The Family and Catherine McAuley

The history of humankind, the history of Salvation passes by way of the family. This celebration of family is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate family relationships and, to reflect on how they so influence the individual person that the course of history is affected.

The word family generally generates feelings of warmth, acceptance and love. The joy of love is something that we all experience in and associate with family. In our family we learn to receive love and we learn to give love. We learn to understand more and more deeply what is meant by the saying “you can count on me as I count on you”. If we are lucky we also learn very gradually that love is not earned, love is a gift to be treasured. 

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The Family and Catherine McAuley

The history of humankind, the history of Salvation passes by way of the family. This celebration of family is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate family relationships and, to reflect on how they so influence the individual person that the course of history is affected.

The word family generally generates feelings of warmth, acceptance and love. The joy of love is something that we all experience in and associate with family. In our family we learn to receive love and we learn to give love. We learn to understand more and more deeply what is meant by the saying “you can count on me as I count on you”. If we are lucky we also learn very gradually that love is not earned, love is a gift to be treasured. 

This is not to say that family life is all sweetness and light. We can “rob each other up the wrong way” in family; we can hurt each other by what we say or what we do. We learn to struggle with our own shadow and desire to retaliate. We learn to say sorry and to make up. It can be the place where we learn to love ourselves as well as learning to love others and God. 

Families come in all shapes and sizes. How we understand family can vary but when we think about it, being a member of a family draws us into a whole network of relationships that continually shapes us, influencing the way we think and act and feel. It is very influential in shaping our identity, in enabling us to become who we are and who we are meant to be.

It is the place we turn to for protection and comfort when times are hard. Relationships in the family change over time. At one stage we are the ones being cared for and at another we are the ones doing the caring! We all change and grow and the good thing about family is that since we are in it for the long haul we have a chance to see that growth and development over time in ourselves and in others around us. 

Most of all it is when we lose a member of our family we realise the treasure we have lost, and experience a void that can never be filled.

To whom are you closest in your family? Who is the person in your family who gets under your skin and why?

In order to reflect on relationships in the family in a concrete way rather than in the abstract  I take as an example someone for whom family was extremely important, who was intensely involved with different members of her family in different ways, who had many difficulties with some members of her family and who knew the pain of losing beloved family members time and time again; someone who did not experience some aspects of family life that can be joy-filled and life-enhancing but who for all that grew to be a woman of great heart and great love – Catherine McAuley.

Catherine McAuley and her parents – family influences in her childhood and adolescence

In the first place let us explore Catherine’s relationships as a daughter – her relationship with her father, mother and her adoptive parents.

Her father James McGauley (1723 -1793), a Dubliner by birth was about thirty years older than her mother Elinor Conway (1753) when they married (c. 1777). The couple had three children two girls Catherine and Mary and a boy James.  While her father was alive the family was quite comfortably off for a Catholic family in Ireland at the time. This was because James McGauley was an astute businessman who was also known to be an excellent carpenter and wood carver, a merchant, a timber merchant with property holdings and who identified himself as a “grazier” when he leased land in the Stormanstown area of Dublin in 1770. He had houses in the inner city in Dublin on Fishamble Street and a business in Copper Alley, off Lord Edward Street in the direct shadow of Dublin Castle. 

Catherine was only five years old when her father died. As the years passed her childhood memories of her father, though faint are said to have clustered around his kindness to the poor children in the Stormanstown and Fishamble neighbourhoods. We can imagine Catherine sitting close to her father as he spoke to the poor children gathered around him about their catholic faith and it would seem that she imbibed something of his great love for those less fortunate than himself given her own choices in later life. 

Like all children she must also have picked up something of the tension between her parents in relation to these activities of her father because her mother Elinor was known to have often complained about her husband’s generous gift of his time and resources. Maybe Catherine learned something here about the fact that doing good is not always seen as praiseworthy for in later years she would advise “God does not look at the action but at the spirit motivating it”.

While her memories may have been vague, her father’s influence seems to have penetrated deep into the recesses of her heart.  She also grew up to be a woman who had a deep and abiding respect and love for those less fortunate than she was which provided a well-spring of inspiration that carried her through many of the ups and downs of life. 

