Mother Mary Bernard Garden
A biography written by Marion McCarthy rsm and Jean Parkes rsm
Mother Mary Bernard Garden was a truly remarkable woman who, despite all the time she spent travelling in the British Isles, when travelling was so difficult, uncomfortable and inconvenient, managed to found seven Convents of Mercy: one in South Wales, five in Scotland and one in England. As a Sister of Mercy, whenever she was approached by Bishops or priests to make a foundation to help the poor, she responded immediately and positively. She certainly had “Get up and Go” just as Catherine McAuley had.
She was born in Aberdeen on 25 March 1824, the daughter of George Garden Esq., and Christine Garden, nee. Gordon. Her baptismal name was Margaret. We don’t know whether she had any siblings, as none are mentioned in any of the documentation we have. We do know, however, that she entered the Convent of Mercy, St. Ethelburga’s, Liverpool, for the Scottish Mission, on 14 October 1845 when she was 21, she Received the habit in April, 1846 and was Professed in Baggot Street by Archbishop Murray of Dublin on 6 July 1849. Her religious name was Sister Mary Bernard of The Crucifixion. Her Motto was “With Christ I am Nailed to the Cross.”
In the Liverpool Annals it is recorded that Sister Mary Bernard was a good singer and a skilled nurse. Because of her nursing skills she was sent, still a novice, with Sister Ann (surname unknown) to Baggot Street to nurse Mother de Sales White, their Superior. She was seriously ill and had gone to Dublin to consult an eminent physician. He was unable to help her, but while they were in Dublin, arrangements were made for Sister Mary Bernard to be Professed by Archbishop Murray. The ceremony duly took place on 6 July 1849 shortly after which, she and Sister Ann, accompanied Mother de Sales, (now on a stretcher) back to Liverpool, where she died on 5. October of that year.
A short time afterwards, Sister Mary Bernard was sent to Limerick with a Father Colgan, from where a group of Sisters had recently left Ireland to make a foundation in Glasgow. It is strange that Sister was not sent to join them but the following account from the Limerick Annals of 1849, may explain why.
“In the early part of this year, a foundation was promised to Glasgow. It was first arranged to go there from the convent in Liverpool where a Scottish postulant entered for the mission, but the illness and unexpected death of the Superior, Mother de Sales White, led to the application being made to us from Baggot Street where she was then in a dying state. However, she was able to return to Liverpool and died there in her own convent on 5th. October. It was anxiously wished that the young (Scottish) Sister who had served her novitiate in another community, should come here now for holy Profession which, however, was not obtained. Yet it was wisely stipulated that she should not go to the new establishment on the opening of the House, but that before forming a member of the Glasgow community, she should spend some time at this convent, St. Mary’s, which she did on the death of her Mother Superior in October – after our Sisters had gone – two months before, to Scotland.”
So Sister Mary Bernard was left in Limerick for some time, perhaps to gain experience of another community. But the Most Rev. Dr. Murdoch, under whose authority Sister Bernard had been professed, was not prepared to wait for her to return to Scotland. He came to Limerick for her himself as recorded in the Limerick Annals of 1849.
“…….and so anxious was he that she should be allowed to return that his wishes were yielded to. The result proved, however, that it would be well had his Lordship not made the request which the Superiors here found much too difficult to refuse …….”
From the circumstances quoted above, it would seem that Sister Mary Bernard’s return to Scotland to join the community in Glasgow, may not have been to everyone’s liking, as it is recorded there:- “On the evening of 17th. May, 1851, Mother M. Catherine, three Professed Sisters, two Novices and four Postulants, returned to Limerick from the Glasgow foundation. As had been feared, amalgamating a Sister from another community with different training and a short novitiate, was not productive of the best results.”
There was definitely some friction in the community in Glasgow in 1851, but this was not due to Sister Mary Bernard being appointed Superior (as the Limerick Annals seem to suggest). The tension and conflict was between a certain Father Forbes in Glasgow and Mother Elizabeth Moore, the Superior in Limerick, from where the Glasgow foundation had been made. In May 1851, Mother Elizabeth wanted to withdraw two professed Sisters who had been lent for the foundation. Father Forbes strongly objected and tried to have the arrangement changed, but without success.
