Sister Aloysius Scott
A biography written by Pius O'Brien rsm
When Catherine McAuley was in the newly opened convent in Galway in June 1840 she wrote to Francis X. Warde in Carlow acquainting her of her intention of founding a house in Birr. Fr. Theobald Mathew O.F.M. Cap., Apostle of Temperance, had approached her and outlined the sad situation in the midlands town and convinced her of his firm belief that the presence of the Sisters in Birr would help to heal the schism which had divided the town for almost two decades.
Birr at that time was the largest town in Offaly and is described in 1837 by Samuel Lewis as a pleasant town, inhabited by some wealthy and many respectable families. It was a garrison town with a population of some 9,000 people and could boast of two distilleries.
From this description one could get the impression that Birr was an ideal place in which to live in the 1840s. The reality was otherwise. The preceding years were turbulent ones in the area as the Catholic population took sides in a long-running and bitter disagreement between a curate on the one hand and the parish priest and bishop on the other. When Fr. Michael Crotty arrived in the parish in 1821 he saw that the building of a new church was in progress. He immediately became involved, worked hard and was very popular among the people.
However he had a great facility for getting into trouble with the law and following his assault on a couple in a nearby village he made the first of his many appearances in court in 1825. The outcome was a fine of £20, which he refused to pay. Transferred to Killaloe in 1826, he continued to return to Birr and at Sunday Mass denounced the magistrate and jury who found him guilty. On subsequent occasions he condemned the parish committee, accusing them of fraud in the management of parish funds. Fr. Crotty had now a considerable following in the town and when Dr. McMahon, the co-adjutor bishop, visited Birr in 1826 to vindicate the parish committee, he was jeered and hooted during the Mass while the congregation demanded Fr. Crotty’s return as curate. The parish was placed under interdict, Fr. Meagher resigned and Fr. Patrick Kennedy was appointed administrator.
For the next ten years the conflict continued. On many occasions the celebration of Sunday Mass was marred by riots and soldiers and police were called in to restore order. Michael Crotty was excommunicated but his followers determined not to desert him. The town was deeply divided between the Crottyites and the followers of Fr. Kennedy, the former far exceeding the latter.
Michael Crotty was joined by his cousin, Fr. William Crotty in 1832 and in the following years they established a school. In 1836, the foundation stone of their new church in Castle St. was laid. Michael formed links with the Established Church and later, William, in Michael’s absence, introduced the Presbyterian Church. He employed Scripture readers to visit all the families, held classes and published tracts.
These were the circumstances when Fr. Matthew came to preach in 1840. It is no wonder that he told Catherine that the Sisters making up this foundation must be truly spiritual souls. Besides they would have to rely on Providence as there was no foundation fund. Fr. Spain P.P. would give his house and garden to the Sisters while Fr. Matthew would preach for them.
Catherine was in a dilemma. The situation was delicate, one which her Sisters had not encountered in any of the foundations. Yet it appealed to her, especially as she remembered her own experiences as a young lady and she expressed a desire to go to Birr and stay there. Yet she realised that this was impossible and she cast her eye around at the Sisters in Baggot St. The foundations in recent years had depleted the numbers and those who came to mind were but a short time professed. There was ‘little’ Teresa White but on reflection she considered her unsuitable. After some more thought she reckoned that Sister Aloysius Scott would be the ideal superior to pioneer the difficult task of establishing a Convent of Mercy in such a hostile environment as Birr then was.
Elizabeth Scott was born in Kilkenny, to Barnaby and Elizabeth and entered in Baggot Street in 1835. She received the name Aloysius at her reception in February 1836 and two years later she was professed. In September 1838 she went on the foundation to Limerick to augment the numbers for a few months. Here she came to Catherine’s attention as being ‘a woman of great equanimity, unalterably sweet and placid and unceasing day and night in her efforts’.
Apart from the fact that she played the piano at Vincent Hartnett’s reception, we hear no more of Aloysius until she was appointed Bursar in Baggot St. in March 1840. Two months later she was seriously ill, having suffered a haemorrhage from her lungs, symptom of the then dreaded decline. M. de Pazzi wrote alarming accounts of the condition to Catherine in Galway but the foundress could not return until early July when she expected to find Aloysius dying. However she had improved and a few weeks in Booterstown were followed by three months in Carlow to help in her recuperation.
Loved by all, Aloysius impressed the Carlow annalist who wrote:
Sister Aloysius was just recovering from a severe haemorrhage when she came to Carlow. We could not fail to observe that delicate health did not prevent her from being constantly and usefully employed. She remained here about three months and took great pains to teach the Sisters painting and fancy needlework, all of which she executed very neatly. She also helped to train the choir.