It was only in her adult years that Catherine came to know in greater depth her father’s business acumen around property and his long-remembered building and wood- carving skills (the wood carved pulpit in St Mary’s Church was her father’s handiwork). She in her turn seems to have inherited his keen business sense.

On reflection this is something that happens often in families; it is in our later years when we are adults ourselves that we come to appreciate our parents and their gifts as we begin to see them as people in their own right and separate from the roles they play in our lives.

James McGauley was a staunch Catholic and whether some residue of his influence still affected Catherine’s life in the area of religion or maybe it was the unspoken desire to keep something of his memory alive, because as an adolescent, Catherine showed a steely determination in her refusal to change from her Catholic faith when the other members of her family changed theirs due to strong Protestant influences in their lives after James McGauley’s death. 

As we will see further on religious beliefs and differences was a very strong bone of contention in the McAuley family and caused Catherine some of the major heartaches she experienced in relation to her family. Dealing with these differences also taught her to be wise, prudent, and courageous in her dealings with people who saw life from a different perspective to herself.

An aspect of family life that must have impacted on Catherine as a young girl and adolescent was the constant moving from house to house during her later childhood and adolescent years. Their first move was into Dublin’s inner city to Fishamble Street shortly before James McGauley died.

In 1784, a year after her husband’s death Elinor Conway McAuley, now a young widow with three small children (between the ages of five and four months) to rear on her own moved the family to a house on the road to Glasnevin on the north side of the city. Three years later the family moved again, this time to 52 Queen Street (part of the house was leased in 1787). They moved in with a Mrs St George who was a Protestant and a very close friend of Elinor McGauley.  

Catherine was 9 years old at the time of this last move and was probably tutored at home by her mother and possibly by Mrs St George. There are no records of Catherine attending a school for girls although she was literate and cultured. She did what all young girls of the time did; she read books by candlelight, learned to print, she began to write poetry which she continued into later life and which she describes at this time as her “pastime, her folly and her play”; she played with her brother James and sometimes got him into trouble when she did his homework incorrectly; she also seems to have had a good relationship with her sister although we do have an account of her telling their mother about something Mary did out of the way and Mary was punished by being left in a dark room for a length of time. These incidents where she caused trouble for her siblings hurt Catherine because she would not willingly have caused pain to those she loved.

For the fifteen years between her father’s death and that of her mother Catherine lived with her mother, brother and sister in the inner city of Dublin. As the years went by their financial situation deteriorated. Elinor was unable to manage the family finances and the business interests left to her by her husband. She was a fun-loving sociable young woman who loved the high life of polite society in Dublin at the time. She is described in the early manuscripts as “amiable, accomplished, highly cultivated, not interested in religion as she believed in liberty of conscience and found that any religious obligations that constrained a person to be foreign to that spirit”. However, as a mother she seems to have been quite strict in the way she brought up her children. She did have her children confirmed in the Catholic faith and she insisted on the natural virtues of truthfulness and courtesy. As Catherine grew up she herself was described as being an attractive blond with a charming smile but also with a very determined manner. 

Catherine’s relationship with her mother seems to have been good but considering Catherine had very definite ideas of her own and had qualities of leadership we can expect that sparks would fly at times between the two.

What we can intuit from the mother daughter relationship is that it was close. Elinor’s refined manners; her courtesy and style were some of the things that “rubbed off” on her daughter. 

“Catherine would say in later years; “as love begets love, politeness begets politeness”.

Mother and daughter differed as regards the practice of religion and Catherine held on to her Catholic faith but we also see that her mother did not force her to change her religion either. It would seem however that the daughter had more depth, steeliness and determination to her character than the mother. She also had a better business sense. 

Two years before Elinor’s death in October 1798 the family was in very difficult circumstances money-wise and had to break up. Mary and James moved in with the Armstrong Family, relatives of their mother while Catherine stayed with her mother. They moved in with her mother’s brother Owen Conway (an army surgeon) and his family on East Arran Street. Catherine nursed her mother through her long illness. Elinor seemingly had a very difficult death and this had a very strong influence on Catherine herself. She was always very frightened of death until she came to her own deathbed by which time she had reached an extraordinarily calm acceptance which was a long way from the terror that gripped her in the face of death as a young twenty year old.

