Venerable Catherine McAuley: Aspects of her Life and Spirituality
Catherine’s Story (based on A Prophet of Mercy by Angela Bolster)
Talk given at the Mercy Associate Conference (Great Britain) on October 4th 2008
Used with permission of Mercy Associates (GB)
Dublin of the early 18th century was the lovely flamboyant city of Grattan’s Parliament, a city of splendid mansions housed an aristocracy where wit and fashion excelled and where Handel’s Messiah had its premiere in 1742.
Dublin of this time also housed Europe’s most unsanitary slums, where huge numbers of poor people lived deprived and powerless. This splendour and squalor paradox revealed the best and worst results of two centuries of deliberate Government policy which spawned the Penal Code. This code was aimed at reducing the Catholic Irish to the “status of a miserable people without property or education …” The immediate results of the Penal Code were distressing and very painful but the Code itself failed to accomplish its intent.
Catherine McAuley was born on September 29th 1778 at Stormanstown House, the eldest of three children of James McGauley and Elinor Conway. (Elinor changed the family name to McAuley after her husband’s death and Catherine used this version thinking that it was her father’s).
Catherine died aged 63 on November 11th 1841 at the Convent of Mercy in Baggot Street an unintentional foundress of a religious congregation, whose actions were motivated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who discovered early in her life that her love for Christ was inextricably bound to her love of others and who defined Mercy as the virtueCatherine died aged 63 on November 11th 1841 at the Convent of Mercy in Baggot Street an unintentional foundress of a religious congregation, whose actions were motivated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who discovered early in her life that her love for Christ was inextricably bound to her love of others and who defined Mercy as the virtue “which has led people in a particular way to help and comfort the sick and dying poor as in them they find the person of Jesus Christ who considers as done to himself what we do to others.
Following her father’s death in 1783, neither her mother’s mismanagement of family funds nor her social aspirations, nor the hostility towards Catholicism shown by those among whom she lived succeeded in erasing from Catherine’s mind the memory of her father’s faith and his practical love for the poor.
As a young woman she was fortunate in the priest friends that she had who counselled her during her early years. These were friends she had for life. Her mother Elinor died in 1798 when Catherine was 20 and five years later Catherine moved to Coolock House, Dublin, with the Callaghans, an elderly, childless couple recently returned from India.
William Callaghan was a non-practising Anglican: his wife Catherine a practising Quaker. Both were vehemently anti-Catholic. Catherine nursed and companioned the ailing Mrs Callaghan, administered the estate, and reached out in love, generosity and mercy to the domestic staff and to the neighbouring poor.
In time Catherine achieved a measure of freedom in Coolock, which enabled her to attend Mass and pursue her faith. The Callaghan’s would allow no symbols of “Popery” as William Callaghan termed it in the house. Catherine’s ingenuity enabled her to find the Cross in the window panes and door panels and the intersecting branches of trees on the lawn. It was during this “hidden life” period at Coolock that “The humbled, abandoned, agonising Christ became “my Christ” for Catherine and the Psalter of Jesus became her main stay. Through the Psalter she prayed for help and strength, steadfastness and mercy.
In a very real sense Coolock was for Catherine what Manresa was for Ignatius, a place of encounter and deepening relationship with Christ toward whom her mission of Mercy was already taking shape.
Catherine Callaghan died in 1819 when Catherine McAuley was 41. William Callaghan died in 1822 when Catherine was 44. Both became Catholics before they died, due to Catherine’s example of self-giving love to others. Catherine became William Callaghan’s sole residuary legatee (of his estate and effects). She regarded the legacy as a trust for the poor. She rejected several proposals of marriage, sold Coolock House, and accepted Fr Nugent’s request that she help in the parochial school in Middle Abbey Street in Dublin. At this time she was going on 45. By 1823 Catherine lived at 102 Middle Abbey Street, Dublin.
The House on Baggot Street
At this time there was a Government law forbidding the siting of Catholic buildings on Dublin’s main streets. Catherine, however, purchased a plot of ground on the corner of Lower Baggot Street and Herbert Street. The foundation stone was blessed by Dr. Michael Blake in 1824. The house was to contain classrooms, accommodation for young women at risk and apartments for Catherine and her associates whom she hoped to attract to her work.
While the house was being built Catherine went to France to study the educational system there and to observe the work of the Daughters of Charity in the Paris slums. Her work in Middle Abbey Street instructing young children, teaching them crafts and visiting the poor was the beginning of a life’s work that would make education more available, nullify the work of proselytising societies and pave the way for access to Catholic patients in what were once the impregnable institutions of Sir Patrick Dunn’s, the Coombe and The Royal Hospital for Incurables in Donnybrook and St Mary’s Asylum in Drumcondra.
