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Mary Aikenhead’s Jesuit connection

A new biography on the life of Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Irish Sisters of Charity, was launched by Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications on Monday 21 November. The book, entitled Friend of the Poor: Mary Aikenhead, was written by Rosaleen Crossan RSC to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of the order.

Mary Aikenhead’s vision for her order was ”to give to the poor everything the rich can buy with money”. Although from a wealthy Protestant background she spent the first six years of her life being looked after by a poor Catholic family and saw the dreadful conditions those in poverty had to endure in her native city of Cork. She eventually became a Catholic herself and responded to a call from God, experienced when only fifteen, to serve the poor.

She had to found her own order to follow that calling because at that time all religious sisters were enclosed in their convents. With the help of Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin, and the well-known Jesuit and founder of Clongowes Wood College SJ, Peter Kenney SJ, she set up her own order. Her sisters uniquely took a fourth vow of service to the poor and adopted the Constitutions of St Ignatius of Loyola.

The motto of the Irish Sisters of Charity is Caritas Christi Urget Nos – the charity of Christ urges us on (2 Co 5:14). It was taken up by Mary Aikenhead after she heard Fr Kenney quote it in a sermon in 1817. According to Rosleen Crossan, Peter Kenney and a fellow Jesuit gave “invaluable wisdom and guidance to Mary and the sisters” for many years. To this day the order has a close affinity with the Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality.

Speaking at the launch, Pat Coyle said Friend of the Poor was more than just a biography of Mary Aikenhead. In fact the biographical section is quite short, though very informative, she noted, adding that the the real contribution of Sr Rosaleen is the way she has sifted out the relevance of Mary Aikenhead for people today, who live in a very different world from the one she inhabited. “The real question is not what would Mary Aikenhead do if she were here today?” said Pat. ” The question is rather –  what can we learn from what she said and did that might help us make her vision a reality in our times. And that is the question Sr Rosaleen has addressed with great insight in part two of this book.”

Pat took examples from the various sections of part two which illustrate different facets of Mary’s character. She quoted the line Mary said to one of her sisters who found her crying after the death of her dear friend, Archbishop Daniel Murray. “Did you think I left my heart behind me when I put on the habit?” This as just one example from many in the chapter the author entitled ‘A great-hearted mother’.

She said that the book was about humanity not hagiography as the author revealed the down to earth character of Mary Aikenhead.  She gave the example of Mary’s advice to her sisters when looking after the poor who were dying. “She instructed them not to be over bearing with too many prayers and just say one decade of the Rosary instead of five!”

She spoke particularly about Mary’s determination to build a hospital for the poor, one as good as the rich had, as a powerful example of her trust in God. “Hardly anybody agreed with Mary that this was a good idea. One of her sisters actively campaigned against her, eventually leaving the order with 12 of her sisters. But she had the courage to struggle alone against all the odds, trusting in her own inner voice and in her God.  She wrote thousands of begging letters and finally delivered St Vincent’s Hospital on Stephens Green –  a hospital that still serves people, though in a different place, to this very day.”

The author also spoke. She remarked that she had read every book written about her foundress. She also read every one of the thousands of letters written by Mary herself, many in the last twenty years of her life when she was unable to walk, crippled with arthritic back pain and unrelenting headaches. Sr Rosaleen said she could not find one where Mary did not mention God.  She continually urged her sisters to trust in the providence of God. She never wavered in her belief that God would take care of everything if they kept to their vow of looking after His beloved poor – not even in times of terrible suffering, facing the death of many of her sisters and indeed her own sibling, from cholera and consumption. As quoted in the book, she once wrote, “God will settle everything; the work is his; He will bring all things right in the end.”

Friend of the Poor: Mary Aikenhead, is published by Columba Press