1. Storms and Teacups

Storms and Teacups:
An Acrostic on the Leadership
of Catherine Mcauley

(This article was first published in the ISMA Journal Listen, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2004.)*

The night of Saturday January 5th 1839 is etched in the Irish collective psyche even today as one of the most destructive and frightening ever experienced. To contemporary witnesses it was a night of inexplicably bizarre natural phenomena, the combination of which wrought devastation across the tiny island. A few years later, the Great Famine would blight many of the same areas of the country and change irrevocably the face, the language and culture of Ireland. Between these catastrophic natural events, in 1841, in November, a woman named Catherine would die in an upstairs room in a house on a corner in Baggot St, Dublin.

This storm, the Great Wind of 1839 as it became known, killed an unknown number, but probably hundreds of people across the country, including many children. Thousands of trees were destroyed, thousands of birds killed, buildings both grand and humble damaged, significant historical ruins badly breached, and many fishing vessels loosed from their moorings. Hundreds were rendered homeless. On the west coast, fish and seaweed were blown miles inward, and the smell of salt lingered for weeks in houses far from the sea.

I begin with this particular event because it seems emblematic of so much of Catherine’s times and of our own: tumultuous, unpredictable, unsettling. Also, the way Catherine writes in the aftermath of this contemporary event, her particular slant on it as it were, reveals much about her leadership, her concern for her Sisters, and her acknowledgement of their care for one another.

The following reflections on the leadership qualities of Catherine are chiefly a reading of her letters,[i] beginning with a letter she wrote in the aftermath of that terrifying storm of 1839.



One of Catherine’s great gifts as leader, almost so close to us to be easily taken for granted, and yet an inestimable gift, was her ability to create and foster bonds between her first companions. She was a connector of people, designing the great and intricate Celtic circle of Mercy in those first years. She was not a “networker” in the cynical hard-bitten sense that word can tend to have in our modern world, but a true linker of the spirit between people, a maker and encourager of bonds. Such fostering of connections, deeply personal and affectionate, was crucial to the collective identity in those early years. It created a sense of solidarity, and it broadened horizons, so that from the earliest times the Sisters had a sense that Mercy, whilst practised in the particular, was larger, more dynamic and more inviting than their own parochial locale. In a letter to Sr. Elizabeth Moore of Limerick, dated January 13th 1839, Catherine wrote about the effects of the storm:

I received your letter yesterday and thank God that you are all safe after the storm …we remained in bed all night, some in terror, others sleeping.

She then describes in detail the damage to the Community Room at Baggot St, and after mentioning that sixteen panes of glass had been broken, wryly adds: it is almost impossible to get a glazier- a fine harvest for them.

The letter continues about the wider devastation in Dublin, and news that has reached them of some of the other convents:

The hospital at the Green [St. Stephens Green] greatly broken, a chimney fell. Several houses blown down and many lives lost. Your friend and Sister Vincent safe. The Sisters in Carlow passed the night in the Choir. Part of their very old roof was blown down. The beautiful Cathedral much injured.

The chimneys of the new convent in Tullamore blown down, the old one and Sisters safe. We have not heard from Cork or Charleville…(p.154)

The idiomatic, staccato tone of the account is indicative not so much of someone writing in haste, (although it is likely that she was) but of someone writing to a trusted reader, with whom she could be natural and familiar. She gives a little “news bulletin” offering reassurance about their mutual acquaintances, before moving on to the main business of the letter.

In many of the letters, Catherine fulfils this role of connector- conveying news, both joyous and troublesome, keeping her companions in the newer convents in touch with one another, generating interest and solidarity. In a letter to Frances Warde of November 17th, 1839, Catherine writes of the Sisters who were about to set out for England to establish the convent at M. Catherine herself accompanied them, and she notes that her contribution to the preparation for the journey was to have the list ready of songs that would make the journey more pleasurable. Again, the tone is succinct and affectionately jocular:

The six travellers leave dear Ireland tomorrow- all in tolerable good health and more than tolerable spirits. Sister Agnew rejoiced, Sister Taylor in rapture, and their Mother [M. Clare Moore] all animation. Sister M. Cecilia greatly improved and Mary Teresa smart as a lark. I have my list of songs prepared for the journey.



