Catherine Ferguson, Margaret Anna Cusack (The Nun of Kenmare): Knock November 1881 – December 1883, The Author, Warrenpoint, Co Down, 2008. € 9.95, ISBN: 978-0-9556226-1-8, 100 p.
Marian T. Murphy, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Her Life and Spirituality: The Vast Triangled Heart, Gracewing, Leominster, 2011. € 9.99, ISBN: 978-0-85244-728-4, xviii-144 p.
Jacinta Prunty, Margaret Aylward 1810-1889: Lady of Charity, Sister of Faith, Four Courts Press, Dublin/Portland, OR, 2011. €13.45, ISBN: 978-1-85182-438-0, 192 p.
Reviewed by Claude Auger, Dominican University College, Ottawa, January 2012.
In this trio of slim books, three sisters write about their founder or a notable member of their order. But slim does not mean lightweight; each author has been able to capture an aspect of her subject in a way that makes each publication noteworthy.
Marian Murphy offers a good introduction to the life and spirituality of her sister in Carmel, blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906). Each chapter is illustrated with a well-chosen photo, allowing the reader to see Elizabeth through her short life. The first three chapters provide a biographical sketch of Elizabeth Catez, a gifted musician who decided to become a Carmelite nun and, like so many young women of that era, died of tuberculosis at 26. Like her contemporary Thérèse of Lisieux, Elizabeth left behind writings: letters, diaries, meditations and prayers. Their value was not lost on her sisters, who published a very successful biography in 1909, followed by a study of her Trinitarian spirituality, written by a French Dominican as his doctoral thesis and published in 1937. At a time when popular devotion was centred on Christ and Mary, Elizabeth reflected on the Trinity, mainly on how the three divine persons dwell in each of us. In the five last chapters of her book, Sr Murphy presents her own analysis of Elizabeth’s writings under five headings: call to holiness, Eucharistic amazement, praise of glory, gift of prayer, God’s love. The product of the author’s masters’ dissertation, The Vast Triangled Heart is both accessible and thorough.
Catherine Ferguson has chosen to concentrate on a short period in the life of the ‘Nun of Kenmare’, Margaret Anna Cusack (1829-1899). She stayed for a little more than two years in Knock, made famous two years before her arrival by a silent apparition (1879). By a careful examination of published literature and archival material, the author proceeds to disentangle the web surrounding the Nun of Kenmare and her work (introduction, p. 7). Sr Ferguson had already examined many documents to compile two histories of her congregation, unfortunately remaining unpublished. This familiarity with the relevant documentation allows the author to present a more nuanced portrait of the Nun. About twenty years ago, there were many publications about Margaret Anna Cusack, giving her back the title of founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. In their enthusiasm, some authors probably painted too rosy a picture of Cusack; Sr Ferguson, while remaining sympathetic towards this remarkable figure, shows her, ‘warts and all’, as both intelligent and manipulative, prone to exaggerate and even lie to reach her goals. The author also carefully replaces the events in their context on the Irish and international scene. Many illustrations grace the book; a few, unfortunately, suffer from pixellization. In the words of the author of the foreword, with whom we agree, this is a ‘balanced, readable, dispassionate account’ (from the foreword, p. 5), which illuminates not only the founder’s life, but also the first years of her congregation and some of the events related to the beginnings of the Knock shrine.
The book Jacinta Prunty has written about Margaret Aylward (1810-1889), founder of the Sisters of the Holy Faith, is much more than a biography. The author wrote her doctoral thesis in historical geography ‘on the social mission of Margaret Aylward, set within the context of the slum geography on nineteenth-century Dublin’ (from the foreword, p. 5-6); the thesis became this attractive, readable and informative book. Margaret Aylward came from a Waterford business family, where both men and women were entrepreneurial and wealthy, active in local politics and committed to Church work. Although the fifth child, Margaret was to remain a pillar of strength for all of her siblings. After two unsuccessful attempts at religious life, she moved to Dublin in 1848, partly to escape the gossips of Waterford, partly to get medical attention. In these years following the Great Famine, Dublin became home to a growing number of poor people, and in many cases, witnessed poverty turn to misery. Through her involvement with the Ladies of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Margaret became active in bringing relief to the destitute, imbibing the Vincentian spirituality as she visited the poor and the sick in the Dublin slums. She became a Lady of Charity as member of the Kingstown branch upon her arrival in Dublin, then founded the first Dublin branch in 1851. To preserve the faith in Irish children subject to Protestant proselytising, especially by the Irish Church Missions, a society of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, she established St. Brigid’s Orphanage, a boarding-out institution providing residential child care (1857); St. Brigid’s Poor Schools, a network targeting the poorer areas (1861); and the Sisters of the Holy Faith (1867). In all these endeavours she was supported by John Gowan, C.M. (1817-1897), a former diocesan priest who, as a Vincentian, became her spiritual director in 1852. Through a study of Margaret’s personal library, supplemented by her writings, the author identifies four main threads to her spirituality: the devotional writings of St Alphonsus Ligouri, the discernment tradition of St Ignatius of Loyola, the practical charity of St Vincent de Paul, an appreciation of the Celtic-Irish Church heritage. ‘Closely referenced throughout, this book will serve as an important foundation for future work, as individual threads in the story can be followed through to other new discoveries. As such it will appeal to students and professionals in the fields of women’s history, the history of church-state relations and of education and social policy development in Ireland.’ (From the foreword, p. 6.) Illustrations, graphics and tables make the different topics come alive; unfortunately, the last paragraph on page 78 (end of chapter 4) is truncated.
These books manage to pack a lot of information in three small packages. Sr Murphy’s introduction will assist historians to understand better the appeal of blessed Elizabeth, whose graceful figure, warm spirit and profound contemplation has endeared her to people around the globe. It could also be useful as an introductory title for undergraduate students in theology and spirituality. Sr Ferguson and Sr Prunty’s books add substantially to the history of two international congregations with English and Irish roots. The multi-faceted Cusack will keep providing historians with many historical strands to untangle; her sojourn in Knock has found a worthy researcher and teller. Finally, Sr Prunty’s exploration of the plight of Dublin’s poor provides a rich background to the life and accomplishments of Margaret Aylward.