March 31, 2020

Words from Catherine

Sometimes I come across something in one of Catherine’s letters that causes me to pause. Last week, it was the following message, written on 2 March 1840, that I saw in a new light. In the letter that Catherine wrote to Frances Warde, she says:

“I feel exceedingly anxious about you in your present state of trial and fear for the health of your community, but please God the contagion will not spread.”

In the footnotes to this letter in The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1818-1841 edited by Mary Sullivan rsm, she notes that Catherine’s letters in February and March of that year report cases of “typhus” or “fever” in the Carlow, Tullamore, Charleville and Limerick communities. The “fever” of those times often caused fatalities - the Annals identify Fr Joseph Nugent, Fr Edward Nolan, Sr de Chantal McCann, Sr Veronica Corrigan, Sr Aloysia Thorpe as victims of fever and I am sure there were many more.

Catherine had a busy start to the year 1840. She had travelled from Bermondsey to Dublin; she had been engaged in submitting the Rule and Constitution to Rome; her nephew Robert had died; she had been unwell herself, and was in negotiations about the laundry development at Baggot Street. Catherine also knew financial challenges at this time, Mary Sullivan notes that the charity sermon of 23 February 1840 was a failure, the speaker, Rev. Daniel W. Cahill, less than ten minutes into it, becoming so ill he had to give up.

I am sure that the start of 2020 for many of us also had many pressing matters for our attention. And yet suddenly, COVID-19 was upon us: an unexpected and frightening experience. “Self-isolation”, “social-distancing” and “staying in our bubble” have become the new norms. As was so for Catherine in 1840, financial challenges are at the forefront for many with the closure of workplaces, organisations and even the House of Mercy itself.

However, in all that faces us in this present age, like Catherine, we share a particular anxiety for the health of those we love and care for, and the health of the community. We too pray that the contagion will not spread further.

The image of the original of Catherine’s letter above is an edited version for reflective purposes. However, we note that at the end Catherine implores Frances to let her “hear often until you have a favourable change” - a reminder to each of us to stay connected, until this time has passed.

Each day, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, in her media briefing is highlighting one group of people who are making an extraordinary effort to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. If Catherine was doing the same, I know she would be acknowledging the extraordinary efforts of the Sisters, Associates and Partners in Mercy in healthcare organisations; those who are engaged in pastoral care in Mercy facilities; the Mercy educators who are quickly adapting to the challenges of online learning to ensure education continues in some form; those who are supporting the homeless, the recently unemployed, the anxious, and all those who are particularly vulnerable in these times. 

May God preserve and bless us all. 

Messages to: Anna Nicholls rsm - Head of Heritage & Spirituality

[1] Sullivan, M. C. The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1818-1841. © 2004. Four Courts Press, Dublin.

[1] By a Member of the Sisters of Mercy.  Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy, Volume 1. © 1881, Catholic Publication Society Co., New York

[1] Sullivan, M. Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy. © 2012. Four Courts Press, Dublin. p286

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