THE IRISH IN IOWA

Gummersbach, Joseph.
 In the Early Days of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1911

 IN THE EARLY DAYS

CHAPTER I
Origin of the Institute. 1831.
"Let these things be written unto another generation."

Spirit of the first members- Cholera in Dublin.- First assembly at the cottage, December 8, 1831.- The apostolate of charity.- The apostolate of education.- Cradle of the Institute.- Union of the contemplative with the active life.- Invited to Philadelphia.- Accident on the Liffey Bridge.- Farewell to home.

     This brief outline of the History of our Institute goes back  to the humble beginning in Dublin in the early years of the nineteenth century, a time eventful in the building up of the material edifice of the Church and in the restoration of Catholic society. Echoes of the French Revolution still resounded; recognition of the Independence of the American Colonies was a hope-inspiring memory; and to the Irish after a long and persistent struggle, after obloquy and imprisonment, exile and death, some relief had come. And not too soon, for sadly they manifested the blighting effect of their Holy Faith- nay, because of it, - they had preserved a wondrous vitality. They had been despoiled of their property and then reviled as paupers; had been disabled from teaching or being taught and then held up to scorn for being illiterate; they had endured poverty and humiliations and cruelties that it rends our hearts to read. From all this to have to come out with a crushed and suffering body, but with the living soul intact, with their spirit not vanquished by calamity, truly this is a noble record.
     Now a better day had dawned yet the scenes of cruelty and oppression were not forgotten; and we may well believe that on a few evenings the groups around the fireside spoke of aught else than the stirring scenes it had been given the elders of the family to see. To these tales of heroism, of fidelity to God and country, the children were interested, sympathetic listeners. The tremendous sufferings of their friends and kinsfolk, the bitter injustice of it all, went to their very hearts. They knew what it meant, for suffering still existed through the worst provisions of the awful penal code had been repealed. Their spirit of compassion was aroused and to many a young heart came the impulse, the desire to do in its turn what it could, to devote itself to the suffering and the needy for Christ's dear sake.
     For the Church this had been a sorrowful time, but whilst destruction had done its disastrous work, God had scattered among the ruins seeds which were now about to produce fresh blossoms. The holy land was a kind of nursery for good works. The season of awakening hope ushered in a period of religious activity that for ardent zeal was remarkable even in that land of apostolic vocations, so famed for the exalted piety and the generous self-sacrifice of its devoted children. Ample scope was there for the untiring work of all; charity had a wide field for relieving the want of soul and body among the poor and afflicted.
     Suffering there was in many forms but the keenest suffering of the time was the lack of educational means, whereby they might regain their intellectual supremacy. Laws however iniquitous and far-reaching had never destroyed the desire of the people to obtain the blessing of education, had never crushed their reverence for worthy ideals. Though illiterate, many of them, they were not ignorant; they wanted education for their children, education which would develop moral as well as intellectual men and women. True, the government had established schools but these were a menace to the faith. From the penal prohibitions of all Catholic teaching, to schools of open proselytism, thence to a system in which the purpose was more cleverly concealed, there was only a question of degree or a difference in the method of reaching the one fixed purpose, that of making them traitors to the faith. But the watchful guardians of the flock had exposed the danger. To Catholics must be entrusted the education of Catholic children, though to secure Catholic teachers was no easy matter.
    But God was with His people; He saw their need. Almost simultaneously sprang up new workers, new associations, new Institutes or Congregations, all blended in a manner by the spirit of union and affection, and encouraged and maintained by the needs of the time. Of the many houses of religious women scattered over Ireland in pre-Reformation days, only three survived the storm of persecution: the Carmelite Convent at Tallaght; that of the Poor Clares at Harold's Cross, Dublin, and the Dominican Convent at Drogheda. These communities were debarred from assisting in the cause of education by oppressive law, which not only broke up and obliterated as far as might be, the normal religious life of the cloister, but strove to make the education of Catholic by Catholics impossible. These worthy nuns in time resumed the occupations prescribed by their rules, and each Order in its own way continued to give glory to God by those means which are beyond all praise. Later foundations were the Bridgetines in Tullow, who were introduced in 1806 by Mary C. Dawson. At Blackrock Convent, Cork, in 1777, were established the Presentation Nuns, called at first Sisters of the Sacred Heart or Sisters of the Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and so called for more than twenty years after the death of their foundress, Nano Nagle, who had been assisted in her enterprise by Father Doran, an Irish priest.
     Dublin was prolific in religious foundations; Archbishop Murray with his spiritual insight discerned in the members of the Institutes that sprang into being at this time, elect souls, providentially placed under his guidance, and in every way fitted for the work he and they had so much at heart. With generous encouragment he fostered their development recognizing that sudden blossoming of the spiritual garden as a gracious though unexpected answer to a prayer for aid from above. The Irish Sisters of Charity were established in that city by Mary Aikenhead in 1817; the Sisters of Mercy by Catherine McCauley in 1831; the Loretto Nuns by Mary Frances Ball in 1822, this last being a colony from the York Convent, England.
     The need of the hour was a teaching body unrestricted by the law of enclosure, a body uniting the active ministrations of Martha with the inner life of Mary. The lines of such an Institute have since become familiar to us in the modern religious congregations but they were then comparatively unknown. God was already summoning recruits from amongst His chosen ones for purposes not yet known to the world or to themselves. Many generous souls were there to whom came the promptings of the Holy Spirit, but our interest centres in the five young women who constituted the nucleus of our Institute: Mary Francis Clarke, Margaret Mann, Rose O'Toole, Elizabeth Kelly, and Catherine Byrne. In apparently fortuitous ways the closer association of these young girls began.

