Women’s History Month: Meditations on Women and War

image purchased from Adobe Stock

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone!

Here in the U.S. I am blessed to be celebrating this month in peace, but I have been thinking a lot about the women of Ukraine, who are once again bravely defending their homes, some for the second or third time in their lives. From members of Parliament to citizens from the countryside, they are joining together in Resistance.

When we think about war, it is usually the soldiers on the battlefield or the government leaders (mostly men) who come to mind. But for all of known history, women have been fighting in their own ways.  Today, as we kick off this important month, I want to remember all the women, past and present, who have:

  • Like Boudicca, led revolts when their homes were invaded.
  • Like Boudicca’s daughters, survived rape and other forms of abuse at enemy hands.
  • Like Catherine Van Rensselaer and Peggy Schuyler, burned their own crops so the enemy wouldn’t have anything to eat.
  • Like Hypatia, defended the intellectual and cultural centers of their cities.
  • Like Irena Sendler, risked their lives to save children from death at enemy hands.
  • Like Virginia Minor, supplied hospitals with food and comforted the sick and dying.
  • Like Catherine McAuley and her Sisters of Mercy, walked bravely onto the front lines and into enemy territory to nurse the wounded and dying on both sides.
  • Like Catherine Jarrige and the martyrs of Compiegne, stayed true to their faith and values, even in the face of death.
  • Like Elise Rivet, gave their lives in exchange for those of the innocent.
  • Like Stanislawa Leszczyńska, aided women in their hour of need and brought new life into the world amid death and darkness.
  • Like Hedy Lamarr, used their intelligence to invent revolutionary technology in times of war.
  • Like Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah and Eleanor Roosevelt, used their diplomatic skills to try and broker peace.
  • Like Deborah Sampson, hid their sex in order to fight in their army.
  • Like Naomi Parker Fraley, the real Rosie the Riveter, worked in factories, producing the items men needed to fight.

And the millions of unnamed, ordinary women who have:

  • Taken up arms (legally or not) to defend her homes, families, and homelands.
  • Governed or run their lands while men were away at war.
  • Lost children, husbands, fathers, brothers and fellow women to war.
  • Lost their lives to bombings, gunfire and other violence.
  • Sewed clothing, made bandages and cooked food for those who would fight.
  • Raised money to aid their cause.
  • Prayed for peace while bombs fell around them and gunfire blared.

We salute you and thank you for all you have done. May we learn from your strength, tenacity and courage. And may your efforts never be forgotten.

If you are the praying kind, please do so for the women of Ukraine and all who face similar circumstances around the world.

The Life of Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

If you’ve read my novella, Consequences, or even just the back cover copy, you’ll notice it takes place during the life of Catherine McAuley, a woman most people, especially outside of Ireland, have never heard of.

I found out about her nearly 18 years ago when I started working at my current day job. We can trace our history directly back to Catherine and her ministry. Here’s a brief summary of her life and if you want more details, I recommend the definitive biography of by Mary Sullivan titled The Path of Mercy.

Early Life and Culture

No images of Catherine McAuley exist from her lifetime. This is believed to be the most accurate depiction of her as a laywoman.

Catherine was born on September 28, 1778, into comfortable, middle-class circumstances. But at an early age she began to notice the poor and disadvantaged who were all around her on the streets of Dublin. Crop failures destroyed the agricultural economy and caused terrible famines. Desperate people migrated to the cities to work in factories, where they suffered horrifying working conditions, and those without work often ended up in poorhouses.

It was a time of extremes in Ireland. Social and religious prejudice was pervasive, especially against Catholics like Catherine. The ruling class was Protestant and education was available only to those with property and land, both of which most Catholics did not have thanks to earlier Penal Laws (more on those in a future post) that stripped Catholics of most of their rights. Wealth and poverty sat side by side but there were few resources available to help the poor.

Catherine felt great sorrow when she observed the suffering of the poor, especially disadvantaged women and children. As a girl, her own situation offered her many comforts, although after the death of her father Catherine’s family suffered economic hardships.  She felt called to change the environment in which she found herself and found supporters among both Catholic and Protestant connections.

Catherine’s Life Changes

The House of Mercy with a statue of Catherine out front.

When she was 25, Catherine was invited to live with a Quaker family, the Callaghans, at their country estate, Coolock House. She stayed with them for nearly 20 years, never marrying and taking care of them into their old age. At the age of 44, after having already created a network of services for poor people near Coolock, Catherine received a large inheritance when the Callaghans died within a short time of one another.

With that money she built a large home on Baggot Street in Dublin, bordering a fashionable neighborhood, to serve as a shelter and educational center for young women from poor neighborhoods. Skeptics called the house “Kitty’s Folly,” because her intentions were so daunting. On September 24, 1827, she opened the House of Mercy house on Baggot Street, where it stands today.

The Sisters of Mercy

A painting of Catherine made after her death depicting her as a Sister of Mercy.

The purpose of the House of Mercy was to prepare residents, nearly all women and children, for employment, self-sufficiency. Catherine’s determination and example attracted companions willing to give their time and money to help, but the Church didn’t like that they were lay women and insisted they form a religious order. In 1831, these women became the religious congregation known as the Sisters of Mercy, called “the walking sisters” because of their active involvement among the community.  Thus, in an era when the cloistered life was the norm for women in religious congregations, Catherine McCauley, at the age of 52, founded not only a charity, but also a religious congregation and a new form of religious life.

Catherine McAuley believed that God intended for the poor and the sick to be loved and cared for through action, prayer and philanthropy.  She never wavered from that mission in spite of the difficulties she faced. The Sisters of Mercy fought tuberculosis, cholera epidemics and the ravages of disease, prejudice and poverty. Terrible economic conditions forced many Irish to immigrate to other countries, and the Sisters extended their mission accordingly. The community expanded to 14 locations in Ireland and England before Catherine’s death in 1841.

Today the Sisters of Mercy sponsor a diverse range of ministries and professions.  Their mission is to serve the poor, the sick, and the uneducated through direct service, especially for women, children and the elderly, and to advocate for changes to the systems that create poverty and suffering.

Virtue Recognized by the Catholic Church
On April 9, 1990, Catherine was declared venerable by the Catholic Church. This is the first major step on the road to sainthood and means that her life and writings were closely examined and she was found to possess “heroic virtue.” Additional inquiries into her life will continue until two miracles are declared as occurring by her intercession, at which point she will become a saint. This could take hundreds of years, especially with advances in science making miracles more and more difficult to prove. (The process is much more complex than this, but this is the nutshell version.)