That a catholic woman should undertake these responsibilities in this era earned Catherine many critics and detractors but she was not intimidated; nor was she amused when her house began to look like a Convent.That a catholic woman should undertake these responsibilities in this era earned Catherine many critics and detractors but she was not intimidated; nor was she amused when her house began to look like a Convent. The house was officially opened on September 24th 1827, hence the name House of Mercy.
Catherine could not join the project until 1828 because of family commitments. When she did come to live fill time in the house a regular schedule of praying together as well as living together was adopted. From this a simple dress form was adopted and the associates playfully began to call each other Sister. As yet, Catherine did not see the writing on the wall. Her school was burgeoning, young women were applying for accommodation and in addition Catherine had taken in an abandoned orphan and an elderly non catholic lady whose family deserted her. Although it was still pre Emancipation Ireland Catherine’s house in Baggot Street gradually assumed the status of a modern sheltered workshop, an employment bureau, an orphanage, a night hostel, an adult education centre, while the outreach of visitation, distribution of food to housebound poor [(“meals on feet” (Angela Bolster)] could be called a forerunner of the worldwide meals on wheels services.
Catherine feared that the poor would be denied the comprehensive services that no other group was offering, so she agreed to place her community canonically within the greater community of the Church. “God”, she said, “can bend and change and form and reform any of his creatures to fit them for the purpose he designs”. Papal approval of Catherine’s house as a lay institution on April 17th 1830 did not allay the mounting opposition which eventually obliged Archbishop Daniel Murray to intervene. Already in the face of governmental disapproval Dr Murray had introduced Loreto Sisters and Sisters of Charity into his archdiocese. In no uncertain terms he informed Catherine that the idea of a “Convent” starting up by itself in this way had not entered into his calculations. God’s hour had come. Catherine feared that the poor would be denied the comprehensive services that no other group was offering, so she agreed to place her community canonically within the greater community of the Church. “God”, she said, “can bend and change and form and reform any of his creatures to fit them for the purpose he designs”.
To the end of her life Catherine insisted that she never intended to establish a community of religious Sisters; all she ever wanted to do was to help the poor because that was “what God was asking of me”. She also famously said “If the order is my work the sooner it falls to the ground the better, if it is God’s work it needs no one”,
In agreeing with Catherine’s views the Archbishop of Dublin assured her that she and her associates could follow an apostolate that was not bound by cloister and that her congregation would have a status independent of other religious congregations.
In this we see an important step in the development of apostolic religious congregations for women. The movement towards external apostolate was made (i.e. that of going out to people instead of having come to the Convent). Up to this point monastic enclosure dictated what apostolate could be undertaken by women.
On December 8th 1830 Catherine, Anna Maria Doyle and Elizabeth Hurley began their novitiate in the Presentation Convent in George’s Hill and were professed according to a special vow formula approved by the Archbishop.
Ten years and a total of fourteen foundations later, Catherine died and was buried in the Convent cemetery in Baggot Street.
Catherine’s declining health was first noted in 1835 (57) the year of her foundation in Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown Co. Dublin) She was already dying at the time of the Birmingham foundation in 1841. The right lung was diseased and she could not go out into the garden. Her prayer at this time was that God would give her the grace of a “holy penitential preparation”.
During the second week of September 1841 she moved into the Convent infirmary in Baggot Street, made little of her illness and exuded a confident abandonment to God and tried to console her Sisters with words of love and affection. She had an ulcerated mouth; pulmonary TB complicated by an internal abscess (empyema) and was found also to have a weeping ulcer on her lower back brought about by the use of a penitential chain and hair shirt. Only the infirmarian was permitted to treat this ulcer, she did not want anyone else to know about her personal mortification done for love.
Her physical suffering increased greatly as the month moved on. On November 8th she said: “when we give ourselves entirely into the hands of God, he will sweetly ordain all things for our greater comfort, even in this life”. Her physical suffering increased greatly as the month moved on. On November 8th she said: “when we give ourselves entirely into the hands of God, he will sweetly ordain all things for our greater comfort, even in this life”. In the early hours of Wednesday November 10th 1841 she entered the last hours of her illness and that night she tried to maintain as secret between herself and her God her penitential practice. She parcelled up her hair shirt, discipline, nail-studded boots which she ordered to be burnt unopened in the downstairs furnace. The Sister entrusted with this task waited until the flames broke open the parcel: she was subsequently assured by her confessor that she had done the right thing and he released her from any obligation of secrecy.
