Kerry O’Regan, South Australia Regional Meeting

Kerry O'Regan2The “About the Author” section of Tracy Bourne’s 2014 Backhouse Lecture tells us that, in her childhood, Tracy had been “impressed by the dedication to social justice and religious mystery of the Sisters of Mercy”. I too am grateful for my early grounding in just those things, when I was taught in my adolescence by the Sisters of Mercy. They represent aspects of religion which I carry from my early life as a Catholic to my present life as a Quaker. I have become even more aware of that common ground through time spent with, and conversations had with, my sister Ann, Sister Ann in the Mercy Order. And this common ground may be more than coincidence. The origins of the Sisters of Mercy have a very real connection with Quakers.

Catherine McAuley

Catherine McAuley

The Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy (as they like to refer to her) was Catherine McAuley. Catherine was born to Catholic parents in Dublin in 1778. Her father was a most devout man whose religious commitment led him to do, as one commentator tells us, “everything in his power to relieve the distress of the poor in the oppressive social conditions of nineteenth century Dublin”. Catherine was devoted to her father and, even as a small child, was greatly impressed by the depth of his spirituality and the practical expression he gave to it. Catherine’s father died when she was only five (seven in some accounts) but this early influence stayed with her for the rest of her life.

When Catherine was nineteen, her mother died also, and Catherine went to stay with Protestant relatives. In bitterly sectarian Ireland, this arrangement proved quite difficult, and Catherine found her Catholic faith to be the subject of much ridicule for being superstitious nonsense. In the light of this ridicule, Catherine sought instruction from a knowledgeable priest and so became much better informed in matters of theology and doctrine than most laymen (let alone laywomen) of the time.

After a couple of years living in this situation, Catherine went to live with a retired couple, William and Catherine Callaghan, to be their companion and household manager. And this is where the Quaker connection comes in. Catherine Callaghan had been a life-long Quaker, and although she had probably been disowned for marrying out, she retained many of her Quaker values and practices and seemed to identify still as a Quaker.

Sister Janet Ruffing has researched the connection from a Mercy perspective, and I draw heavily on her research in what follows. She regards the connection in a most positive light, explaining that “For Sisters of Mercy who live in religiously pluralistic cultures, to discover within the personal life of the foundress not only a prototype of religious tolerance but of ecumenism as well is genuinely appealing”. She goes on to say that “Sisters of Mercy recognise an affinity with Friends in sharing similar contemplative traditions and concerns for people who are poor and oppressed”.

The Callaghans did not welcome “popish” paraphernalia, such as icons and statues, into their home, but other than that, were quite happy for Catherine to live the life of a committed Catholic and to carry out her charitable work among the poor.

One of Catherine McAuley’s duties, as a companion, was to read to Catherine Callaghan religious and spiritual books including the Bible. As well as this shared exploration of spiritual writings, continued over nineteen years, both the Catherines would have been comfortable with, and may well have shared, times of worshipful silence. Janet Ruffing believes that there was “a reciprocal mutually reinforcing spiritual or religious influence in the Callaghan household”.

Catherin McAuley lived for sixteen years with the elderly Callaghans before Catherine Callaghan died. During that time she had taken on much of the role of daughter, and indeed some accounts say that she was adopted by them, though I don’t know how formal that adoption may have been. Three years after his wife’s death, William died also, leaving his entire and significant estate to the younger Catherine.

Catherine was committed to carrying on the tradition of mercy work which she had seen lived out in her father’s life, and perhaps by the Callaghans as well. She decided to use her inheritance to lease a house in Baggott Street in Dublin and establish a refuge for poor servant girls and homeless women and gathered around her a group of other young women who felt similarly led and who were inspired by Catherine and her work.

This work was not, however, universally welcomed by the Catholic hierarchy, some of whom considered Catherine to be “an upstart”; a mere laywoman meddling in affairs that were rightly the province of the clergy. The pressure on her from that quarter become so great that she eventually agreed to form a religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, “established for the visitation of the sick poor, and the protection and instruction of poor females”. She was formally installed as Mother Superior of the order, a title which, in good Quaker tradition, she steadfastly refused to use of herself.