We can imagine how Catherine must have felt as she buried her mother. She was not only devastated by her loss but now, she, her sister and brother were orphans without much money, dependent on the good will of family and friends for their bed and board. 

Just try and imagine what that must have been like for a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, in a society where women especially were very dependent on family means?

Catherine was never homeless in the sense of being “on the street”; she did however experience the pain and insecurity of constantly contracting resources, constant up-rooting and the loss of parents. 

The re-locating from house to house, the precariousness of her family’s financial situation was not lost on her and it would seem that these situations became over time a means of deepening that unshakeable trust in God which she showed all through her adult life:

 “We have ever confided largely in Divine providence and shall continue to do so

Providing secure lodging for women and girls who had nowhere safe to live was also the first focus of her plan to help others when she inherited the Callaghan fortune. It is not hard to see why.

Catherine and the Callaghans – family influences as she grew into early and middle adult-hood.

Before Catherine went to live with the Callaghans she spent three or four years with her sister and brother in the Armstrong household. This happened because her uncle Owen Conway, with whom she had been staying since her mother fell ill, became bankrupt and an extra mouth to feed became too much of a burden on the family. Catherine herself took the hard decision to move out and into the Armstrong household. 

(Again just pause to think what anguish this must have caused the twenty year old young woman and what courage and selflessness it took to make it?)

She accepted the invitation of the Callaghans, friends of William Armstrong, to live with them as a companion to Catherine Callaghan in their home in Mary Street (1803) and later the same year she moved with them to Coolock House on the outskirts of the north side of Dublin not very far from Stormanstown where she was born. 

William Callaghan was a prominent apothecary in Dublin at the time. He was a Protestant, his wife a Quaker. They were a childless couple who had spent a number of years in India. 

Coolock offered Catherine McAuley the security of a comfortable home. Added to this and more importantly the Callaghans loved her from the start. For them she was the daughter that they never had. For a long time after she moved in something she treasured was missing. It could not be found at the Callaghan’s table elegant as it was or at their frequent parties pleasant as they were. Once again her unease came from the fact that she felt she could not express her Catholic faith openly.

Despite this Catherine in turn grew deeply fond of her adoptive parents. She spent hours with Catherine Callaghan reading to her with a muted light because light hurt Catherine Callaghan’s eyes. She nursed her constantly until her death in 1819. She was instrumental in enabling Catherine Callaghan to become a Catholic which was a source of great joy to Catherine McAuley but also a source of great tension as at the time it happened she did not know how William Callaghan would take it and what his reaction might be and how that might affect their relationship.

After Catherine Callaghan’s death William Callaghan lived for another three years. Once again Catherine devoted herself to his care and again was devastated by his death as she had been by Catherine’s. He was not outraged by his wife’s conversion to Catholicism as Catherine had feared; in fact towards the end of his life he began to move in that direction himself but died before it actually came about. 

Before he died he protected her future and secured it for her, galvanised into action after overhearing relatives discuss what they would do to Catherine when they had control of his house and estate. The fact that he left her the sole residual legatee of his entire estate came as an enormous surprise to her. It was not something that she had expected. She had to endure the contesting of the will by relatives of William Callaghan but their challenge was to no avail. Catherine finally became his rightful and legally recognised heir in 1823-1824.

 Coolock House was a place of rich hospitality. The Callaghans entertained extensively and Catherine presided at all these celebrations and learned a lot as she did. We know from her letters in later life that she knew all the English ballroom dances and had a repertoire of songs and ballads that she put to good use later on when she lived in community. When she founded convents she always tried to have a piano in the community room so that the sisters could entertain themselves at recreation times. Also, she liked to have the meat carved for dinner. 

Whatever happened in Catherine’s heart during the years she spent with the Callaghans three things can be identified: 

The graciousness courtesy and hospitality that characterised her future life were fully developed during these years. While these qualities were present in the young Catherine due to her mother’s influence, her life in the company of the Callaghans honed these qualities which were a hallmark of her character throughout all her adult life.