     It was not a rare thing in those days, nor is it in our own time, for young girls debarred from the cloister by age or duty, to be affiliated to the Religious Orders. This affiliation consists in sharing the prayers and penances of the religious, and in conforming to their rule, spirit and dress in certain points, on condition of participating in their merits and good works. Bound only by such promises as Tertiaries were allowed to make, discharging most perfectly all the duties of their place in the family, and distinguished only by their devotion to the suffering poor and their avoidance of all worldly pleasures and amusements, they made of their home as much of a cloister as the performance of all neighborly charities and fulfillment of their duties permitted. As members of such sodalities, Mary Francis Clark, Rose O'Toole and Elizabeth Kelly were enrolled; and in this they were doing more than they dreamed. They were unconsciously taking the first step toward that state of life which they were later called to embrace, although under a very different form, and toward which an invisible hand was beginning to incline their hearts and direct the current of their life. In the exercise of charity to the poor and suffering they were closely associated, and interchange of ideas showed a unity of purpose, revealed but one spirit animating them,- a desire to attain to holiness and to do good to their fellow-creatures, thereby to serve God more earnestly.
     Their ministrations to the victims of the cholera which devastated their city in the year 1831, brought about frequent meetings. At the bed-side of a plague stricken victim they met Margaret Mann, who, like them, was exercising her sweet mercy toward the sorrowing. Constant association strengthened the ties of friendship, and as a means of increasing their facilities for charitable labors among their destitute clients, and for lending aid and encouragement to one another, they secured for a few months a cottage in the suburbs of the busy city. This was done with the full approval of their parents; there was as yet no severance of home times, all returned to their homes at stated times. On the eves of festivals and Sundays they met at the cottage and conferred about the charitable works of the week, made here a more special preparation for receiving the Holy Communion, and in general strengthened one another in their desire to lead a higher life, failing not to improve this season of prosperity in acquiring greater spiritual strength of a more substantial holiness. The little hermitage was to serve as a meeting-place where they would be free from distracting occupations, and to it they betook themselves for the first time on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1831.
     When the pestilence subsided there was still further opportunity for active charity. Visits to the plague-stricken had brought vividly to their notice another wide field for their activities. The widespread menace to the faith was the prevailing evil of the day; the crying need then as now was religious instruction for children. To this work they turned their attention in leisure moments; then, nourished by prayerful consideration and by a holy interchange of thought and purpose, the idea grew and strengthened. At first they instructed some children in the neighborhood whom the evil times had deprived of the opportunity of attending catechism or other classes, and the happy results of their efforts were indeed encouraging. The few hours daily which they at first allotted for this duty lengthened. Children came to them in crowds for instruction., and the spiritual destitution not less than the wretchedness of the poverty that surrounded these little ones, made caring for them a true charity. Religious instruction was the first and most important exercise; needlework and the swinging of sweet simple hymns supplemented the ordinary elementary studies.
     To this work their earlier duties had led them step by step, and they recognized unmistakably that this was their special province. Their spiritual directors gave it warmest approbation and encouraged them to proceed, promising them God's blessing upon the work. Having besought the light and grace of the Holy Spirit, and being fortified with the blessing of Heaven upon their enterprise, they determined to continue while good was to be done, and prepared for this active apostleship by strengthening their minds with careful study. In addition to human sciences they read the works of sacred and ecclesiastical authors, and the masters of the spiritual life. In the relic-room of the Mother House are still to be seen volumes of manuscripts containing annotations, etc., as used in their studies at this time. In the happy lot to which Providence had assigned them, the blessing of education had not been denied. Mary Francis Clarke developed intellectual gifts of a high order under the tutorship of her kinsman, Mr. Matherson; Elizabeth Kelly and Rose O'Toole were not less favored; and Margaret Mann and Catherine Byrne were already exercising their business abilities.

