Anne Hetherington and Pauline Smoothy (eds), The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty  1839 to 1892. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2011.

Anne Hetherington and Pauline Smoothy (eds), The Correspondence of Mother Vincent Whitty  1839 to 1892. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2011. Pp. 391. ISBN 978 0 7022 3935 9

Reviewed by: Reviewed by Rosa MacGinley, Golding Centre for Women’s History, Theology and Spirituality, Australian Catholic University, McAuley at Banyo Campus, Brisbane, January 2013.

This book, meticulously annotated and edited and impressively produced, contains over 430 letters written to, by or about Mother Vincent Whitty, leader of the first group of Mercy Sisters to come to Queensland. It also provides an invaluable resource for those interested, not only in the remarkable spread of the international Mercy institute and its outstanding contribution in Queensland, but also in the wider phenomenon of the resurgence of religious life for women in nineteenth century Ireland and the dynamic factors in its growth. Among these we see clearly reflected in these letters the encompassing resurgence of Catholic social  and ecclesial life in Ireland itself, together with  the continuing poverty – exacerbated by famine – of the less fortunate, a field for the wide scale educational and social relief initiatives undertaken by  these women. In addition, with the services they developed and were ready to provide, women religious came to comprise a significant strand in the contemporary stream of Irish emigration – a participation widely reflected among these letters.

Ellen Whitty was born in 1819 into a Wexford farming family able to provide their gifted children with social opportunity. Ellen herself received a good education, her sister Mary married an Edward Lucas, who was a brother of the founding editor of the London Tablet, while their brother Robert, educated at Maynooth, was Vicar General of the Westminster Archdiocese before joining the Jesuits, becoming English Provincial then an Assistant to the Jesuit General in Italy. A number of his letters to his sister or about her appear in this volume. In 1839, Ellen entered the Mercy community at Baggot Street, where the historic convent – to become the central powerhouse of the Mercy movement – had been built by foundress Catherine McAuley. Formed by Catherine herself in the religious life and in constant attendance on her during her final illness and death, Ellen was herself appointed Mistress of Novices in 1844, a post she held until 1849 when she was elected Mother Superior of the community and third successor to Catherine McAuley. Completing the allowable two terms in 1855, she was then elected Mother Assistant and again appointed Novice Mistress, holding these two posts until her departure for Brisbane. Many letters in this volume, written over many years by her former novices and those who lived in community with her, evidence the personal affection and deep respect in which she was held.

These letters also attest to the continuing stream of young women seeking to become Mercy Sisters – of whom a small minority either left or were dismissed – and to the rapid spread of Mercy communities. This expansion illustrates an interesting dynamic. As other newly founded congregations of women increasingly from the early nineteenth century adopted a centralised form of government, Catherine McAuley chose otherwise in selecting the older Presentation model where each new foundation became independent of its founding house. This decentralised mode of spread, together with their non-enclosed religious lifestyle and their variety of ministries, enabled a truly outward dynamic. Communities soon spread in Ireland, England and Scotland, these in turn becoming centres for further expansion in a multiplying effect. Overseas, Mercy communities soon followed in the paths of Irish migration to Newfoundland, the United States and Argentina. In 1846, the first Australian Mercy foundation was made in Perth, long letters from there to M. Vincent in Dublin being of particular interest to Australian readers. What do these letters and so many similar ones reflect? Evidently adventurous young women – all volunteers – articulate, frequently humorous, spiritually committed and strongly bonded. With many family interconnections evidenced, they came principally from a broadening stratum in Irish society able to provide an education for their children and, though the Mercies were more flexible than older institutes, the required dowries for their daughters.

  1. Vincent, as Rev. Mother at Baggot Street, was involved in some serious undertakings: her positive response to the request for Mercy Sisters to nurse at the Crimea and her travelling to London to see the Secretary for War in connection with this – her own Mercy sister Anne being a volunteer and also later for the Argentine foundation; her agreeing to Mercy Sisters staffing the long-founded Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin; and her initial steps towards the foundation of Dublin’sMater Misericordiae Hospital. In the course of all this, as several letters here reveal, her own desire for an overseas mission remained persistent. Dr James Quinn who, among his other involvements, had been for some ten years a chaplain at Baggot Street, lost no time in seeking to secure her for his new mission as first bishop of Queensland, created a separate colony in 1859.The community, however, voting in chapter, would not allow Vincent to go, until at Quinn’s request Cardinal Cullen intervened, advising that she be permitted to go if it were her wish.

So it was that Ellen Whitty, with five companions, accompanied Quinn on the long sea journey to Brisbane, where they arrived in May 1861. Despite the bishop’s early esteem, differences soon arose as he sought to micro-manage the tiny resources available for his projected educational provision. This led to his demoting M. Vincent and appointing a much younger superior in her place. As her letters reveal, she put the needs of the challenging new mission field before her own feelings – a principled resolve which was to win out. Her moral authority in the community continued to be respected and relied upon. Quinn himself, in Ireland in 1870, unsuccessfully seeking further staff and resources for his diocese, urgently sent for her, knowing the esteem in which she was held. She came, not only securing volunteers for her own community, but smoothing avenues for Quinn. Mother Assistant from this time until her death in 1892, M. Vincent was behind every further foundation and new work of her growing Mercy congregation – a new term and a significant one. A general move, which Quinn supported, in Mercy overseas foundations was, at least within a diocese, to keep further houses linked to their founding house in a centralised pattern. Vincent agreed with the bishop in this. She saw her Brisbane foundation spread extensively west and north, where, with its own bishop in 1882, Rockhampton became the head house for a spreading congregation in that diocese.

The final letters, from around Australia and abroad, written, firstly, on the occasion of M. Vincent’s Golden Jubilee of profession (1891) and then on her death the following year, reveal the qualities others consistently experienced in her: spiritual integrity and commitment, strength and intelligence, graciousness and openness, and, predominantly, a sense of the writer’s being personally valued.