She eventually sought guidance in relation to her own faith. Once she plucked up the courage to do this she found that the Callaghans while preferring not to have religious symbols of the Catholic faith prominent in their home were not hostile to Catherine practising her faith openly and were open to her helping the children on the estate with religious instruction. 

Her own interior life of prayer and faith deepened and was tested at this time. Her relationship with “Jesus poor and abandoned” strengthened. There was also a reciprocal influencing between the two Catherine’s in the area of faith, if Catherine Callaghan became a Catholic at the end of her life, Catherine McAuley for her part was deeply influenced by the Quaker attitude to quiet in prayer and to reading Scripture something which was a great help to her in later life. 

Catherine continued to develop and improve her nursing abilities and always knew instinctively what was best for a sick person. 

In the Callaghan home and in their company she grew into mature womanhood. It was during this time that her personality began to blossom and mature. She was obviously loving, responsible and sensible since the elderly couple grew fonder of her as they consistently entrusted the running of their home and estate to her. She was kind, considerate and generous not only to William and Catherine Callaghan but also to the tenants and workers on the estate, their families and children. Socially, she was like any other young woman of the Irish upper middle class of her time. 

She was a young woman who was not only socially competent but she also developed an acute sense of social awareness. She was very sensitive to those less fortunate than herself. Her experience of the loss of people she loved, of home and status, her experience of dependency on the goodwill of others affected her deeply. She would give material help whenever and wherever she could, often from the Callaghan household with the blessing of William and Catherine but quite frequently too from her own pin money which she could have used for another purpose like buying a new bonnet! In her giving she always turned a person’s attention to God the giver of all good rather than focusing on herself

So we see how deeply influential the Callaghans were in Catherine’s life. Their legacy to Catherine was not simply monetary it went far far deeper than that.

Catherine as a sister – sibling interaction and influences

That Catherine was very close to her sister Mary seems evident from the intimate trust that Mary placed in her when they were both adults and especially at the end of Mary’s life. Even though for a while as adolescents they lived in different families towards the end of their mother’s life and even though Mary was to move away from her Catholic religion and embrace the Protestant religion of the Armstrong family with whom she lived, this did not seem to distance the sisters one from the other. Some differences in personality between the sisters include the fact that Mary as a young woman was very interested in style and parties while Catherine, although she would go along with Mary especially while they lived in the Armstrong household, was deep down less interested in that aspect of life. Catherine had a number of offers of marriage both as a young girl and in later when she became an heiress but always from day one showed no interest in getting married. She had a different dream for her life.

In 1804 Mary married William Armstrong Macauley (In 1819 William was appointed assistant surgeon in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham where he served aged and wounded veterans.  He was also a distinguished member of the Apothecaries hall.). The couple had five children who lived. Catherine was a frequent visitor to the Macauley home and the children grew very fond of their aunt. When Catherine was building the house on Baggot Street she did not tell family members what she really intended. Mary got the same reply as others did, that it was a house for the poor. In contrast to their brother James, Mary expressed her delight at this prospect and was looking forward to seeing the poor enjoy the comfort of the big house. She did not live to see it finished.

Mary contracted tuberculosis and in 1827 her health deteriorated significantly causing Catherine to make the Macauley home on Military Road her principal residence. She made regular trips to Coolock House and after September 24th daily trips to the house on Baggot Street. 

Mary died in August 1827 leaving five children between the ages of sixteen and five - Mary, James, Robert, Catherine and William. Catherine stayed on at the Macauley home for a number of months after Mary’s death because Mary Macauley, the eldest of the Macauley children was too young to undertake the running of her father’s home. For Catherine personally, one could say that it was a very inconvenient time as Baggot Street was ready to open. Catherine did not hesitate, she put her family first and entrusted her project in Baggot Street to two very young volunteer women who were half her age. 

Also the Macauley family had a house in Dundrum and Mary asked to spend her last months in this house because of the fresh air on the outskirts of the city. It was there that she was received back into the Catholic Church unknown to her husband. Sometime later when he found out that Catherine was instrumental in enabling Mary’s return to her Catholic faith on her death bed William Macauley got so angry that Catherine had to flee the house in her dressing gown for a couple of hours in the interest of her own safety and go to Dr Cusack’s lodgings in the Royal Hospital. The next morning when things cooled down she and her brother in law were reconciled and she went back to the house on Military road. In this we see that no matter what the tension the family tie was not severed.