Mary Sullivan writes in an early MAST article that one of Catherine’s favourite and frequently used words was “animation”. Along with “comfort” and “console”, it features often in the letters, and if by a person’s words one knows the heart, then they reveal to us much about the heart of Catherine. “Animation was the word Catherine repeatedly used to designate the effect of God’s merciful action in human hearts and the power of Jesus’ example.”[ii]

The word animation connotes warmth and energy, a particularly apt necessity in a bleak Irish winter one might think, as if warmth of spirit would thaw cold bones! It is a word she enjoins on Frances Warde in a time of hardship, encouraging her to be “cheerful and happy, animating all around you.” (p.118).

Catherine’s fondness for the word ‘animate’ reflects her own capacity to effect such animation in others. Part of the uniqueness of her leadership was her giftedness in inspiring her first companions. The derivation of the word animate suggests one who quickens, breathes the spirit into, brings life to. Truly Catherine, as gift of the Spirit, stirred the embers of the community and vision of Mercy to flame. She was inspirer.

How else does this exquisitely mysterious quality of animation suggest itself in her letters? We see one who is adept at praising her companions’ efforts, at building confidence where it may be wanting, at cheering the heart that is troubled. So, to Frances Warde, Superior at Carlow, she writes effusively in praise of that foundation after a visit there; (p.256) she prays kindly in a letter for Elizabeth Moore “May our Blessed Redeemer dwell with you” in difficulties, so that (you) will be preserved from “jealousy, coldness or party-spirit”(p.194); she reminds herself, in a letter to Frances Warde, of the need for perseverance: “Thus we go on, my dear…flourishing in the very midst of the Cross…” (p.125)

The spirituality she commends to her Sisters is demanding, but also realistic in its awareness of human limitation. To Sister de Sales White she offers the following advice, including herself as one who can learn from it, thus promoting a sense of camaraderie. Part of the genius of her gift as leader was never to set herself above or apart from the common struggle:

The simplest and most practical lesson I know…is to resolve to be good today, but better tomorrow. Let us take one day only in hands, at a time, merely making a resolve for tomorrow, thus may we hope to get on taking short, careful steps, not great strides. (p.310)

The words of medieval Beguine mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg, seem to have a close affinity with Catherine’s witness to the transformative work of the Spirit, that which breathes soul, the life of God, into human experience:

Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is a compassionate outpouring of the Creator and the Son. This is why when we on earth pour out compassion and mercy from the depths of our hearts and give to the poor, and dedicate our bodies to the service of the broken, to that very extent do we resemble the Holy Spirit.[iii]


Tea Maker

There is a traditional rune of Celtic hospitality that describes the three-fold duty of the host to the stranger at the door:

I saw a stranger yester even.
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place,
And music in the listening place…

This beautiful little verse ends with the song of the lark, that purest and most dulcet of singers, reminding us that in every stranger one is called to recognize and encounter Christ. How well Catherine epitomizes the wisdom of hospitality symbolized in this ancient rune:

For Catherine saw in every stranger at the door, in everyone who was different from herself, in every person, the hidden presence of Christ, the approaching and approachable self-utterance of the near but distant otherness of God.[iv]

It is not merely a question of doling out food and drink in correct but perfunctory fashion. One is called to a profound, imperceptible care of the spirit with “music”: perhaps literal music, but perhaps also with the myriad possibilities of what makes “music” for the soul- genuine welcome, sincere encounter, true listening. The following lines from the Familiar Instructions, attributed to Catherine, suggest the full obligations of genuine hospitality:

There are things the poor prize more highly than gold, thought they cost the donor nothing; among these are the kind word, the gentle, compassionate look, and the patient hearing of their sorrows…[v]

I have called Catherine a “tea-maker” to connote her extraordinary sensitivity to the nuances and duty of hospitality. No doubt, she was literally, at least some of the time, a tea-maker, but for our purposes here it is the symbol of the welcoming beverage that is important. A tea-drinker she certainly was. One of the very poignant “relics” preserved at Mercy International Centre in the very room in which Catherine died, are the cup and saucer said to have been used by her. A simple, delicate little cup of white china with a worn gold and green rim.

