on in Clifden where she was superior until 1880. For thirty three years she laboured there and celebrated her Golden Jubilee there in December 1885 at the age of 79 years. The Galway community presented her with a set of cruets for the occasion. These are now in the Archive Centre in Galway.

In 1889, after Mother Teresa’s death, her brother-in-law - James Scallon - in a sworn affidavit states that ‘for many years previous to her death and at the time of her death said Amelia White was Superioress of the Community of the Sisters of Mercy at Clifden aforesaid and arranged the pecuniary affairs of the Community under my advice.’She probably had learned by this how best to deal with monetary affairs!

Mother Teresa made her fourth and last foundation in Carna, a small village in Connemara. In 1874, at the request of Major Forbes, she brought two Sisters with her, and they took up residence in the Major’s thatched cottage. He and his wife left Carna that day for England. The Major bequeathed his house, stables, thirty acres of land, cows and a horse and car to the Sisters for a convent, school and the general promotion of the Roman Catholic religion. After five years, in 1879, the new convent was started by Mother Teresa.

After a long and varied life, inspired by the spirit of the Foundress under whom she had been trained as a Novice, Mother Teresa died on 10 October 1888 and is buried in Clifden. She had once said, writing about the death of Catherine:

I was deeply attached to our cherished mother....I felt very sad to have outlived her and all my earthly friends, but God’s holy will be done. Pray that He may crown all His favours to me by the precious grace of a happy death.

What more fitting way to bring this story to an end, than to quote Mother Teresa’s last prayer:

Adorable Jesus, who knowest the clay of which I am formed, be Thou my mediator with my Heavenly Father whom I have so grievously offended. Be Thou my support, my refuge and my strength; that nothing henceforward in life or death may ever separate us from Thee. Amen.