The Nun of Kenmare

Between the covers of a dusty old book lies the story of a courageous nun fighting for her integrity and her mission.


In Dublin, Ireland, on a cold December night in 1881, Sister M. Francis Clare (Margaret Anna) Cusack, stepped off the train from Tuam and wearily made her way to the Poor Clare convent at Harold’s Cross. She rang the bell, and as soon as she saw the distressed faces of the sisters, she knew something was wrong.


By this point in her life, Cusack was used to trials and tribulations, but the news she finally coaxed out the sisters that night shocked her. Cardinal McCabe, the archbishop of Dublin, had come to the convent earlier in the day and given orders that Cusack “was to be put out on the streets of Dublin.”


The sisters were greatly disturbed by his command and asked what Cusack, a Poor Clare sister herself, had done to receive such treatment. The cardinal refused any information. One sister dropped to her knees and begged the cardinal to allow Cusack one night’s shelter, because she would be arriving late and the weather was very cold and wet. McCabe granted the request, on the condition that Cusack be expelled at daybreak the next morning.


At daybreak, Sister M. Francis Clare Cusack left the convent and wandered the streets of the town, wondering where to take shelter. She and the sisters of the convent had obeyed the cardinal. That was something Cusack just couldn’t understand: She always obeyed her ecclesiastical superiors, but a reputation for trouble and disobedience dogged her during her entire religious life.


Cusack may have been obedient, but she was no meek and mild lamb. In her writing she comes across as a force to be reckoned with — intelligent and strongly opinionated, someone who can easily irritate persons in authority.


Margaret Anna Cusack was a well-educated Anglican who converted to Catholicism in 1858 at the age of 29 and joined the Poor Clares because she wanted to work with the poor people in Ireland, who, at the time, were among the most wretchedly poor people on earth. She became known as the Nun of Kenmare because of her work in that village. She was also a prolific writer and best-selling religious author, and used the income from her books to support her convent and the people she cared for.


It was also her own writing that seems to have helped get her into trouble. Cusack was one of those prophetic types: not content to feed and educate the poor, she wrote justice-oriented books investigating why the poor were hungry and uneducated. She criticized bishops who lived in palaces while the poorest Irish starved and died right outside their door. She criticized both British and Irish leaders, including Catholic landlords who usually treated their poor Irish Catholic renters like dirt. In the politically explosive atmosphere that was Ireland in the 1870s and 80s, such writing gained her enemies who attacked and slandered her, often viciously and anonymously.


After her work in Kenmare she moved to Knock, the site of apparitions in 1879 (the original, unedited depositions of the 21 apparition witnesses were found in the 1990s among Cusack’s papers), working on the same mission and goals and still making enemies. She also angered the local clergy in Knock by showing that some miracle healings that the clergy had accepted as genuine were actually blatant frauds.


All during this time ecclesiastical resentment was building. While she had the solid support of many priests and some bishops — and the warm endorsement of the pope himself, who gave her permission in 1884 to start a new religious order, the Congregation of St. Joseph of Peace — other prelates and priests, allied with powerful political interests, seemed to do all they could to spread rumors against her. Whenever she traveled they sent word on ahead that she was a troublemaker and should not be trusted or welcomed. She was disobedient, they said, she was violating canon law and church teaching, and, the most damning charge of all: “We can’t tell you what she’s done.”


She couldn’t shake the charges, no matter how she tried. “As a woman and as a nun,” she said, “I was easy prey.”


That’s how she saw it, at least, and that’s what she wrote in The Nun of Kenmare: An Autobiography, published in 1889. I came across a dusty, tattered copy recently, salvaged from a long-extinct local Catholic lending library. When I saw it, I figured it was a sweet, pious reflection of a sweet pious Irish nun, talking about her sweet, pious life.


I was wrong.


Cusack begins the book with an open letter to Pope Leo XIII, telling him that she is resigning from the Sisters of Peace: “Holy Father — it is with great regret that I address this letter to your Holiness,” she says. “I am obliged to resign into your hands the office to which you were pleased to appoint me, and to leave to others the work of the Order of Peace which your Holiness has authorized me to establish.”


Then she tells him why: “I have found such opposition to this work, which I so dearly love, from certain bishops whose influence is so powerful that other bishops do not like to support what they disapprove, even though it has the sanction of your Holiness, that I am obliged to retire from it. I have in vain pointed out to these ecclesiastics that the fact of your Holiness having permitted me to establish a New Order should have satisfied them — that I was, as the document sent from Propaganda [said] ‘worthy of confidence and trust.’”


“Reports, are circulating both by ecclesiastics and in the public press under the control of ecclesiastics,” she continued, “making false charges against me, which are most defamatory to me.”


And in the rest of The Nun of Kenmare, Margaret Anna Cusack tells her side of the story. Appearing to have kept virtually every letter ever sent to her, she proves her innocence step by step, correspondence after correspondence, refuting accusation after accusation.