That Baggot St became a centre of welcome, of shelter, of human care, is due in no small way to Catherine’s refined sense of hospitality. One of the most poignant stories Catherine recounts is in a letter to Sister Catherine Meagher in Naas:

I am sure I spoke with two yesterday who were hungry, tho’ of nice appearance. Their dejected faces have been before me ever since. I was afraid of hurting their feelings by offering them food and had no money…(p.256)

In the ‘failure’ of that encounter is all the intricacy of Catherine’s sensitivity to the dignity of each person: alert to their need, not wanting to embarrass them, not quite sure how to help them. Holding the two strangers who came to her door in memory and in prayer is the only hospitality she can offer them, and who can estimate that?

In terms of community spirit amongst the early Sisters, there is ample evidence of the value placed on conviviality and simple fun, and the ways in which Catherine herself affirmed and fostered such opportunities, often in the midst of the cruellest of losses and setbacks. We have already read one example from Catherine’s letters of how she regarded music as a way of cheering people, bonding them and giving delight to the heart. Gathering together for “recreation” in all meanings of that word, was crucial to the group’s well-being. Gathering together for refreshment and the fortifying of body and spirit had at its heart the Eucharistic memory of the hospitable acts of Jesus at the Last Supper: not only the nourishment of bread and wine, but the washing of feet.

Of course, one of the most endearing instances of commending her Sisters to gather and fortify themselves with the soothing warmth of the cup of tea occurred as she lay dying. One of her last acts as first Sister of Mercy, as leader, as earthly mortal Catherine McAuley was, magnificently, a gesture of hospitality:

The poor Sisters look greatly fatigued; be sure you have a comfortable cup of tea for them when I am gone[vi]



Her letters reveal Catherine as a woman of gentle whimsy and determined optimism, qualities sorely tested by circumstances, but enduring. She used humour for herself, to cheer her own heart; she used it to lighten difficult circumstances and to create a sense of camaraderie and perspective. She reminds us that joy is a gift of the Spirit, to be relished.

To Elizabeth Moore she writes in October 1840, about trying to make up her mind about a request from the English novices to visit Limerick, a foundation she has praised much in their presence. Outlining the travel costs of such a visit she asks “ought I to sanction such application of money as if it were found on a hill?” She then proceeds with a whimsical dialogue between her Rational and Irrational Self, tossing the pros and cons back and forth. Towards the end of the letter she exclaims: “If you wrote a letter such as this, I would be seriously alarmed for your poor head.” (p.241)

Catherine also uses humour as a way of connecting with the younger members of the Order, appealing to their sense of fun and mischief. It is a winning quality in a leader, and again, it invites camaraderie. Was Catherine the original anti-institutionaliser, whose wit and humour display an anarchic (albeit very gentle) disposition? One of the earliest extant letters to a Sister of Mercy is, perhaps not insignificantly, a light-hearted one. To Sister Mary Delamere at Tullamore she writes in July 1836 what she heads “A Preparatory Meditation.” Its contents, however, belie the earnest title! It begins with warm greetings and then the statement “I am determined not to behave well, and you must join me.” In similar vein it continues, tongue in cheek:

We will set up for a week what is called a Nonsensical Club. I will be President, you Vice-President, and Catherine can give lectures as Professor of Folly…(p.79)

We perhaps need to remind ourselves when reading this frivolity that life was tough in nineteenth century Ireland, and that disease, death and physical hardship were daily realities. In addition, Catherine seems to have intuitively recognized that the asceticism of convent life, both the voluntary and the involuntary, needed to be balanced by the occasional “nonsense”. The letter concludes with an affectionate return to reality:

Of one thing, however, I am sure and seriously so, that I seldom look forward to any change in this world with such happiness as I do to our meeting…(p.79)

Catherine’s use of humour sometimes has a more overtly serious intent. She occasionally uses it to reprimand and “chide with love”[vii]. She writes in simple verse form to couch her comment in the comical, whilst nevertheless making a serious point. For instance, in a letter of March 1841, she reminds Cecilia Marmion, the Mistress of Novices, of the inadvisability of showing favouritism, clearly a matter of valid concern to her. (p.313)

Catherine used humour as a way of leading with affection and lightness of touch. There is a deftness about how she communicates criticism that must have made it easier for her companions to receive it without rancour. She was no stentorian, but neither was she insipid: she seems to have had the knack of challenging without humiliating others.



One of Catherine’s pre-eminent gifts as a leader was her ability to bring out the best in her companions. She seems to have been able to foster the unique gifts of each person, to extend their reach, and to impart confidence in them, enabling them to take on tasks they might have shrunk from, or in normal circumstances been considered too young or inexperienced to perform. Mostly, they seem to have risen to the challenge.