 Just a year and a half after his wife’s death William Macauley after a very short illness (three days with an ulcerated sore throat with high fever) died in February 1829, the eldest of his children was eighteen and the youngest was seven. William Macauley in his will, much to the surprise of everyone, left it up to his children to choose whether to place themselves under the guardianship of Catherine or her brother James who (like William Macauley) was a very staunch Protestant. The children all choose Catherine much to their uncle’s astonishment and indignation which he expressed in no unmeasured terms. The Macauley sisters continued to reside in Baggot Street (where Catherine was living full time at this stage) while the Macauley brothers went to boarding school in Carlow.

The depth of the relationship between Catherine and her sister can be seen from what has been said above. Obviously she was a frequent visitor to the Macauley home from the time of Mary’s marriage and the closest person the children knew to a mother when their own beloved mother died. Mary’s eldest daughter also called Mary was particularly attached to her aunt. That Catherine would jeopardise her relationship with her brother-in –law and as a consequence with her beloved nieces and nephews in order to enable Mary to come back to her Catholic faith also shows that she put what she saw as Mary’s best interests before her own.

In this situation which replicated what happened for her with Catherine Callaghan but without the same dramatic consequences we see how fraught relationships can become in a family especially where strongly held beliefs and values clash. It is a tribute to both William Macauley and to Catherine that they were able to resolve their differences especially for the sake of the children who were deeply affected by the loss of their mother and obviously William Macauley did not hold it against his sister-in-law as seen in what he said in his will in relation to the guardianship of his children.

 Catherine’s relationship with her brother James was more formal and distant than her relationship with her sister.  James was born in 1783 and was therefore five years younger than Catherine.  He was one person who referred to Catherine as Kitty. In 1824 when the construction of the House of Mercy on Baggot Street was underway James is said to have called the building “Kitty’s Folly”, a name that has survived the centuries and become an affectionate nick name for the building.

James was not quite 4 months old when his father died in July of the year of his birth. James went to live with William Armstrong as family finances began to fail even before his mother’s death. Quickly he adopted the religion of the family he was living with and became a rigid and staunch Protestant. He was enrolled in the Royal Hibernian Military School in the late 1790s early 1800s while still in his late teens. He was certified as an apprentice to an apothecary in 1802. He was admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons (England) in 1810 having been presented for certification as an assistant surgeon by the Royal Army Medical Corps in which he had enrolled that year. After service in the wars between England and France and having participated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 he returned to Dublin. In 1817 he was appointed assistant surgeon to the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park. He earned an (much sought after at the time) MD from Edinburgh in 1825 and moved from the Royal Hibernian Military School to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in 1829. He married Frances Ridgeway in 1821 and they had ten children. James, Frances and two of their daughters were present at Catherine’s bedside on the day she died, November 11th 1941.

We have some inkling of the distance between the brother and sister seen in the fact that Catherine did not confide to James anything about her plans for the use of her inheritance in building the house on Baggot Street. She knew that he would not have encouraged it and might have tried to prevent it. 

Again she had to use all her tact to maintain the relationship alive especially after Mary and William Macauley’s deaths and the choice of guardian made by all their children.

It was James who insisted that young Catherine Macauley leave Baggot Street when she made it known that she wanted to join the community when she was only fifteen years of age. What happened was that after her sister Mary died, Catherine Macauley left Baggot Street for a number of months at the insistence of her Uncle James. She had obviously declared her intention to be a member of the Baggot Street community as Mary had been but James considered her too young and obviously Catherine McAuley concurred. James brought the young Catherine to his own home where she had the possibility of entering into the life of high society at the time. However, neither “the persuasions of her uncle nor the fascination of the society to which he took care to introduce her” could make her change her mind. Eventually, her uncle left her at liberty to follow her own wishes and she immediately returned to Baggot Street and became a sister of Mercy. This incident goes to show us that Catherine did not cut her nieces and nephews off from relationships with their uncle and his family. In the case of the young Catherine, Catherine SNR obviously concurred with her brother that some time away from Baggot Street would be good for the girl.

