Eithne Leonard S.M.G.,Frances Taylor Mother Magdalen S.M.G.: A Portrait 1832–1900, St. Paul’s Publishing, London, 2015.

Eithne Leonard S.M.G.,Frances Taylor Mother Magdalen S.M.G.: A Portrait 1832–1900, St. Paul’s Publishing, London, 2015. £19.95, 9780854399086(paperback), pp. 308.

Reviewed by: Tonya J. Moutray, Russell Sage College, Troy, NY, February 2017


Eithne Leonard’s biography of the founder and Mother Superior of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, Frances Taylor (1832–1900), sheds much light on this intrepid trailblazer. The book is organized chronologically and demonstrates careful archival research into Taylor’s life, including her published works, unpublished diaries and letters, and accounts of Taylor by clergy, friends, relatives, and sisters of the Poor Servants. Taylor’s interactions with key figures, such as Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), Lady Georgiana Fullerton(1812–85), Priscilla Sellon(1821–76), and Cardinal Henry Manning (1808–92), situate her in the religious milieus of the Oxford Movement and the legalization of the Catholic hierarchy in Britain.

Chapter 1 recounts Taylor’s bucolic upbringing in the 1830s at Stoke Rochford in Lincolnshire, where her father served as rector. Leonard describes Taylor’s education as at once domestic and natural. She frequently accompanied her mother during her parish visits to the local poor. Taylor’s father died when she was only ten, forcing the family to move to London where they settled in Brompton. In 1848 two of her sisters joined the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Trinity, the Anglican Sisterhood that Priscilla Sellon had founded in 1845. Taylor trained as a nurse in the Bristol hospital also founded by Sellon, and joined the sisters to nurse cholera victims during the 1853 epidemic in Plymouth. Taylor also began management of a charity school for impoverished boys, one of many such endeavours.

Historians of medicine and nursing will find Chapter 2 particularly interesting. Much of the chapter is based upon the book Taylor anonymously published upon her return to Britain, Eastern Hospitals and English Nurses(1856), an early and well-received account of the war front and the conditions of the hospitals. Taylor’s book provides an alternative image of the Lady with the Lamp, though Leonard downplays Taylor’s trenchant criticisms of Nightingale. Upon arrival in Constantinople, Taylor and her fellow nurses were initially turned away by Nightingale. Taylor’s frustrations that ‘47 women should be kept idle . . . when the hospitals were crowded’ (p. 28), were finally assuaged after she was chosen to work in the Scutari hospital directly under Nightingale. Taylor describes the overcrowded hospital as ‘a terrible dream’, where Nightingale’s need for control took precedence over patient care (p. 31). Along with four Irish Sisters of Mercy, Taylor left to join the English Hospital at Koulali, located near the Turkish Calvary barracks. Conditions here were also appalling, the hospital having been built atop sewers where typhus infections were consequently frequent. In the second edition of her book, Taylor included mortality rates at the Koulali hospital from 1855–6. One wonders if Nightingale referred to Taylor’s numbers when she composed the famous ‘Rose Diagram’ (published in 1858–9), which charted the mortality rates at the Scutari hospital before and after Nightingale’s reforms.

Taylor’s conversion to Catholicism in 1855, tucked discreetly into Chapter 2, becomes far more significant in Chapter 3. Taylor published and travelled extensively upon her return to England, as she searched for the right religious community to join or found. The Daughters of Charity in Paris was one such group that she explored. During this time she also wrote and published the best-seller Tyborne, and Who Went Thither in the Days of Queen Elizabeth (1854), an historical work about the persecution of Catholic priests under the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). Taylor also formed the Bayswater School for poor children with the assistance of Manning, while actively fostering her literary aspirations through her friendship with Lady Georgiana Fullerton. After two failed attempts at magazine publishing, Taylor founded and edited the highly successful Catholic magazine, The Month, where John Henry Newman’s ‘Dream of Gerontium’ was first published.

Always eager to learn something new, she next began studying the conditions of Irish immigrants in London, where many were struggling simply to survive. Curious to learn more about charitable organizations established in Ireland, Taylor made four trips there between 1864 and 1867. Exploring Dublin’s charitable institutions and 39 convents across Ireland, she became dismayed by the strict and unquestioned class hierarchies that separated choir and lay sisters. The culmination of her research, Irish Homes and Irish Hearts(1867), was well received and painted a sympathetic portrait of the Irish at a time when anti-Irish sentiment was high.  

It was in 1869 that she, along with two others, became postulants of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, and began running a mission for children at Tower Hill. Just the year before, the group considered adopting the constitutions of the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a Polish order founded by Edmund Bojanowski(1814–71). Taylor’s journey to Poland to decipher this calling further was marred by her unfortunate arrest in Boulogne; mistaken for a Prussian spy, she was only released after the British Consul got involved. Writing to Fullerton, Taylor records: ‘The more I see of foreign institutes, the more certain I am that we must found our own. They have done it and so must we’(pp. 84–5). 