In the morning of November 11th Catherine – now gasping for air - asked that her bed be placed in the centre of the room - from which she assisted at the celebration of Mass. During the day she mentioned each Sister by name and prayed: “may they all live in union and charity and may we all meet in a happy eternity. Preserve union and peace. Do this and your happiness will be so great as to cause you to wonder; my legacy to the order is Charity”.
She had words of love and affection for all the Sisters, family members, friends and clergy who came to visit her. Her hearing was acute to the end. When Sister Elizabeth Moore, thinking that Catherine was near her end, raised her voice in praying, Catherine whispered to her: “No occasion my darling to speak so loud, I hear distinctly”. Again and again Catherine whispered: “Oh, if this be death, it is easy indeed. The almighty has spared me much.”
To the end her Sisters were her main concern and hospitality a priority: “Will you tell the Sisters to get a good cup of tea; I think the community room would be a good place for when I am gone, to comfort one another. But God will comfort them”.
“pray for the soul of poor Catherine McAuley” She then asked that a card be placed in the main office asking the residents of the house of Mercy to “pray for the soul of poor Catherine McAuley.” Calmly and quietly Catherine drew her last breath on Thursday 11th November 1841 clasping her crucifix and her 15 decade rosary beads.
In 1909, 68 years after her death her cause was first mooted.In 1909, 68 years after her death her cause was first mooted. On April 9th 1990 she was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul 11 – the first step on the long road to universal Church recognition of Catherine’s faithful living of the gift of Mercy with which she was so richly endowed by the God of mercy.
Catherine the Person
All through her life Catherine showed herself to be intelligent, practical and prayerful and above all deeply kind to others.
Catherine was modern in her effort to ‘decentralise’ local authority/autonomy while keeping vital links with the ‘heart’ of the Congregation. She did not centralise excessively and allowed situations to be handled in their own locality without interfering.
“The climax of her attractiveness writes a novice who knew her (Positio LXXXVII) was that she was always the same, always ready to listen, to consider and direct whenever applied to.” Catherine was open to new pedagogical ideas. She had a methodology that highlighted catechism for the young. Catherine was ever able to deliver a clear, simple and comprehensible description of the principal truths of the faith. Her teaching could be a summa apologetica for the young Catherine was an ideal lay woman in the Catholic Church of her place. “The climax of her attractiveness writes a novice who knew her (Positio LXXXVII) was that she was always the same, always ready to listen, to consider and direct whenever applied to.”
Aspects of Catherine’s life worth noting
- Her devotional life was rooted in Scripture. There was an absence of the merely sentimental.
- Her approach to the injustice inflicted on the poor was to empower them practically by providing them with opportunities to educate themselves.
- Her mode of governance was one that stressed the principle of subsidiary, sensitivity to the needs of the local Church, adaptability and flexibility.
- In her ministry to the sick it was her approach not only to promote cleanliness, care and comfort for the sick person but also to minister to their spiritual needs by reading to them the word of God and praying for them in a gracious and sensitive manner.
- She was renowned for her human virtues of courtesy, tolerance, consideration, good manners, and a sense of humour, serenity, gentleness, reserve, modesty, prudence, patience and self-restraint. (Summarium p. 22). Fr. Burke Savage Docs p.XCVIII.
- In her dealings with the clergy she was profoundly respectful even when their behaviour caused extreme inconvenience for others and actually deprived children of the Holy Sacraments. She felt resentment and extreme agitation yet she persisted in working towards an arrangement that would be consistent with both justice and charity. (Positio p. 380 – 387).
- Her spirituality was a spirituality of the Cross unlike today where we skip the Passion of Jesus to get to the Resurrection.
- She was a woman who appreciated friendship (Docs p.823 – 827).
- Very insightful and real is her teaching on the interpenetration of contemplation and action.
- Catherine was a careful thinker the fruits of which can be seen in the Cottage Controversy (Positio pp.748 – 772).
- The handing over of her Institute can be likened to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. It does however reveal the spiritual maturity that developed during her hidden years in Coolock.
- There was great balance in Catherine. She was enterprising and decisive with the qualities of an excellent executive. She was also an obedient daughter of the Church both as to doctrine and discipline.
Catherine had her failures
- She publicly rebuked Sister Clare Augustine Moore and promptly asked forgiveness on her knees from those Sisters who witnessed it.
- She read 3 sentences of an aggressive letter from Dr. Walter Meyler before burning it. (Positio pp 378, 391-392). However, she was on good terms with Dr. Meyler at the end of her life (Positio p. 691).