So no matter what the difference of values or outlook, once again we see that the family tie was never severed and as noted already James with his wife Frances and their daughters who were present at Catherine McAuley’s deathbed. That Catherine loved her McAuley nieces is seen in her asking James to kiss Ellen and Emily for her but we have very little further information James’ side of her family. 

Catherine as aunt/ as adoptive mother- relationships with nieces and nephews

In 1829 on the death of William Macauley, Catherine McAuley became the adoptive mother of nine children. The five Macaulay children had all chosen Catherine as their legal guardian and she had already adopted Teresa Byrn and Catherine Byrn (Anne Conway Byrn’s children). She was adoptive mother also to at least two other children at that time Ellen Corrigan and Anne Rice who was probably the little orphan that she adopted after she found her on the street outside the cellar which her then dead parents had occupied. (She was also the reason why Catherine McAuley added the care of orphans to the works of the Institute). 

In 1829 (March) after their father’s unexpected death and when she became their guardian she registered her three nephews, James, Robert and William Macauley in a lay boarding school in Carlow. 

In November of the same year Mary Macauley, Catherine’s eldest niece who was 18 years old and had been baptised a Catholic decided she wanted to join the community in Baggot Street and be part of the group of volunteer ladies who worked in the House of Mercy. Mary had always been very attached to her aunt and even before her mother’s death she had said she wanted to become a Catholic like her aunt Catherine. Also Mary had communicated to her daughter that she had returned to her faith before she died. While Catherine McAuley was still living in the Macauley home in Military Road after her sister’s death she would go daily to visit the house in Baggot Street and her eldest niece would always accompany her. If Mary was attached to Catherine, Catherine was also very attached to Mary.

When the Congregation was founded in 1831 and the first ten members of the Congregation were received in 1832 (January) Catherine Byrn and Mary Macauley are among that group of women. Catherine Byrn however, decided to leave the community in December of that year and join the Domincan Sisters in Cabra. The way Catherine Byrn went about making this choice hurt Catherine very much because Catherine Byrn made all her arrangements secretly. Catherine McAuley said very little about how she felt about it but made it clear that she would never stand in Catherine Byrn’s way as she made her choice to transfer to another congregation. 

Mary Macauley contracted the dreaded disease TB, fell seriously ill and made her profession in a private ceremony on November 3rd 1833. She died just after midnight on November 12th.  We can only imagine Catherine McAuley’s heartbreak at seeing her beloved niece follow the same road as her mother but so much earlier in life.

The next year Mary’s younger sister Catherine Macauley entered the congregation and received the habit later in July of the same year. She made vows in 1836. She too died of TB in 1837. Once again Catherine McAuley was devastated by the loss of a beloved family member to the dreaded disease. “Our innocent little Catherine died before midnight last night; “We just feel now as if all the house was dead. All are sorry to part with our animated, sweet little companion” was what she said in a letter to the president of the school in Carlow where her three brothers still lived.

The same month that Catherine Macauley died Teresa Byrn entered the community in Baggot Street.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Catherine, firstly the joy at seeing so many of her adopted children join her in her charitable work and later as religious.  Then the heartbreak and devastation at losing so many loved ones much younger than herself in a few short years?

Firstly she loses Mary Macauley and then Catherine Macauley and Ellen Corrigan died in the same year from either TB or typhoid. Catherine’s own heartbreak can barely be imagined. She had been there for her nieces and nephews all through their mother’s protracted illness; through the sudden loss of their father and for Catherine and the Macauley boys through the loss of their elder sister. 

In relation to her Macauley nephews, Catherine had great hopes for them because of the “amiable dispositions and fine talents” but as Mary Clare Moore in her manuscript said “deprived of the restraint and guidance of a Father’s hand they neglected the opportunities for their advancement”. TB was the cause of both Robert and James’ deaths in quick succession; Robert in 1840 and James in 1841. Catherine McAuley herself was left standing at the edge of the open grave. Only Catherine Byrn, Teresa Byrn and Willie Macauley survived her. We do not know what happened to Anne Rice. All her other adopted children pre-deceased her.

