Sister M Cecilia Marmion

A biography written by Magdalena Frisby rsm

What was the reaction of Francis and Mary Marmion when three of their daughters, in turn, joined Catherine McAuley's newly-formed Congregation? Evidently it was positive for we find Francis Marmion, a successful Fleet Street merchant in Dublin helping Mother McAuley, and later his son, another Francis, coming to her rescue when in need. She mentions this in a letter of 1841.

The first of the Marmion girls to enter in Baggot Street was another Frances, called in religion Sister Mary Agnes, who slipped away to Heaven after four years. Following her came Mary, who, as Sister M Cecilia, made her mark in the Congregation living for fifteen years. Then came the third sister, Margaret, who took a loved family name, Sister Mary Francis, but who was swept away by consumption, as T.B. was then called, again after four years.

Her Education

The girls were well educated, whether in a school for young ladies or by governesses, if we are to judge by Sister M Cecilia, who translated religious books from the French and showed her skill in penmanship and art, as in the Holy Rule on display in the Heritage Room, and in the chapter headings she placed in her manuscripts or prayer. More especially we can judge from her musical ability, put to good use in Baggot Street, and in the early foundations where she prepared Reception and Profession ceremonies. Mother McAuley brought her to Tullamore, Carlow, Cork and Birr to show how perfectly she lived community life, as well as to have an expert on hand for the ceremonies.

Community Life

She was a general favourite in the community. We can see why if her attitude to each Sister was as sympathetic as that she had to the awkward Sister Gertrude Jones who, she said "was like a martyr, offering great violence to her feelings, seeing everything English as best". Sister Cecilia's kindness and gentleness endeared her to all. She was often called on to look after visitors in Baggot Street. In a letter to Mother Frances Warde Mother McAuley writes "Sister Cecilia had three Bishops to entertain on Sunday and five yesterday". Again in a letter to Sister Cecilia herself she warns her to be gracious to Mr Egan, father of Susan Egan, a postulant expected in Galway, but not to say a word about difficulties as Susan's aunt in Dublin "knows every priest in half the world".

Mistress of Novices

Just four days before her sister, Sister M Francis, died, in March 1840, Sister Cecilia was appointed Mistress of Novices a fact that indicates her fidelity to prayer which was noted by all the Sisters. Mother McAuley says of her "Perhaps there never was a more beloved Mistress of Novices" and again "They speak of the Noviceship as Paradise though the best discipline is observed there" [Letter to Sister Francis Warde, 28 Jan. 1841]. In Sister Cecilia's own novitiate she had the privilege of having Mother McAuley as her Novice Mistress and she evidently benefited from it to the full. With her in the Noviceship were Sister M Teresa White, Sister Martha Wallplate, and Sister Anne Agnes McAuley (little Catherine). That she took her duties seriously can be seen by her translating from the French several books dealing with the Novitiate training. Among those she guided were Sisters Vincent Whitty, Clare Augustine Moore, Francis Creedon, who brought the Sisters of Mercy to Newfoundland, and Juliana Hardman and her three companions who opened the Convent in Birmingham. Sister M Camillus Byrne was with her, too, for she wrote from New York apologising for the trouble she gave and enclosing a prayer to St Cecilia.

Relations with Mother McAuley

Yet Mother McAuley did not always approve of Sister M Cecilia's training of the Novices. When an unnamed Sister contrived to make Sister Cecilia discontented with certain customs and bent on changes, an annoyed Mother McAuley said "Madame Marmion shall make none of her improvements here while I live" and she corrected her once more when she wiped out some directions Sister Cecilia had made for the novices. In a letter to her while convalescing in Birr she writes to her verse "Let none again e'er be your pet … In future love them all alike". Yet Mother McAuley valued her highly and took over care of the Novices from her while she was ill in Birr, when she says she "got into many of the secrets of your holy office" and again  "Many thanks to God for blessing your humble efforts". Note too that Mother McAuley left Sister Cecilia in Birmingham to advise and guide Mother Juliana Hardman in her early months in charge. While there Sister Cecilia arranged for the reception of Sister M Angela Borisi and Magdalen Polding to be held in St Chad's Cathedral, 6th December 1841. Actually she was in Birmingham when Mother McAuley died and Sister Vincent Whitty wrote her from Baggot Street the four valuable letters describing Mother McAuley's last illness and death.

Lest it seem that Sister Cecilia was a paragon without defect let me say that she was inclined to be health conscious and was fearful in the extreme. She feared canal travel and Mother McAuley gave in to her on the return trip from Birr though this led to the discomfort of the stage-coach. Again in going into a shallow boat embarking for Birmingham Sister Cecilia showed signs of alarm but Mother McAuley calmed her saying "Don't make such a to-do, child, if you go to the bottom we shall all go".