Catherine – A Woman of the Church
Catherine was a Church person, the instrument of Justice and Ecumenism who possessed great spiritual influence in her time.The process of canonisation is not an act of ecclesial narcissism. The role the Servant of God plays in the life of the Church is also something that is looked for in the person who is raised to the honours of the altar.
Catherine was a Church person, the instrument of Justice and Ecumenism who possessed great spiritual influence in her time. This was attested to especially at the time of her death.
She worked closely with the clergy and built lasting friendships from among them. Dr Daniel Murray gave her first communion and was still very much part of her life when she was living with the Callaghans. The friendship continued on into the years when she was foundress of the Sisters of Mercy and he was Archbishop of Dublin.
Fr Nugent received William Callaghan into the Church and he invited Catherine to teach in the Parochial school for the poor in Middle Abbey Street in Dublin (1823). The origins of the Congregation can be traced to the development of this voluntary service of Mercy. It took time and the maturing of her discerning obedience to God to transform what was originally intended as a charitable lay association into a classic religious congregation. (Catherine’s motto was “Fiat Voluntas Tua”. In 1825 Fr Nugent died of typhus and Catherine nursed him in his last illness.
In 1824, Catherine on the advice of her friend and advisor Fr. Edward Armstrong, with the concurrence of Archbishop Murray and the support of Dr Blake, purchased a plot of ground on Baggot Street. She showed great prudence in building rather than buying a house which she intended “for the glory of God and dedicated it to him from its very foundations”. (Dr Blake laid the foundation stone of this house before he left Ireland to re- open the Irish College in Rome as the Penal Laws in Ireland began to abate).
In her dealings with the clergy she was profoundly respectful even when their behaviour caused extreme inconvenience for others and actually deprived children of the Holy Sacraments. She felt resentment and extreme agitation yet she persisted towards an arrangement that would be consistent with both justice and charity.
Catherine – A Pioneer of Mercy
Mercy was the motivating power underlying Catherine’s love. It was not philanthropy or human solidarity because it was directed towards the weakest. Neither was it to preserve their Catholic faith nor to win back souls fallen into Anglicanism or Protestantism because for Catherine there was no difference between Catholic and Protestant when it came to helping, relieving or instructing one’s neighbour. She institutionalised her fervent love of neighbour in the Rule for her Congregation describing Mercy as “the principal path marked out by Jesus Christ for those who wish to follow his example”.
Her use of her own resources, whether of wealth, connections or physical vitality show that she was living in the spiritual house whose walls as St. Augustine says, are walls of hope. Her use of her own resources, whether of wealth, connections or physical vitality show that she was living in the spiritual house whose walls as St. Augustine says, are walls of hope.
For Catherine, Mercy in the form of a compassionate practical response to need was where she believed she was called by God. She saw the Mercy response as multi-dimensional and in her singleness of purpose she turned out to be a pioneer in many areas. She was open to new educational frontiers, accomplished by a single linear methodology, centered on catechetical urgency for girls. Her whole life centered on a “catechetical anxiety”. (It might be useful to look at Catherine’s “catechetical anxiety” in the context of her time and for its relevance today).
The following is just a short inadequate list of some of Catherine’s “firsts”:
- A shelter for unemployed women.
- Travelling to France to learn educational systems before she opened her schools.
- Opening outlets to sell the work done in schools by the poor women and children.
- Bringing education for poor girls and women to the forefront in the Ireland of her day
- On July 13th 1834 Catherine applied for affiliation with the National Board of Education. in Ireland. She was the first contemporary founder/superior to do so.
- In 1835, two years before the Government opened the Marlborough Street Training School in 1838, she was supplying trained monitoresses to other schools on request.
- In 1837 the first non residential Pension School was established in Carlow, shortly after its foundation, for middle class parents who found the fees of boarding schools prohibitive at the time.
- Catherine favoured the practice of holding receptions and professions of new members in the Parish Church where new foundations were made. The profession of Mary Teresa Purcell in 1836 in Tullamore started a trend. This practice was lost after the 1917 code of Canon Law came in to being and was only found again with Vatican II.
Discipleship of Jesus - the Road to Sainthood
Catherine McAuley was declared Venerable by the Church on April 9th 1990. Such a declaration is made after a long process that looks at all aspects of the life of the Servant of God and concludes with moral certainty that this person lived the virtues of the Christian Life to a heroic degree. The Church canonises human beings. A false idea is prevalent that canonised sainthood somehow implies a human nature that is devoid of its imperfections and free of the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks to which humanity is heir. The essential element is the heroism of their struggle under grace to follow Gospel imperatives and to live their lives in close imitation of Jesus Christ. The intensity of their struggle is determined by the obstacles they face and overcome.