William, the youngest was “wild” and Catherine was unhappy with him on account of some foolish behaviour on his part. He went to sea twice in 1830; firstly after his sister Catherine’s death and then again in December of the same year. He sent a letter to his aunt but he did not come to visit her between the sailings for obvious reasons. He did visit his uncle James from whom he got the money to make the passage. So Catherine was left with “unfinished business” in relation to William and since he did not come back to see her between sailings she presumed he was lost at sea. 

It is also interesting to note that her brother James did not inform her of William’s visit before he made the second sailing and went to Australia where he settled down and married. He had thirteen children and died at the ripe old age of eighty three. Frances, one of his daughters entered the Sisters of Mercy in Kyneton, Australia, and took the name Catherine in religion.  A few years after Catherine McAuley’s own death in 1841 William again made contact with the sisters in Baggot Street through his cousin Teresa Byrn.

Like a mother in any family where her children are concerned, there are the joys, the highs and the lows, the disappointments, the unfinished business and the heartache. Catherine was no stranger to all of these feelings in relation to the children she adopted and cared for. The loss of so many people that she loved and cared for and especially of those so much younger than herself was a very heavy cross for her. 

“However oppressed by grief and pain, whatever trials I sustain/There’s not a lesson I can need but in my crucifix I read.

“The tomb seems never closed in my regard”

Catherine as niece and cousin – Catherine’s relationships with the Conway family

While Catherine was very involved in the lives of her nieces and nephews especially the Macauley family, she also experienced herself what it meant to have an uncle she adored and who in turn was extremely fond of her. 

As her family fortunes began to decline and gradually evaporate Catherine had already moved in with her mother to the home of her mother’s brother Owen Conway. After her mother’s death Catherine continued to live in the Conway home. However, she was not there for very long when Owen Conway’s fortunes began to slide and while Catherine knew she was loved, accepted and very welcome in his house, she also realised that her staying there meant an extra person to feed which increased the family’s burden and so she decided to move to the Armstrong home where her brother and sister were already living. 

While Catherine lived with the Conway’s she was inserted into a very Catholic atmosphere and living with them allowed Catherine to develop and freely practise her faith. Her uncle was very fond of her and Owen Conway’s granddaughter Ann Byrn would recall that Catherine was always eternally grateful for the time she spent in the Conway home and attributed the preservation of her faith from that time because her brother and sister lost their faith since from a very early age they lived only with Protestants. Moving out of the Conway home was not an easy decision for Catherine to make. Her only alternative was to go to the Armstrong family and while she knew that she would be very welcome there and very much loved but she also understood that practising her Catholic faith would not be looked on kindly. 

One of the great blessings of her time in the Conway family was also the chance she had to build on a very close relationship with Anne Conway her first cousin. Catherine and Anne were best friends. The friendship was so deep and so close that it extended well beyond the life-time of Anne Conway (who married James Byrn, a Dublin printer) as Catherine adopted firstly the youngest  child Teresa (in 1821) when her mother fell ill and then the eldest child Catherine who was ten when her mother died. 

Both Teresa and Catherine joined the community in Baggot Street. Catherine left after her first profession to join the Dominicans in Cabra. Anne Conway’s third daughter also called Anne joined the congregation after her sisters and spent her life living and working in England.

In a family, friendship between cousins can often be very close and strong. Sometimes cousins are even closer than brothers or sisters might be. Certainly the relationship between Anne Conway and Catherine was deep and lasting. 

Some family relationships that Catherine did not have

She did not have the joy of having grandparents. At the time she lived, people did not live long enough generally to know their grandchildren or their great grandchildren which can be such a source of joy and love in families today and is indeed one of the great gifts of family life today.

She did not experience physical motherhood. However, she did know something of the love, joy and heartache of a mother for her children. She was directly responsible for nine children and in caring for so many she would have run the whole gamut of pride and joy, anxiety and pain that every loving mother knows in relation to all her children. 