     As yet there was no question of obligation, nor was there any intention of forming a religious community as we understand the term. There was great diversity of character in the little band, various also were the circumstances of their lives, but all were highly gifted in mind and heart, and were endowed with capabilities for the union of constant practical work with the highest spirituality, and the strictest interior discipline. At the time of which we speak, Mary Francis Clarke was engaged in keeping the books and superintending the business of her father whom a paralytic stroke had rendered a helpless invalid. Her great-hearted sisters assumed her duties and thus left her free. Margaret Mann was sole proprietor of a millinery establishment which gave employment to twenty young girls. This business with the approval of her parents and friends she relinquished though at no small pecuniary loss. Elizabeth Kelly was the child of wealthy parents, and though surrounded by luxury had compassion for the destitute. Accompanied by the daughters of the great O'Connell she brought relief to the poor, and personally ministered to their needs. She visited, too, the convent of the recently established Sisters of Mercy and frequently assisted Mother McAuley in cutting out and making garments for the needy.
     In the short intervals which their various duties permitted for rest they were not idle but with exquisite skill their busy fingers embroidered many beautiful articles for church purposes. In preparing a set of vestments they first met Catherine Byrne who was occupied in the pharmacy of the principal hospital in the city. This young girl recognized her calling to our Sisters' manner of life, but not until their departure for America was she to join them permanently.
     In the cholera visitation Rose O'Toole had lost her widowed mother, and thenceforth with even more zeal than her tender heart had prompted heretofore she entered upon the labor of love, having no other ties. At about this time they were joined by an excellent lady, Mrs. Berkley, the childless widow of a British army officer, who had at her disposal an ample annuity, and who generously offered herself for the work. She proved to be a valuable assistant and a worthy subject for the life they had embraced, spending all her time at the little hermitage, attending to it when the others were called elsewhere.
     Gradually they lessened their intercourse with the world, effected a more complete separation from it, and slowly their plans matured. The house in the suburbs was soon found to be unsuited for a more favorable location, they decided upon a house in North Ann-street, and removed thither early in March, 1832. A considerable outlay was required to make the building suitable for their needs, and to provide the necessary school supplies; nothing daunted, however, they proceeded. To arrange a little oratory in their new dwelling was their first care.
     Here school opened March 19, 1832, the feast of their good patron St. Joseph, and their success was immediate and pronounced. The number of pupils was far in excess of their expectation. The patronage came largely from the middle class, those whose means forbade the sending of their children to convent schools and who were yet too proud to send them to the so-called "poor schools." We may well suppose that the Sisters spared no effort to make the work succeed, and their efforts were not made in vain. All went well; the various pastors gave to the work their blessing and approbation, and with words of praise and frequent visits to the school were a strength and happiness to teachers and pupils. The door-plate of the North Ann-street School is still preserved with care, it reads: "Miss Clarke's School."


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