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The Path of Mercy: The Life of Catherine McAuley by Mary C. Sullivan (review)

From: American Catholic Studies
Volume 124, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 92-95 | 10.1353/acs.2013.0028

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American Catholics who know the Sisters of Mercy know the name of Catherine McAuley, the nineteenth-century Irish foundress of this community. Mary C. Sullivan provides a meticulously researched biography of this amazing woman with the fitting title, The Path of Mercy. Sullivan, a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and Professor Emerita of Language and Literature from Rochester Institute of Technology is a recognized authority on Catherine McAuley. Her earlier two works, The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, 1818-1841 and Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy, established her as an internationally revered scholar on topics related to Catherine and the foundational documents of the community. In her exquisite prose, Sullivan states she wishes "to present her (Catherine) as who and what she was: an ordinary woman, with her human qualities and personal limitations, trying to do her utmost, as a human being, a woman, and a Christian (xiii). "In addition to delivering this realistic portrait of Catherine, Sullivan invites readers to glimpse the social, political, and ecclesial world of Irish Catholics during the first half of the nineteenth century. Undertaking the enormous challenge of identifying multiple and convoluted sources, some of which contain errors and inaccuracies, Sullivan relies strictly on primary sources. She illuminates, clarifies, and when necessary, corrects both written material and oral tradition concerning the beloved foundress.

The first four of Sullivan's twenty-two chapters cluster around Catherine McAuley's early years (1778-1829). Scouring earlier published biographies, correspondence and written recollections of those who knew her, as well as archival material not available to previous biographers, Sullivan addresses issues such as the puzzling spelling of her surnames (McGauley, McAuley, Macauley) and the often confusing matter of family names and religious names in the sources. The author familiarizes readers with the maturing Catherine, who was orphaned by age twenty and experienced the challenges of personal loss, and of family financial undoing, as well as the sting of the deep division between Catholic and Protestant Ireland. Imbued with Catholic faith yet living with the Protestant childless couple, William and Catherine Callaghan, Catherine McAuley cared for them along with managing their estate until their death. With the Callaghan inheritance and determination born from a desire to respond to the plight of those in need, Catherine now had the resources to do what she could to assist the poor of Dublin, especially women and children. In 1829 with the aid of several younger women desirous of giving service, the doors of the House of Mercy opened.

The subsequent eighteen chapters focus on Catherine's adult years (1830-1841), and chronicled the determination of this amazing and flawed woman who faced unending obstacles and relied on God's providential care. While she was often cheerful and playful, Sullivan acknowledges and brings to light what is unavoidable in the chronicle: the underlying reality that Catherine lived with a deep sadness from the loss of beloved members of her own family as well as many of the first and younger members of the fledgling community. The depiction suggested by some of a mature woman faced with the choice to hand her life work over to others or become a nun herself is addressed. Sullivan asserts that Catherine was not 'forced' to become a religious by church authorities; rather her mission and ministry evolved. The evolution pointed to and deepened in her a desire to create something permanent: first the House of Mercy and then the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. She sought the necessary and well heeded advice of dear and trusted mentors, many of them persons of ecclesial positions. As time went on, significant confrontations came from individuals in the same group. Ever relying on words offered by an early wise confidant, a Father Edward Armstrong, Catherine remembered and recommended to her sisters: 'Do not put your trust in any human being, but place all your confidence in God (69)." This counsel, embedded in the hearts of all Sisters of Mercy, is particularly timely.

Honestly aware of limits, Mary Sullivan acknowledges at several points that no biographer can claim to know all aspects of a person. Even so, the chapter on "Beliefs and Motivations" is especially...

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