Father Forbes then “came to the conclusion that, as the Reverend Mother had only been lent in like manner, she had better return with them and thus prevent any further recurrence of the same manner.” The conclusion proved, however, most disastrous in its results. “When Reverend Mother Catherine and the two professed Sisters were about to leave, other Sisters felt it best that they leave as well. So on Friday 16th. May, Reverend Mother and seven other dear Sisters left Glasgow to return to their Mother House, leaving behind them two young professed Sisters, Mary Bernard Garden and Mary J. Butler, three choir novices and two choir postulants. Sister Mary Bernard was then appointed Superior by Bishop Murdoch. Most of the Sisters being young and inexperienced, the difficulties were many and the labour proved to be so great that by the end of the year, Reverend Mother Bernard’s health completely gave way and two of the other Sisters became very unwell.”
Help was then sent in the form of a Superior and two Sisters from Liverpool.
From the book “Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain 1839-1978” we learn: “It is interesting to record here that away back in the 1850’s during a period of stress and strain the Superior of St. Ethelburga’s, Liverpool, kindly agreed to lend a Sister to the city on the Clyde (Glasgow). This was no less a person than Sister Mary Bernard Garden, that remarkable woman who was later to found convents in North East Scotland. She accepted the office of Mother Superior for one year and then returned to Liverpool.
In the same book, we are told that “Only three years after her profession, Sister Mary Bernard Garden was sent to found a convent at Pontypool, South Wales, where she was joined within the next twenty years by many Sisters, some of whom went further afield – one, Sister Mary Xavier Doherty, went to make a foundation in New Zealand.” (P.118) .
We don’t know though, how or indeed if, Sister Mary Bernard stayed all this time in South Wales herself, because of all the travelling she was doing in the intervening years, in the British Isles. All we know for certain is, that when Pontypool closed, she went to Scotland with 12 Sisters (possibly the whole community.)
In the course of twelve years from 1849 – 1862 she journeyed: from England to Ireland, at least three times; from England to Scotland, four times, from England to Wales, several times, and in England she seemed to be constantly on the move. It makes you wonder how she managed to found any Convents at all. Here are outlined some of her travels in England to and from Liverpool often; to Skipton, Yorkshire a number of times, (once to prepare the new Convent being prepared for the Sisters); to Lancaster at least five times; to Newcastle-on-Tyne; to Aberdeen with a companion, Sister Mary Evangelist Smith, to nurse her mother, Mrs. Garden, who was seriously ill, and she even managed to get to Birmingham a couple of times, where it is recorded in the Handsworth Annals,
“During November of 1892 Mother Bernard, foundress of a Convent of Mercy in Elgin, paid us a visit. She was on her way to found a Convent at Newcastle in Staffordshire. Canon O’Hanlon requested her also to establish a branch house in St. Michael’s Parish, Birmingham, and a few months later, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart having returned to their Mother House, Mother Bernard sent members of her community to take charge of the Home for poor girls and to teach in the Mission Schools.”
It was not until 1870 when she was 46 years old, that Mother Bernard began her mission in the Highlands of Scotland at the request of her father and uncle, a priest in Aberdeenshire, where she founded five Houses – in -Dornie (Loch Duich) Ross-shire 1870 (The upkeep of the Convent was financed by Mother Bernard’s relatives); Elgin in 1871; Fort Augustus in 1872; Keith in 1873; and Tomintoul in 1880. In the meantime, she had founded a House in Pontypool, South Wales, (date not known.)
From the Diocesan Year Books of 1867, 1868, and 1869 we learn that there were Convents of Mercy in Pontypool and Ledbury, Herefordshire, and that the Sisters were running boarding and day schools in the area and taking care of orphans. They advertised in 1867, page 238, as follows:
Convent of Our Lady of Mercy Pontypool, Monmouthshire.
“The Sisters of Mercy, Pontypool, take charge of three day and night schools attached to this mission. Two of these schools are at two miles distant from the convent. A suitable building for one of these has not as yet been provided, and as the mission is extremely poor, the Sisters would be most grateful for any subscription which may be charitably offered…. There is accommodation in one part of the convent for a limited number of boarders and the situation of the convent is both beautiful and healthy.”
Convent of Our Lady of Mercy Pontypool, Monmouthshire (1868, page 302)
Schools for a limited number of young ladies. For particulars apply to the Rev. Mother as above.