But this is no dry legal work. Margaret Anna Cusack wrote this book with passion — sometimes with asides of biting sarcasm (“Whatever other virtues Roman Catholic prelates may have, counting the cost of buildings which their successors must finish is not one of them.”), and sometimes by giving her opinion of how things worked, or didn’t work, in the church of her day. While she did not question canon law and the role of bishops or their rights to jurisdiction over convents and religious sisters, she noted that “In many cases Roman Catholic priests and superiors put obedience to themselves in place of obedience to God, and though they themselves do not and dare not teach a theory of personal infallibility, they act as if it were an article of faith, and make it a sin if obedience is not rendered to commands which are often wrong, because they are contrary to the true spirit of Christian charity.”


One of her greatest criticisms is of prelates who refuse due process to subordinates. In 1887, while in the U.S., Cusack wrote a book called Anti-Poverty and Progress, and soon got a letter from her bishop, Winand Michael Wigger, of Newark: “You make in your book an unwarranted, unjust, and scandalous attack on Archbishop Corrigan [of New York], his vicar-general, and on the members of the diocesan council,” Bishop Wigger said. “I hereby require you to make a public apology to these gentlemen.”


Cusack replied to Wigger that she had not in any way meant to attack these men, and begged to be told what she had said wrong. “But I was not to be told,” she tells the reader, “The practice of the Inquisition still holds in the Roman church, as I have found again and again, and as this book will show. You are condemned unheard.”


The Nun of Kenmare is full of such examples: a nun in a New York convent labeled insane and shipped off to Bellevue because she stated an opinion to a superior (the sister was rescued by her family, left the convent, and became a successful business woman); a priest driven out of his diocese without ever being told why; Cusack herself, lying prostrate on her sick bed, being told that there is a formal letter she must sign, admitting to some actions she did not do — she will be told what it says; she may not read it herself or even hold it.


Cusack says that many are suffering from the rampant and unjust practices of the church in her day, and she sympathizes with “the priest who finds his zeal constantly crushed and embarrassed, and who finds himself treated as a mere machine, [and] soon lapses into utter indifference, and takes to church building as a last resource from ennui.”


And in a passage that sounds like it could have been written in response to our own clergy sex abuse cover up by bishops, Cusack says:


“Roman Catholic ecclesiastics have impressed the people with the very convenient idea that they are not to be blamed, no matter what wrong they may do; so the “devil” is made the convenient scapegoat. The claim of priests to be thus excused is a serious danger to the Roman Catholic Church. Facts cannot be hidden as they were in earlier ages. People know that certain evils exist, and though they may be silent for a time, the existence of these evils is not forgotten. An open, honest admission of the evils in the church would go far to lessen them. It would at least save the church the awful crime of even appearing to approve evil by not condemning it.”


Cusack is not expecting to find perfection in people or in the church. In fact, at one point, probably reflecting on her own experience, she comments that “a convert to the Catholic faith is led to enter the church, not merely by the belief and hope that it is the one true church, but also by the very natural conclusion that it is the one holy church.”


But, she continues, “I believe the cause of some of the trouble in convent life is a mistaken view of human nature. Those who enter a religious house, young and full of hope and zeal, and with such sublime ideas of perfection, still take with them poor humanity. To believe that putting on a religious garb will at once alter the dispositions, tempers, or personal peculiarities is a sad delusion. It is true that we may, by generous efforts, change in some respects, but nature is slow and habit is strong. We come into the convent full of imperfections, perhaps of grave faults, and we expect to find every one there perfect; but they like ourselves, are human.”


The same, of course, could be said for those prelates who hounded her, and I don’t think Margaret Cusack would disagree. Her main complaint was with an unjust church system that allowed, sometimes even encouraged, the worst sides of those men to flourish. “Human frailty,” she noted, “which made even Paradise a desolation, comes in everywhere, and blights if it cannot destroy.”


Strong stuff from 1889. Clearly those among us today who pine for the return of the “better, holier” church from before Vatican II are as sadly mistaken as are the people among us who pine for the return of some mythical early church era where everything was perfect and everyone loved one another. There is no golden age; there’s just us, the people of God, struggling to be disciples in a complex, scary, often crazy world. All we can do is the best we can: to work for institutional structures that are as just as we can make them, to practice compassion, to take a careful and honest look at our own sinfulness, to work always for forgiveness and reconciliation. And in all of this to ask God continually for an abundance of grace.


Weakened, tired, and sick after decades of ministry and continuing battles with some church prelates, Margaret Cusack resigned from the order she had founded and continued to love. She resigned so that her personal struggles would not keep the order from flourishing. Ten years later she died in England and was buried with Anglican rites. But the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph of Peace still treasure her memory. And the rest of us might do well to remember her too.


– Dan

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