In conclusion

Catherine had great respect for family. This can be seen in her original vision for the work of mercy. When building Baggot Street, she intended it to have “some apartments for ladies who might choose for any definite or indefinite time to devote themselves to the service of the poor, without the restriction of vow and remaining at liberty to visit their families and relatives or even to remain with them for a time in case of difficulty or illness”. 

Catherine had another family that she loved. This family comprised the women who came firstly as volunteers and later as members of the congregation she established. For most of her life as the founder of the Baggot Street project she was much older than any of the women who joined her. All the accounts would tell us that she never allowed the age gap to interfere with any of her relationships with her co-workers and sisters. In fact she was “very young at heart” and was most at home when playing tricks and entertaining the community and getting into mischief with the novices. She had an extraordinary ability to bring out the best in all those with whom she lived and worked.

Catherine’s family experiences were rich and varied; the influences in her life diverse and formative, and her own inner ability and openness to learn and be formed and reformed so it is not surprising that she grew into being the well-rounded loving and lovable person that those who knew her forever proclaimed.

Family is such a great gift even if it does cause heartache at times; it is the best school for love there is.

We conclude with the second part of the official prayer for the World Meeting of Families


Increase our faith, strengthen our hope. Keep us safe in your love; make us always grateful for the gift of life and the gift of family that we share. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Amoris Laetitia 253

“At times family life is challenged by the death of a loved one. We cannot fail to offer the light of faith as a support to families going through this experience”.

Catherine McAuley herself knew what the loss of a family member meant as so many of her family pre-deceased her. When young Catherine Macauley died on August 7th 1837, Catherine senior was devastated as can be seem from her words to Andrew Fitzgerald in Carlow (President of the boarding school attended by the Macauley brothers):

“We feel just now as if all the House was dead. All are sorry to part with our animated, sweet little companion”.

It was Catherine’s great love that enabled her to mourn as deeply as she did and her faith that encouraged her to keep on going in the face of great loss. She, in her turn, encouraged others when they experienced the loss of loved ones. In her letter to Elizabeth Moore on the death of Sr Teresa Vincent Potter (March 21, 1840)

“I did not think any event in this world could make me feel so much. I have cried heartily and implored God to comfort you – I know He will”.

What does Catherine’s example say to us when we face loss in our lives?

Amoris Laetitia 178

“Motherhood is not a solely biological reality, but is expressed in diverse ways”

By the end of January 1829, at fifty one years of age Catherine Mc Auley was the adoptive mother of nine children, Ellen Corrigan, Anne Rice, Catherine and Teresa Byrn and Mary, Catherine, James, Robert and William Macauley.  This experience formed and reformed, stretched and enchanted her. With these children and watching them grow into adulthood she plumbed the depths of the joy and the pain pf motherhood.

Catherine was also “mother” to all the young women who drew close to her in order to be part of her great work for the poor of Dublin of her time. Her anxiety for their welfare caused her to be uncharacteristically hasty in her departure from Georges’ Hill at the conclusion of her novitiate. Yet, these young women, many years her junior appreciated her implicit trust in them, her lack of possessiveness in their regard and her steadfast and realistic encouragement in all their undertakings. As one young novice would say of her:

“I think what pleased us most in Rev. Mother was the absence of a manner telling: “I am the foundress” (Degnan, 1957, p. 246).

Teresa White (founder of the Galway convent) would say of Catherine:

“There was something about her so kind, yet so discerning, that you would fancy she read your heart” (Annals, Vol. 1 pp 49, 50).

How do you as a woman give expression to your capacity for motherhood?

The Official Prayer for the World Meeting of Families

God, our Father,

We are brothers and sisters in Jesus your Son,

One family, in the Spirit of your love.

Bless us with the joy of love.

Make us patient and kind,

gentle and generous,

welcoming to those in need.

Help us to live your forgiveness and peace.

Protect all families with your loving care,

Especially those for whom we now pray:

[We pause and remember family members and others by name].

Increase our faith,

Strengthen our hope,

Keep us safe in your love,

Make us always grateful for the gift of life that we share.

This we ask, through Christ our Lord,


Mary, mother and guide, pray for us.

Saint Joseph, father and protector, pray for us.

Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us.

Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, pray for us.

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