The lynchpin of this enabling was Catherine’s ability to trust. Not in a reckless or credulous manner, but in a way that freed the other person to blossom. To Sister Mary Teresa White at Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown) she wrote about a matter concerning the care of an indigent child, and after expressing her own view concludes: “…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.” (p.137)

Another aspect of Catherine’s ability to enable her companions, was her awareness, from the beginning, of the need to respect differences, and to accommodate them when the result would not compromise the work or spirit of the Order: “Every place has its own particular ideas and feelings which must be yielded to when possible.”(p.147) That this understanding extended to people as well as places is clear from the following instance, where she writes from the newly established foundation at Limerick about someone whom she clearly had expressed misgivings about previously:

Sister Potter was certainly designed for the Institute. Her ardent zeal for Limerick made her uneasy and restless elsewhere, and her being on the spot with good connections and interest promoted the object very much… (p.146)

Related to the above is her intuitive understanding that people sometimes need change, a new arena, in order to thrive or reach their full potential, and that what suits one will not necessarily be right for the other. For instance, in a letter to Frances Warde, full of varied matters, written from Birr, and which she postscripts with the delightful challenge “I will expect a long letter for this…” is the observation about one of the Postulants resident in Birr. “(She) is quite a different person from what she was in Baggot St, useful in every way, nothing like foundations for arousing us all…” (286)

Of course, sometimes Catherine’s letters reveal a less exalted humanity, which is also intrinsic to her leadership. There are instances, dare one say, of impatience and irritation, of “letting off steam” to a confidant, words she would never have expected to be read by eyes other than the original recipient of the letter. These make her more rather than less endearing. Her letter of March 5th 1841, to Frances Warde, is clearly written by a woman whose physical condition is deteriorating, even if she is not quite yet accepting of the seriousness of her condition herself. She seems to be trying to reassure herself and her reader that her lungs are “pretty sound yet”:

I am sorry to find by your letter this morning that they are saying too much about my loss of health. My rather new visitant, a cough, has been with me very constantly since the first Sunday after my return… (p.311)

In several places in this letter, she expresses exasperation about some of her companions, and her annoyance about the timidity of a prospective candidate whose married sister had spoken for her during an interview:

She is not half alive and wishes to hide her little head. I was quite angry with her and really scolded…

Such self-perceived human limitation aside, another aspect of Catherine’s capacity for enabling others was her acceptance of others’ rights to express themselves, even when a contrary opinion was held. To Elizabeth Moore she wrote in response to some regret the other woman had expressed about a previously written viewpoint:

Now what could possess you to think I could feel the slightest displeasure? …I could not even say that I felt any regret at what was written to me or had one serious thought about it. Never suppose you can make me feel displeasure by giving any opinion that occurs to you. I am sure you ought to know me well and I wonder you could mistake… (p.165)



It is perhaps true to say that trust in God, trust in Providence, often only takes on that exalted title when the trust has been vindicated. In the blind reality of the moment, the one who trusts can be seeming to take inordinate risks, committing herself to a course of action that might just as well end in disaster as success. Or is it that the Spirit all the while urges one such as Catherine to concur with and act out of the sentiments of George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan, “with Christ I dare and dare”?

This aspect of Catherine’s leadership, call it trust or risk-taking as you will, can be seen from the first in her dream for a house in Baggot St, and the response it evoked in both a number of friends and disinterested parties who deemed it “Kitty’s Folly…”

Against all normal caution for a single woman of her age and station, Catherine did not set about “securing her future” in any materialistic sense after the death of the Callaghans, but instead seemed to “squander” her inheritance on a dream. The hidden reality of course, was that her dream and the work of the Spirit were engaged in a dynamic dance, and the result was a movement of grace, of blessing. The kind of Spirit-risk that guided Catherine’s life, amidst the inevitable failures and wrong choices, has nothing to do with personal ambition, or vanity or acquisition of power for its own sake.

One other instance of risk-taking, quite staggering when one considers the historical and cultural context, was the foundation at Bermondsey, which as Mary Sullivan points out was “the first new Catholic convent founded in London since the Reformation.”[viii]

What is it that Catherine says to us? Perhaps that some risks are meant to be taken, that trust is always, at least at first, in the dark. One of the most poignant images of Catherine is a description of her on her deathbed. Some hours before her death, she asked for a candle to be placed in her hands. She held the light, the great symbol of Christ, knowing she was about to pass into an unknown and dark territory before meeting Christ himself on the other side of death. All her life she was a bearer of light in the darkness, risking her fate, believing the light would overcome the darkness, and trusting the path that held her feet.