Chapter 4 examines the founding and expansion of the Poor Servants. By 1872, the group had grown in size to 55 members though tuberculosis claimed many of the younger sisters’ lives. Irish recruits accounted for much of the growth in numbers. Multiple branches of the Poor Servants were established in various locations, moving as local needs shifted. Taylor made sure that the sisters were trained in their professions: some were sent to Antwerp to learn commercial laundering; others were sent to the English Augustinians in Louvain or St. George’s Hospital in London to study nursing.

Where a need existed, Taylor persisted. For example, a group of sisters living in Green Court ran a refuge for prostitutes, while another at the Jesuit Beaumont College near Windsor taught local children and ran a laundry business; a house was set up in Soho to work with the local poor, and another at St. Helens where a coal miners’ strike had taken an economic toll on locals. It is here that Taylor established the Providence Free Hospital, which opened in 1884, and was expanded in 1887 due to Taylor’s fundraising efforts. Leonard asserts, ‘Every new foundation reads like an adventure’(p. 138). Father Augustus Dignam(1833–94), the group’s longtime supporter and Taylor’s spiritual director, discouraged overseas missions, so Taylor established two convents in Ireland and two in England by 1880; finally, a branch in Rome formalized around 1886, and Taylor moved there permanently that year. The groups had to remain flexible: cooperation and good communication with local clergy, as well as among the sisters, was essential. ‘Sometimes antagonism and opposition to foundations was part of the founding process,’ Leonard suggests of the resistance that the sisters encountered even as their numbers flourished (p. 142).

Taylor’s spiritual leadership is addressed in Chapter 5. Taylor’s‘own particular way of understanding and concretizing the following of Jesus,’ or charism’, was fundamentally rooted in her care for the sick and dying during the Crimean war, Leonard avers (pp. 148–9). Commissioning a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was eventually given to the Pope, Taylor also worked with Dignam to revive the Messenger of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic magazine later brought to Ireland under the leadership of Father Cullen, through Taylor’s prodding, and which eventually reached 73,000 readers.

Chapter 6 gives some context to Taylor’s life in terms of women’s education and the professionalization of women’s work in a society ensconced within a rigid class structure. Leonard observes that ‘the process of opening up professional opportunities for women was longer and more tortuous than might be imagined by young women today’ (p. 165). From this perspective, the range of Taylor’s achievements, contributions, and experiences is astounding. For example, it is hard to imagine the resistance Taylor faced in publishing her 1827 biography of Father Dignam: not only had it been composed, however painstakingly, by someone outside of the Jesuit order, but also by a woman. 

This volume contains sixteen pages of glossy colour illustrations, including portraits of Taylor and her supporters, photographs of convents and community members, and pages from Taylor’s manuscripts. The book could have benefitted from a table that records the founding and closing of the multiple branches and convents that Taylor established. Chapters 4 and 6 recount the founding of a dizzying number of enterprises and houses, but this trajectory is hard for the reader to follow.

Taylor’s life is framed by the historical contexts of the Irish immigrations, the Oxford Movement, women’s work, and the flowering of Catholicism in the Victorian period. Taylor’s congregation might be further situated in the complex and multi-faceted histories of convent founding in Britain and Ireland in the nineteenth century. For example, Susan O’Brien has analyzed recruitment patterns among religious groups across the century and notes that Irish postulants were drawn to French congregations in Britain (which represented half of the total of 62), because of French sisters’ supposed expertise. They maintained firm class hierarchies, even as working class women could receive professional training or attend university, and brought ‘diversity’ to monastic practice in Britain (p. 1558).[1] Taylor’s enterprise, born out of her study of Polish, Irish, and French models, demonstrates the hybrid nature of her native congregation, complicating assumptions that we might have about limitations for women in forging unique congregational identities. Given Taylor’s own class biases, as well as the fact that she eschewed the two-tiered structure that she had criticized in Irish conventual life, it would be fascinating to learn more about the women who worked under her and her attitudes towards them. Her interactions with male clergy also reveal the latitude she was given to grow the congregation in ways that made sense to her. These are areas where the reader is left wanting to know much more about the challenges Taylor encountered and responded to as a leader. Indeed, there is much to learn in Leonard’s biography of Taylor, as well as much to ponder.


[1]Susan O’Brien,‘French Nuns in Nineteenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 154 (1997): 142–80; and ‘Terra Incognita: The Nun in Nineteenth-Century England’,Past and Present, 121 (1988): 11040. O’Brien discusses the Poor Servants on pp. 129–33.