Aloysius was a spirited person, having her own ideas and being unafraid to express them as evidenced in her comment when Catherine took the pledge from Fr. Matthew in Galway. She wrote:
To my great mortification, Fr. Matthew told before several priests that Rev. Mother had taken the pledge and one of her daughters in Galway. What an affliction for those who still love their freedom so far as it may be enjoyed.
This even-tempered talented and independent but very sick Sister was to be the future Superior in Birr. Was it a wise decision on Catherine’s part? Only time would tell.
On 26 December 1840 Catherine McAuley, Aloysius Scott, Teresa White, Rose Lynch and a postulant, Anne-Marie McEvoy set out for Birr. They travelled to Tullamore by canal and spent the night there in the newly opened convent, from where, in Catherine’s view, the foundation should have been made. The following day they travelled by coach to Eglish where they were entertained by Fr. Murtagh. Here Fr. Spain P.P. of Birr met them and conveyed them to their new home. Some parishioners were there to greet them. Having dined, the Sisters said the Thirty Days’ Prayer and retired. The following day was spent getting the house in order and then they entered the customary end-of-year retreat. This took on a special significance in Birr as they earnestly entreated God’s blessing on their work. On New Year’s day 1841 they attended Mass in St. Brendan’s Church and renewed their vows in presence of the congregation.
The house, named St. John’s Convent, was pleasantly situated beside the Cam Cor river and was capable of accommodating ten to twelve Sisters. The mild weather that greeted their arrival soon gave way to wintry conditions and the countryside was covered in snow. This was frozen over to such an extent that Catherine described the town as being surrounded by Newfoundland ice.
Frost and snow did not deter them from entering into their ministry. They braved the cold, slippery and slushy streets to go out among the people to win them back to the Church. Their approach was a simple straightforward one: they visited homes and spent time with the family, listening to their grievances and entering into dialogue with them, gently but firmly persuading them of the error of their ways. Occasionally one visit was sufficient as was the case when Aloysius called on a man who had struck the priest and before she left he was crying, regretting his actions. On that same day, 3 January 1841, Catherine and Rose went to a family who had lost their only son in a tragic accident. Five hours later they returned, realising that it would be necessary to call to them again and again.
Wherever they went the Sisters were graciously received. One Crottyite remarked to them ‘If God did not sent His ministers to convert me, sure He sent His little ones’. Before long a note to Baggot St. informed the Sisters that some of the schismatics were preparing for Confession.
The schism was not the only cause of concern to the Sisters. The Annals described the extreme poverty they encountered.
The destitution of the poor was extreme wages were so meagre. Meeting such distress in the homes of the poor, the Sisters became more appreciative of the vocation which enabled them to alleviate this poverty.
By mid-January Aloysius was busy having the stable and coach-house converted into a House of Mercy. One day, through a small aperture in one of the unsubstantial partitions, she spotted a long room. With a heavy iron sledge she broke through and discovered a spacious apartment capable of being divided into six cells. No wonder Catherine described her as the best manager she had met in some time. It also led her to thank God that she had the courage to appoint Aloysius as Superior.
Already a local girl, Mary Anne Heenan, had entered. Ann Marie McEvoy was received on 2nd February and Susan Egan entered. Catherine now returned to Baggot St. promising to come back for the reception of the postulants in May. Meanwhile, Aloysius organised and opened the school which by the summer of 1841, had 450 girls attending.
When Catherine came back on Ascension Thursday she brought with her a statue of Our Lady in Caen stone and placed it in the garden of the Convent facing Crotty’s Church. Incidentally this same statue is now in the Mercy International Centre, Baggot St. Bishop Kennedy presided at the reception, the postulants receiving the names Joseph and Vincent. Fr. Matthew preached and received a large number into the Temperance Society.
Throughout the Summer and Autumn of 1841 Catherine continued to show her concern for Birr, advising Aloysius ‘to keep up her strength amidst such a variety of occupations’. On her death in November Catherine bequeathed £500.00 to her beloved Birr from whence she once wrote ‘Hurrah for foundations, makes the old young and the young merry’.
In 1842 Aloysius opened a pension or fee-paying school to give girls a good general education. Nine girls had entered by 1844. Among them was Marianne Beckett, a convert of Rev. George Spencer, a Passionist who preached at her reception – incidentally a great-uncle of Princess Diana. Another was Catherine Scott, sister of Aloysius. Rose Lynch and Teresa White
had by now returned to Baggot St. but notwithstanding the house was too small for the growing community. But the time for building was not just yet.
Aloysius became ill again, her old complaint, ‘the decline’ returning. She resigned as Superior in January 1844 and died on 31st May following. She is buried in the Convent Cemetery in Birr.
Fr. Matthew had advised Fr. Spain in 1840 that he should get Sisters of Mercy, saying: ‘You should get members of the new Institute of Mercy. They will instruct the children – the battle is half won when they are gained’. This was now well on its way to being accomplished. Aloysius Scott had given her life for it. She could rest in peace.