It is clear that Catherine had very different views of the world from Sister Clare Augustine Moore. From Clare Augustine Moore’s pen we have the opinion that Catherine was sometimes too lenient with children, that she on occasion indulged them. Clare Augustine Moore describes with obvious distaste the scene that had been described to her by others of the soup kitchen that operated for a time in the early days at Baggot St for the poor of the parish:

There was soup to be made for a hundred, sometimes more, and they had to pass through the office down to the dining hall in squadrons, and this by a wooden staircase now replaced by stone, so there was work and dirt and discontent, as well as derangement of the office business and inconvenience of the House Of Mercy.[ix]

It is Clare Augustine Moore, however, who also notes Catherine’s regard for the Sisters and her deep feeling at the deaths of so many in the early years. “She had a really tender affection for us.” [x]   There is no doubt she is speaking from personal experience.

Of Clare Augustine Moore Catherine wrote with some degree of exasperation to Frances Warde:

Sister Mary Clare [Augustine] Moore is a character, not suited to my taste or my ability to govern, though possessing many very estimable points. She teased and perplexed me so much about the difficulty of copying the two pages, that I was really obliged to give up, unwilling to command lest it should produce disedifying consequences. She said it would take the entire Lent. Indeed, you can have no idea how little she does in a week. As to a day’s work, it is laughable to look at it. She will show me three leaves, saying, “I finished these today.” Three rose or lily leaves. (311)

Elsewhere however, we indirectly glimpse Catherine’s appreciation of the refinements possessed by Clare Augustine Moore. Writing of one of the new English Sisters, Catherine heaps high praise by way of comparison:

Sister Beckett, a convert of high connections, is quite equal to Sister Moore in all arts and sciences, languages, paintings, etc…

The point of this is to highlight Catherine’s ability as leader to be inclusive, even when it meant she was not entirely at ease, or compatible with, nor indeed fully appreciative of the gifts of the person. Difference was not anathema to her, even if she struggled with it. Mercy, as exemplified by Catherine, does not exclude; it is not possessive of its own power or territory. The fact is that whilst she may not have had much patience with Clare Augustine Moore’s artistic temperament, she was able to acknowledge, by accommodating it, that the woman was as much a Sister of Mercy as anyone else. Catherine was sufficiently humble to realize her own blind spot with regard to Clare Augustine Moore. The “leader” is not the only arbiter of the collective wisdom. And who today, could deny the richness and beauty of that artistic gift and its link with Catherine, that Clare Augustine Moore left to us?

Outside the front door of Mercy International Centre is a contemporary bronze sculpture by Michael Bourke. It features slightly larger than life figures: a nun, presumably Catherine, and a woman with a baby in her arms. It is titled Circle of Mercy. The odd thing about it though is that it is not a circle, but literally a penannular, an incomplete circle: it only becomes truly a circle when the observer steps into the ambit of the figures and completes the scene, accepting the tacit invitation to be included in the dynamic.

In some ways that is how it seems to have been with Catherine’s sense of Mercy, that Mercy is an invitation that gathers in and includes all. Often in her letters, she remarks on her reluctance to refuse aspirants who had insufficient dowry, so necessary in the early days for supporting the women in formation. In response to the suggestion of abandoning a particular mission, she replied: “Are not the poor of Charleville as dear to Him as elsewhere?” (p.107) Her leadership as includer modeled an openness of heart and hand. It is a truly inspiring figure that stands in bronze outside her front door today: one hand supporting the mother and baby, the other reaching out in welcome to the onlooker, whoever that may be, passing by 64A Lower Baggot St, on any Dublin day.



That Catherine cared about her companions deeply is almost axiomatic, but when one reads her own words to them, it is doubly clear that she felt, and displayed, great affection and concern for the well-being of each one. Her letters to them are invariably solicitous and intimate in tone. Listen to the insights she offers here into the character of the recipient of the letter, as well as to the extent of her own nurturing and concern. It is honest and forthright, yet full of kindness. It is the depth of winter, and Catherine has heard that Frances Warde has been ill:

My ever Dear Sister Mary Francis

I have been very uneasy about you since I heard how you have been affected, though I am aware that there may not be any serious cause, for Sister Teresa White had the same kind of attack. Yet, I know you are not sufficiently cautious, and this is what I fear most.

