Introducing ... Margaret Anna Cusack

My novice housemates are downstairs watching baseball, which is not my cup of tea. I'm tired, but can't go to bed yet as my laundry is in the dryer. So I'm visiting the blog for a third time today! But onto the subject of this post ...

I've been meaning to introduce my bloggy friends to Margaret Anna Cusack, the founder of my groovy sisters. But where to start?? Her story is so amazing, but it's also more than a little bit complicated. But her story definitely deserves to be shared. She will never become a Saint in our church, but she was a saintly and holy woman, if a bit ahead of her time. She's been a great spiritual friend of mine, that's for sure.

Part of our Novitiate program is to deepen our relationships with the historical figures of our Congregation ... Margaret Anna, Mother Evangelista Gaffney (who took over after Margaret Anna left) and Bishop Edward Bagshawe (who helped to keep the new community alive and true to its founding spirit during those rocky early years). I plan to share some thoughts and reflections on our founders over the coming months. But in the meantime, let me introduce you to Margaret Anna Cusack (known "in Religion" as Mother Francis Clare) with a bio found on the
Catholic Health Association website of all places. It does a good job of trying to share her complicated story in a brief synopsis ...

Mother Clare Cusack was reinstated as the founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in 1970, 82 years after she was forced to resign as head of the religious congregation she founded.

Born in Ireland to an aristocratic family, Margaret Anna Cusack converted to Catholicism and joined the cloistered Irish Poor Clare Nuns in Newry, Ireland. The well-educated woman religious wrote prolifically, publishing about 50 books in her lifetime. The proceeds from her works went to the poor, and Sr. Francis Clare became known as the "Nun of Kenmare," the Irish County where she lived. Keenly aware of social justice and women's issues, she published in 1874 a work titled Woman's Work in Modern Society. "I appeal to women," she wrote. "I beg them to lay aside for a little the sensational romance and to look stern facts in the face; for so sure as there is a sun in the heavens this day. . . the future of the world will be what women make it." She outlined the problems facing women of her day: lack of meaningful education, financial dependency, and frivolous role models. In the aftermath of the article, Sr. Francis Clare's life was threatened. The document angered Protestant landowners and conservative Catholics. She became a nationally known figure, and songwriters wrote ballads about her.

Sr. Francis Clare wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the Irish and decided to open an industrial school. But she felt that a new religious congregation was needed to focus on the education and training of women. She left Kenmare to found the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Despite a cold reception from the Church hierarchy, she managed to set up a convent and open a kindergarten and industrial school in Knock, Ireland. But in 1883, the archbishop demanded that she turn over the convent to him and cut all links with the Sisters of Peace. In 1884, Sr. Clare traveled to Rome, where Pope Leo XIII gave his approval to her plan to set up homes for Irish immigrant girls in the United States.

She arrived in the United States in November 1884, where she intended to open residences for Irish immigrant girls and to raise money. Her plan was to settle in New York City, but the archbishop, having heard about her reputation, refused to see her. So the fledgling community moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey, where the sisters opened a home and employment bureau for immigrant girls in Jersey City on March 10, 1885. Taking the name of the archdiocese in which they found themselves, the congregation became known as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Newark. Quickly realizing the breadth of the needs of the girls, the sisters offered daycare, home nursing, and food. The sisters also began caring for blind adults and children.

In 1888, Mother Francis Clare published a pamphlet that was seen by the Church as "an unwarranted, unjust and scandalous attack on Archbishop Corrigan [the New York archbishop] and his council." In retaliation, the bishop refused to allow novices to take their vows with the sisters and would not let the sisters admit any women to their congregation. In July of that year, ground down and seeing no alternative, Mother Clare left the order she had founded. Bitter about the treatment she had received at the hands of the Catholic Church, she found solace with Anglican friends. Eventually she left the Catholic Church altogether. She continued her writing--as it was her sole means of financial support--but went on to criticize the Church as the institution of mean and small-minded men. In her final days, she returned to England, where she died in 1899.

(Terry - feel free to point out any inaccuracies in the comments!)


Anonymous said...

No mistakes in the CHA account! But I'm anxious to hear your own reflection on why Margaret Anna is a friend in the spirit for you.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what an interesting story! Thanks for sharing it.

I often wonder if I won't end up Anglican, or Quaker or Unitarian before it's all over with! ;)

Susan said...

Great intro, Susan! She sounds a lot like Mother Stanislaus Leary, SSJ of my congregation in rochester NY. Another Margaret, she was forced out of two congregations by bishops to whom she was an irritant.
She is a hero to me because she kept trying, spoke her truth to people in civil and religious authority. Your Margaret sounds like her.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the Church only beatifies CATHOLICS!

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

Hmm... my readership has expanded of late, and I've been getting some visitors who I think must come from a less civil and polite corner of the blogosphere.

All are welcome here, but positive and peaceful comments only. I have deleted a few comments lately. I almost deleted the last one, but decided to leave it. But please know that I do moderate the comments.

I decided to begin to tell the story of my community's founder which is complicated and kind of messy. I see no point in whitewashing it. She was a holy women who brought a great deal to a church that did not treat her very well. Her sisters continue to bring a great deal to the church and to the world.

On that note, I must get my cupcakes out of the oven! We're invited for dinner with our senior sisters tomorrow - we're bringing dessert!

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, I didn't mean to be rude, I was just saying that the reason she will never become a saint is because you have to be Catholic to be beatified by the Holy See, no offence ment and I hope none was taken, God Bless

Susan Rose Francois, CSJP said...

Thank for that, oh anonymous commenter.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the comment of Flannery O'Connor (I am paraphrasing here, perhaps) that sometimes we have to suffer more from the Church than for the Church. Many great women have locked horns with the hierarchy -- Teresa of Avila, Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena come immediately to mind.
Thank you for the introduction to a brave and foresighted woman.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,
from an ex Aussie nun
who found your blog on Cathoic News -
like many women who founded religious orders your foundress was a woman before her time. All of these women threatened the status quo of the church in their day
hopefully women generally today (because they are better educated) will continue to ask questions, to challenge the institutional church to ensure that Jesus message stays authentic.
Given the situation with regards the future of religious orders today - your decision - to enter is a courageous one - I hope your journey is a life giving as mine was -