Catherine McAuley richly deserves to be called Venerable. She was human, she struggled, she faced many obstacles.Catherine McAuley richly deserves to be called Venerable. She was human, she struggled, she faced many obstacles. Like all of us she has her story and in that story we see the interweaving of light and darkness, of pain and joy as she tried to follow the love of her life, Jesus Christ.
The essence of true discipleship is the surrender of oneself unreservedly and unconditionally. In surrendering we are drawn to the joy of union with God and at the same time we fear the pain that this self-giving will involve.
As with Jesus so with Catherine, surrender to the love of the Father inevitably meant surrender to the Cross. Catherine was no stranger to the Cross as she said herself “we were founded on Calvary there to serve a crucified Redeemer”. When we look at her however we see a woman who through all she suffered, learned that she could not be her own saviour. She did not take herself too seriously and her “mirth” her irrepressible joy was constantly in evidence in her fun poems, her good humour in defusing tense community situations, her capacity to make fun and to laugh especially at herself. As she matured this weaving of joy and pain was expressed through a profound trust in the Providence of God expressed so well in her Suscipe.
The Final Years
From the opening of the house of Mercy on Baggot Street in 1827 to Catherine’s death on the 11th November 1842 the consolidation of virtue in her life and its heroic expression in her living becomes more and more obvious. In the making of a saint a lot of attention is paid to the last ten years of a person’s life. From the opening of the house of Mercy on Baggot Street in 1827 to Catherine’s death on the 11th November 1842 the consolidation of virtue in her life and its heroic expression in her living becomes more and more obvious.
Catherine initially understood "giving all to God" in terms of working as a laywoman, doing good among the poor in her city of Dublin. Like Mary of Nazareth before her, whose understanding of giving all to God was disturbed by the message of the angel, so Catherine’s understanding of the direction her life would take was disturbed, enlarged, opened to the ‘more’ of God’s will for her by the request/directive of the Archbishop of Dublin that she give canonical status to her charitable undertaking or hand it over to another canonically established Congregation. Catherine like Mary was not found wanting when God’s call came. Her whole life to this moment was steeped in prayer and lived in an attitude of loving discernment of God’s will in her regard. She had been faithful in the smaller choices; she did not fail when the ‘crunch’ came.
This is just one example of what was clearly her way of living Mercy. Catherine’s focus obviously was on doing the very best she could for the poor of Dublin, putting flesh on the vision with no thought of her own security in any of the transactions she entered into. This is just one example of what was clearly her way of living Mercy.
Her humility, seen in many and varied ways all through her life is epitomised in her submission at 52 years of age to the rigours of an intensive novitiate. In the time when it took place, this act of humble submission was in itself nothing short of heroic. It is rendered even more significant by the fact that at one stage there was a question of the validity of her novitiate which threatened to prolong her absence from Baggot Street. We can only imagine the inner experience of anguish and the trust and surrender to God she needed to contain it at a time when she was anxious to return to Baggot Street where she had learned that in her absence misplaced zeal and excessive penances had undermined health and even caused death among her small band of companions.
She was consumed with love and Love consumed her.In relation to her own health, we also have the example of a very ill woman who did not complain and who went whenever necessary on journeys that would have been majorly difficult for someone in the whole of her health. She was consumed with love and Love consumed her.
Catherine’s last days, her terminal illness and death are an example par excellence of a heroically virtuous woman. Her delicate courtesy and kind thoughtfulness even when she was in extremis herself are inspirational and challenging. Catherine died the death that any Christian might hope and pray for and which every Christian must admire. Without any fuss, without any fear she gave herself to God as she had given herself to him all through her life. Her own lived witness to charity was the companion volume to the Scripture in the study of which she found the secret of life and love.
The above is a very cursory inconclusive account of the life and vision of a woman who is a very real example of what it means to be a conduit of God’s loving and compassionate Mercy in the world. She understood and lived the conviction that Christ has no body now but ours and exemplifies that each one of us brings our own unique gift to living that vision in the place and time in which we find ourselves. Heidegger tells us that our future comes to meet us out of our past. So, even in this post modern and technological age a study of the life, spirituality and vision of Catherine McAuley in its transparent simplicity is as apt to inspire and challenge today as it was in her lifetime.
We have a story, the story of Mercy. Let us together:
- Learn this story
- Pray this story
- Contemplate this story
- Own this story
- Celebrate this story
- Share this story
Then let us see where God will lead us.
I would conclude by asking you to pray that one day she will be finally raised to the honour of the altar so that all the people of God will have the chance to know her and to give glory to God through devotion to her.
Sister Brenda Dolphin rsm
Via San Sebastianello 16
00187 Rome, Italy