Mother Superior

Sister Cecilia was elected Mother Assistant to Rev. Mother de Pazzi and helped her in preparing for new foundations in Liverpool, Newfoundland and Queen's Square, London and in deputising for her in her absence. She succeeded her as Rev. Mother in May 1844. She devoted herself to every aspect of her new duties. That she cared for the spiritual welfare of her community is evidenced by the fact that over fifty letters to her from Rev. Joseph Ryan, OSCC of Mount Mellery are preserved in the archives, guiding her and her sisters on their way to God. She had certain chaplaincy matters to contend with entailing letters to some priests and to Dean Walter Myler.

Projected General Chapter

A wish of some of the early Sisters to have the customs of the Congregation stabilised before those who knew Mother McAuley died led her in to a wide range of correspondence. In general the Sisters saw advantage in having a Book of Customs compiled as more and more convents were founded, and a general meeting of all Superiors was proposed. Most Sisters approved of the project, though one, unsigned note says the writer has "a holy horror of the meeting of women" and feels that "no [Book of] Customs would guard against the want of prudence or the irregularity of an individual". Mother Cecilia sought the advice of Rev. R.J. Colgan O.D.C. of Clarendon Street and of Robert St. Ledger S.J. of Clongowes Wood and was still in correspondence with them when her death interrupted the work. But when, over twenty years later, such a General Chapter was convened in Limerick, Mother M Francis Bridgeman was greatly helped by the notes and draft prepared by Mother Cecilia Marmion.

Foundation in Perth, Australia

The Congregation spread further a field when Bishop John Brady of Perth, Western Australia, secured Sisters for his diocese. He appealed to Mother Cecilia speaking of the needs of the Aborigines and of the lack of education for girls. After a day's reflection she consulted her Chapter and then the whole community, every one of whom volunteered to go. She selected six for the mission, three professed Sisters (Ursula Frayne, Catherine Gogarty and Anne Xavier Dillon, three novices and a postulant to go with them. Her choice of Sister Catherine Gogarty, who suffered from tuberculosis, is strange to us but she evidently thought a sea voyage and living in a warm climate would cure it. Actually it aggravated it and Sister Catherine suffered a lingering, dreadful illness requiring constant care until her death six months after arrival. Almost her last act was to write a pitiful letter to Mother Cecilia pleading for two additional Sisters to aid the over-worked Sister Ursula. In contrast Sister Anne Xavier Dillon proved a tower of strength to Sister Ursula. The letters these Sisters wrote from Perth show the love and trust they had in Mother Cecilia, so much so that she was considered a second Providence to them. [The book "Valiant Women" by Geraldine Byrne contains all these letters.] Before they set out, Mother Cecilia, her zeal tempered with caution, secured a contract from Bishop Brady that he would protect the Sisters and not interfere with their rules and customs, a contract he failed to keep. The Sisters had eight days to prepare. Mother Cecilia went with them as far as London from where they sailed in the "Elizabeth", 16th September 1845.

Foundation in New York

No sooner was one Continent catered for than another lodged a plea for Sisters, this time the United States. Bishop Hughes of New York came to ask for Sisters to care for orphans and for the many Irish girls coming to his diocese, jobless and homeless. Mother Cecilia listened to his plea with sympathy but knew that Baggot Street had no Sister to lead such a mission, though, like Mother McAuley, she could say that hands and feet were plentiful enough but no head. She suggested that he apply to Sister M Agnes O'Connor who was soon due to come back to Baggot Street from London. He had first to apply to Bishop Griffiths of London, who, very reluctantly agreed to allow him to approach Sister M Agnes in Queen's Square Convent. Sister M Agnes was certain that God was calling her to take up the work. She wrote to Mother Cecilia saying "Here I am. Send me" but Mother Cecilia told her to make the decision herself. She did and told the Sisters and Bishop Griffiths of her answer to the call from New York. The Bishop gave in with good grace and Sister Agnes came back to Baggot Street to prepare for crossing the Atlantic. We are told that one evening as the Sisters filed into recreation she took a sheet of music from the piano, folded it into trumpet and called through it "Who's for New York?" Eventually five Sisters and a novice and a postulant were chosen to go. Four of them had entered the Convent while Mother McAuley lived - one of them, Sister Camillus Byrne, her god-child. Archbishop Hughes signed an agreement for the Sisters and Sisters Austin Horan, Angela Maher, Monica O'Doherty and Teresa Breen sailed with Sisters Agnes and Camillus and a novice Sister M Vincent O'Haire and postulant Marianne Byrne sailed for New York from London on 16th April 1846 on the "Montezura", sped on their way by Mother Cecilia Marmion.

Her Death

In the midst of her activities Mother Cecilia contracted a malignant typhus in September 1849. She was in a coma and the Chaplain did not give her Viaticum. Sister Evangelista Fitzpatrick, then a novice, (later to be well-known in Buenos Aires and Adelaide) was nursing her. She kept asking did she wish to receive Holy Communion and, quite unexpectedly Mother Cecilia said thickly "Why not? His Precious Body". Sister Evangelista ran down and called back the Chaplain who gave her Holy Communion. The last words she said were "His Precious Body".

Mother Cecilia was the only Mother Superior to die in office. She, who had led so many Sisters in prayer, penance and love was now at rest with the Lord.