There are many such examples of, if not Quaker influences, at least Quaker commonalities with Catherine and the Order she established. Catherine put great reliance on being led by the Spirit. As Janet Ruffing describes it, “an extraordinary trust in God enabling her to move step by step in the direction she felt God wanted”. The Mercy form of governance is similar to the Quaker meeting structure and process, and the practice of Sisters setting out two by two on visitations we might call travelling ministry. She saw “that of God” in all, acknowledging moral goodness in whomsoever it appeared.

An important Quaker influence, not directly related to Catherine Callaghan, was to do with the model of schooling Catherine McAuley provided for the poor children of Dublin. She based her educational practices on the principles applied by the Quaker educator, Joseph Lancaster, who had established schools for poor children in the slums on London. Catherine studied his methods and modified them for the schools she set up in Dublin.

Catherine Callaghan may have had some influence on Catherine McAuley and ultimately on the Sisters of Mercy, but the influence went both ways. Catherine and William were both baptised as Catholics before they died, perhaps taking out a little last-minute insurance in the interests of eternal salvation.

I think that we as Quakers can learn from Catherine McAuley as well. All those who write of her speak of her lightness of touch and her endearing, and enduring, sense of fun. While most Quakers I know certainly do have a sense of fun, it is probably more our earnestness that we are known for. Catherine said of her Sisters, “All laugh and play together, not one cold, stiff soul appears. From the day they enter [the Order] reserve of any ungracious kind leaves them”. Even on her deathbed, this lightness was apparent: “Will you tell the Sisters to get a good cup of tea … when I am gone and to comfort each other”.

Catherine McAuley left quite a legacy of writings and there are many which we as Quakers could identify with. Here are some which particularly speak to me:

· Do not fear offending anyone. Speak as your mind directs and always act with more courage when the “mammon of unrighteousness” is in question.

· Try to meet all with peace and ease.

· To obtain recollection, we must entertain a great love for silence.

· Our whole life should be a continual act of prayer and praise.

· In silence and quiet the devout soul becomes familiar with God.

· Be careful never to make too many laws. If you draw the string too tight it will break.

· The proof of love is deed.

· They shall be willing on all occasions to help and assist one another, bearing with patience and charity each other’s defects, weaknesses, and imperfections.

· We should be shining lamps, giving light to all around us.

· We witness to mercy when we reverence the dignity of each person.

And much much more.

Janet Ruffing sums up her research by saying ‘I suggest that many more such influences and connections might be discovered were Mercy scholars to do the careful historical work which alone justifies accurate claims about such influences and connection. There is a truth in the imaginative leap some of us have made to Catherine’s Quaker connections’. Perhaps we Quakers could work together with our Mercy Sisters to help tease out some of those influences and connections.

Sources drawn upon:

Tracy Bourne, ‘Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness’: Bringing children into the centre of Quaker life and worship, Australia Yearly Meeting of the religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, 2014.

Janet Ruffing. R.S.M. ‘Catherine McAuley’s Quaker connection’ in The Mast Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall 1997.

Madeline Duckett & Caroline Ong, The mystical heart of Catherine McAuley, Sisters of Mercy, Melbourne Congregation, 2005.

Mary Sullivan, The life and work of Catherine McAuley 1778-1841, Mercy International Association, 2005.

Mercy International Association, Foundress: Words from Catherine

Sister Ann O’Regan R.S.M., many conversations.

A postscript:

In July 2015 I attended a special ecumenical mass at the Catholic Cathedral in Bathurst to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese. My Quaker attendance was announced in the list of the representatives at the service. Two nuns took part in the service. At the refreshments afterwards they eagerly sought my company saying that they were Sisters of Mercy and wanted to touch base with a fellow traveller. Wies Schuiringa


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