1869, (page 173) we learn that there was also a convent in Ledbury.
Convents of Mercy, Pontypool, Ledbury.
Same notice as in the previous year.
1879, page 173, only Pontypool is mentioned (page 334), Ledbury had probably closed.
Convent of Our Lady of Mercy, Pontypool, Monmouthshire.
A Middle-class Boarding School on moderate terms and an orphanage at Abersychan branch house.
By the time the 1879 Diocesan Year Book was published, the Sisters of Mercy must have left Wales, as they are not listed in communities of religious women.
The Sisters of Mercy in Pontypool seem to have had serious difficulties to overcome with the then Bishop of Newport, Bishop Thomas Brown, who had written to Fr. Anselm Knapen, O.S.F. seeking answers to six questions he raised about the Sisters. Fr. Anselm wrote to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, seeking clarification, in the light of the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy.
It was in 1870, in the face of these difficulties with Bishop Brown, who was known to be ‘legalistic’ that Mother Bernard left Pontypool and began her very prolific ministry of opening houses in the Highlands of Scotland, accompanied by twelve Sisters (perhaps the whole community from Pontypool).
It is from the Elgin Annals that we have a very interesting piece of information - Mother Bernard was installed as Superior in Elgin by Bishop John Macdonald, Vicar Apostolic of the Northern District on 17August 1871. It must have been a task at which she excelled, because it is further recorded in the same Annals, that
“At the request of the Community and sanctioned by the Right Reverend Dr. John Macdonald, Bishop of the Diocese of Aberdeen, she (Mother Bernard) was Permanently appointed Reverend Mother by our Holy Father Pope Leo XIII in 1882.
Now we come to Mother Bernard’s last foundation – this time in England. Because of financial difficulties in the Convents in Scotland, Mother Bernard was advised to send the novices elsewhere for training so without delay on 4 October 1892, she travelled to Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Staffordshire with two other Sisters: Joseph Mary and Mary Veronica and opened a Convent of Mercy at No. 11 London Road. They had been invited by the Parish Priest of Holy Trinity, Father Maguire, with the approval of Dr. Ilsley, Bishop of Birmingham. In the small rented house there was accommodation for only two, but by the 10 October Father Maguire had procured Brook House in the parish for the Sisters, while Mother Bernard herself had been given hospitality by the Sisters of Mercy in Alton. Soon they were joined by two groups of Sisters from Elgin, Mary Columba and three novices and Mary Philomena and four novices.
At first, the Sisters were not self-supporting and were totally dependent on the local people. The Community started work immediately by setting up evening classes in the Three R’s for young people, while Saturday afternoons were devoted to teaching young women to sew. All the other works of Mercy were carried out and they also instructed converts and did sacristy work. In a short time they had helped to establish St. Patrick’s All-age School in the parish and the Sisters began teaching there.
The 6 April 1893 was a very important and impressive day for the parish, when seven novices were Professed in Holy Trinity Church: Sisters Mary Imelda Kearney, Mary Borgia McGrath, Mary Rose Russell, Mary Vincent Hickey, Mary Camillus Caplice, Mary Ursula Pyne and Mary Walburga Russell. The Right Reverend Dr. Ilsley, Bishop of Birmingham officiated at the ceremony, assisted by seventeen priests. Admission was by ticket only. By this time Mother Bernard’s health was failing. She was 69. Her attendance at this ceremony was her last public appearance. She died three months later on 31 July 1893 and is buried in Newcastle-Under-Lyme cemetery.
Here, our presentation of Mother Mary Bernard Garden, a much loved, much travelled as well as a controversial Sister of Mercy, ends with just two further touching paragraphs, one from her foundation at Newcastle-under-Lyme: “Mother Bernard being of an amiable disposition, was loved by all. Though she died when the Newcastle foundation was still in its infancy, she had the consolation of knowing that she left a group of zealous Sisters to establish the foundation she had so courageously undertaken.”
Our final tribute comes from the Log Book of Dornie, written in 1893, page 228.
“A week’s holiday (from school) in August on account of the death of Mother Mary Bernard Garden, first benefactress of the Mission School in Dornie. The children in deep grief assembled at the tolling of the church bell for prayers. R.I.P.
Grateful thanks are expressed to the following archivists who supplied much of this information from their Convent Annals. The archivists in :