Now let me entreat you not to be going through the new convent, or out in the garden even the mildest day during this month without careful wrapping up. Have your shawl crossed on your chest and your feet very warm. I am sorry I did not look at the flannel you are wearing, is it very good? I could send some if you have it not. Again, I entreat you to be prudently cautious. ( p.151)

Catherine’s nurturing capacity, the ability to treat with great patience and gentleness and understanding in order to promote health and wholeness of mind, body and spirit, shines out from these simple, homely words of one woman to another, an older mentor to a young friend, cautioning common sense and moderation. Perhaps the “mothering” metaphor she frequently employs as a mark of care and affection does not appeal to modern ears, but there can be little doubting the sincerity of the care behind it, and it is perhaps noteworthy in this context to remember that Frances Warde’s own mother had died when Frances was an infant.

One of the most touching expressions of Catherine’s care occurs in a request made to Elizabeth Moore, to prepare a room for an ailing Sister being sent to Kingstown for the sea air:

Will you, my Dear…give her all the care you can for a little time? She is so gentle it will be no difficult matter to please her. A little broiled meat, or whatever she tells you she can take, not to get up till breakfast time. Except you have Mass and that she feels able. Not to go out except she likes to try a short walk. Great tenderness of all things…(p.93)

To be a nurturer in the manner of Catherine seems to be a delicate balance between giving direction and allowing the ailing person her freedom, between following prescriptions and letting the other person’s effort and self- determination assert itself, between recognising need and dependency and encouraging the other’s quest for healing and life. And the overriding “rule”? The quality that is valued above all by Catherine in respect of those in need? Tenderness. To lead with tenderness, to live with tenderness.



Our final word from the letters of Catherine’s name has been so much part of all that has gone before that it hardly needs saying. As a leader, as a warm-hearted woman, Catherine was possessed of a great capacity for empathy and compassion, and there are ample instances in her life and letters where this can be seen. She was able, because of her openness to God’s grace, to make of all the hardships in her own life and any impulse to bitterness or resentment, the saving fact of fellow-feeling rather than self-pity.

One sequence of letters reveals this quality in a very touching way. It involves the story of the illness and death of a young Sister in Limerick, Sister Teresa Vincent de Paul Potter, who had originally entered at Baggot St, and was well known to Catherine. Catherine dedicated some of her numerous verses to this “sweet little poet” and was clearly very fond of her.[xi]

In her several letters to Elizabeth Moore in Limerick during March 1840 we see the progression in Catherine from hope that the young Sister will recover, to the realization that her illness is terminal: “No words could describe what I felt on reading the first line of your letter…the dear sweet innocent creature…” (203) On receiving the news of the “sweet little poet’s” death, Catherine reaches out to “my darling” Elizabeth Moore in a shared grief, disarming in its acuity and its solidarity: “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…”(204)


I have been playfully but also purposefully engaging with the letters of Catherine’s name, the very word Catherine, as well as the words of her correspondence that form the most authentic examples of Catherine’s self-disclosure with which we are endowed. They are not the only descriptions one could use about her leadership, of course. Traveller, teacher, encourager: perhaps a reading of the letters will give you your own acrostic. Try adjectives.

There is one other aspect of Catherine’s leadership that deserves a quick mention. Catherine had a refreshing normality that she did not lose with the exercise of leadership. Her leadership did not obscure her humanity. With refreshing candour she writes to Frances Warde, after returning from arduous travel, “Thank God I am at rest again and now I think the name of another foundation would make me sick. But they say I would get up again.” (p.237) She was no plaster, gaudily coloured saint but a real person, at times conscious of her own need for care and reassurance. “Do get me through this” she writes to M. De Pazzi Delany in 1837 about the “distressing business” of the withholding of a chaplain for Baggot St.(p.98) To Elizabeth Moore she writes at the end of a letter in 1840, a letter full of the tale of the illness and death of yet another young aspirant, “If you have time, write me a few words of comfort, and say you are well and happy…” (p.218) In August 1841 she twice ends letters to Frances Warde by asking for prayers: “Pray much for your ever affectionate…” and then with touching brevity, “Pray for me. God bless you,” which surely must have been a tacit signal to the young woman that her friend was in the grip of a grave illness.

