The prophet does not compel;
She invites each person to see herself,
her world, her God,
in a fresh way.
(Peace Pays A Price, Dorothy Vidulich, CSJP)
This was the prophetic invitation Mother Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack), founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, extended to women at the end of the nineteenth century. The needs of her day demanded a "fresh way." Her charismatic spirit continues to ignite the fires of courage, creativity, and commitment.
A voice for reform, liberation, and justice
Born in Dublin, Ireland, May 6, 1829, Margaret Anna Cusack was raised in the Anglican Church tradition until her conversion to Catholicism in 1858. She entered the Irish Poor Clare Sisters and was among the first group of Sisters sent to found the convent at Kenmare, Co. Kerry.
During the next 21 years, Cusack, now known as Sister Francis Clare, dedicated herself to writing. Lives of the saints, local histories, biographies, books and pamphlets on social issues, letters to the press - all testify to her amazing industry and the wide range of her concerns. As the “Nun of Kenmare” she wrote on behalf of the liberation of women and children who were victims of oppression. Income from her books and from her famine relief fund was distributed throughout Ireland. While doing all she could to feed the hungry, at the same time she campaigned vigorously against the abuse of absentee landlords, lack of education for the poor and against a whole system of laws which degraded and oppressed a section of society. (Read many of her books online)
To broaden the scope of her work Cusack moved to Knock, Co. Mayo in 1881 with the idea of expanding the ministry of the Poor Clares. She started an industrial school for young women and evening classes for daytime land-workers. Several women were attracted by this work and in 1884 she decided to found her own community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
Conflict leads to the founding of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace
Continued conflict in Knock with Church leaders led Margaret Anna to seek support in England. Under Cardinal Manning and Bishop Bagshawe, she received approbation for the new religious order from Pope Leo XIII and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace was founded in January, 1884, in the Diocese of Nottingham, England.
Later, Margaret Anna traveled to the United States to continue her work with immigrant Irish women but was immediately rebuked by Archbishop Corrigan of New York. Just at that time, New Jersey stretched out a hand of welcome and encouragement as Bishop Wigger of the Diocese of Newark invited her to establish homes for young Irish working women there. Within a few years, however, she claimed that because of Archbishop Corrigan's criticism of her among bishops throughout the United States, the work of her new community could not continue as long as she remained with them.
Margaret Anna Cusack leaves the community she founded
Physically exhausted, sick and disillusioned with a patriarchal Church, Margaret Anna Cusack withdrew from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and left behind the Sisters she so dearly loved. She eventually returned to her friends in the Church of England. In later years, she kept in contact with the Sisters and expressed a loving concern for them. She died, June 5, 1899 and was buried in the cemetery reserved for the Church of England at Leamington, England.
Sister Evangelista Gaffney takes the lead
Born in Keadue, County Roscommon in 1853, Honoria Gaffney (later Mother Evangelista) was a 28-year-old teacher when Mother Clare came to Knock. “Her purpose was to establish an institute for the training and betterment of poor girls…This laudable work with its high ideals made a strong appeal to Miss Gaffney, and she associated herself with Mother Clare’s efforts from the very beginning.” (MSS Sr. Ignatius Killian, 1920) The sisters left Knock for Nottingham, England on January 3, 1884, and were accepted into the Diocese of Nottingham by Bishop Bagshawe. Mother Evangelista and Sr. Rose Kelly, the first sisters of the institute, pronounced their vows in St. Barnabas Cathedral on January 7, 1884.
Both Mother Clare and Bishop Bagshawe were well-known writers and public figures by the time of the community’s founding. As the community grew and attracted postulants, Mother Clare’s letters show her growing reliance on Mother Evangelista as Novice Director and chief support, and over the years Mother Evangelista remained consistent in her support of Mother Clare.
When Mother Clare left the Congregation, “she left sorrowfully, saying [to M. Evangelista] ‘Have courage, Mother, the finger of God is in all. You are the new Leader.’” [from Sister Loyola Browne’s Revised Tribute to Mother Evangelista, Post Vatican II]. At this critical point, Sister Evangelista and the small community could have chosen to transfer into the protection of an existing, stronger community or could have disbanded. Instead, impelled by the charism and mission, and supported by Bishop Bagshawe, the sisters elected Mother Evangelista, then aged 35, as second Mother General in 1888.
“This new Leader shouldered a burden of humiliation, failure and difficulty, and by her generous acceptance of this crushing responsibility saved for her Sisters the original spirit and tradition.” (Sr. Loyola Browne) Mother Evangelista became the rock on which the community grounded itself, a woman deeply loved for her humility, gentleness and attention to the needs of the poor and of the Sisters.
In 1891 St. Joseph Hospital, Bellingham, Washington was added to works already introduced in England and the United States. Margaret Anna Cusack's emphasis on human rights, especially women's rights, continues to impact the future direction of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace as vowed members and women and men associates seek to realize the goal as stated in our Constitutions:
"Our charism of peace
challenges us to prophetic risk
so that God's reign might be more fully realized.
Confident of God's faithful love
and collaborating with others who work for justice and peace,
we face the future with gratitude and hope."