A reflection on Catherine’s letters is rather like looking at one of those intricate Celtic knots, the threads of which lead back to the beginning after looping and overlapping, crossing and interweaving. It brings one to a realization that when one speaks of Catherine’s leadership qualities one is really dealing with Catherine’s qualities as a Sister of Mercy, and her gifts as a human being. The qualities that made her an exemplary human being and a Christian and a Sister of Mercy are what made her an exemplary leader. There was no disjunction or artifice or straining to be other than what she was: there was rather a confluence of the Spirit’s gifts working in this one woman, enlivening the gifts of nature and gifts of grace that flowed on through her life from childhood to Coolock to Baggot St. The triumph of her life was to follow the call of the Spirit as it led her to give expression in all those varied ways, God gradually shaping and refining her to the cause.

We have listened to Catherine herself in the letters and tried to catch the nuances of her own sense of her life as a leader. What did her contemporaries have to say about her? One of the regular recipients of Catherine’s letters, her warm confidant and “dear child” Frances Warde, recalls Catherine in a letter of 1879, nearly forty years after her death, and towards the end of her own long and adventurous life:

You never knew her.
I knew her better than I had known
Anybody in my life.
She was a woman of God,
And God made her a woman of vision.
She showed me what it meant
To be a Sister of Mercy,
To see the world and its people
In terms of God’s love,
To love everyone who needed care.
Now her vision is driving me on.

How fortunate was Frances Warde. The elementally simple words she uses have a lifetime’s fondness of memory behind them, a sense of awe, and perhaps just a very human dash of pride in the unique association she had enjoyed. They sound out like a bell across time with a gospel authenticity. Like all true tributes, they point beyond the writer to the subject herself.

So, let the great lady, Catherine herself, have the last word. The last few letters in the Neumann edition, written just weeks before her death, show Catherine still involved in the practicalities of finance and so on, but it is within the embrace of a lovely and endearing personal letter that we will conclude. It is a letter that reveals the heart of Catherine’s understanding of her own calling, and speaks from the truth of lived experience. In terms of “leadership” it shows a woman who has known Jesus “hand in hand” as her guide and companion, and who dares to invoke for another with warmth and affection the blessing to be “one of His best beloved.”

On October 10th, 1841, a little over a month before her death, Catherine writes to the newly professed Sister Mary Joseph Joyce of Galway. Too ill to attend the ceremony, and perhaps with her spirit already sensing the call from this life to the next, this is what Catherine writes with expansive joy to the newest Sister of Mercy:

How sincerely, how joyfully I congratulate you on the completion of your ardent hopes and wishes. What a sweet and blessed union you have formed. Now it is that…you must prove your love…and gratitude by going hand in hand with your Divine Redeemer. Nothing to interest you but what relates to his greater glory. My He grant you every grace and blessing and make you one of His dearest and best beloved.

Pray for your ever affectionate

Mary C. McAuley


*Please note that this article was written before the splendid new edition of The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, 1818-1841 was published in 2004- edited by Mary C. Sullivan rsm.


[i] Letters of Catherine McAuley 1827-1841, ed. M.Ignatia Neumann, Helicon, Baltimore, 1969. All page references in parentheses are to this edition.

[ii] Mary Sullivan rsm, Comforting and Animating: The Generative Work of Catherine McAuley,

The MAST Journal , Vol.3, No.1, Fall 1992

[iii] Meditations With Mechtild of Magdeburg, ed. Sue Woodruff, Bear & Company, Santa Fe, 1982

[iv] Mary Sullivan rsm, Welcoming the Stranger, The Kenosis of Catherine McAuley, The MAST Journal, Vol.6, No.3, 1995, p.13

[v] Familiar Instructions, p.138

[vi] Carroll, Mary Austin, rsm, Life of Catherine McAuley, 1866. New York. p.437

[vii] Thanks to Ursula Gilbert rsm for this insight.

[viii] Mary Sullivan rsm, The Spirit’s Fire and Catherine’s Passion, The MAST Journal, Vol.5, No.2, 1994

[ix] Mary Sullivan, Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1995, p.209

[x] ibid, p.209

[xi] Presumably the same Sr.Potter referred to in the letter on p.146?