Nano Nagle (and other women) in Hobart Cathedral

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2018), News, Volume 26

By Felix M. Larkin

Above: The twelve ‘women whose saintly and heroic lives brought grace and life to God’s people’ (from the top, left to right)—St Martha, St Teresa of Ávila, St Catherine of Siena, St Monica, Nano Nagle, St Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, St Margaret Clitherow, Mary Aikenhead, Mary Potter, Caroline Chisholm, St Mary MacKillop and Catherine McAuley.

The life and achievements of Nano Nagle (1718–84), outlined by Gillian O’Brien and Jessie Castle in the last issue (HI 26.4, July/August 2018), are memorialised as far afield as Hobart, Tasmania. There, in St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Nagle is one of three Irishwomen included in a beautiful stained-glass window dedicated to ‘women whose saintly and heroic lives brought grace and life to God’s people’. It was erected in 1995.

The other Irishwomen celebrated in the window are Catherine McAuley (1778–1841), founder of the Sisters of Mercy, and Mary Aikenhead (1787–1858), founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity. Both of these orders of nuns, and the Presentation Sisters founded by Nano Nagle, have had a presence in Tasmania.

Curiously, only one of the other women in the window is Australian. St Mary MacKillop (1842–1909) is the sole Australian-born saint to date. Canonised in 2010 (fifteen years after the window was made), she was the founder of the Josephite Sisters and has the distinction of having been excommunicated in 1871 for insubordination to the bishop in Adelaide, where she was based. An episcopal commission later exonerated her and the excommunication was lifted.

Two other founders of religious orders of nuns are to be found in the window—one French, the other English. St Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (1796–1868) founded the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and Mary Potter (1847–1913) was the founder of the Little Company of Mary. Two Doctors of the Church, St Catherine of Siena (1347–80) and St Teresa of Ávila (1515–82), also feature in the window, as does St Monica, the mother of St Augustine of Hippo.

In pole position on the window, at the top left-hand corner, is St Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. She is shown holding a bunch of keys, symbolising her domesticity. A feminist interpretation of this iconography sets her up as the female counterpart of St Peter, keys being associated with him also. Both are thus seen as progenitors of the Christian Church. This feminist reading is given added weight here by the fact that Martha is the first of twelve subjects depicted in the window, paralleling the twelve apostles.

Martha and Monica are two of four women honoured in the window who were not members of religious orders. The other two are St Margaret Clitherow (1556–86) and Caroline Chisholm (1808–77). Clitherow is an English Reformation martyr, sometimes known as ‘the Pearl of York’. She suffered a most gruesome execution by being crushed to death. Her crime was that of harbouring priests, and she was pregnant with her fourth child at the time of her execution.

Caroline Chisholm, another Englishwoman, lived in Australia for many years and is remembered for her selfless support of female immigrants to Australia, who, often penniless on arrival, were in danger of falling into a life of crime and prostitution. Her work with Irish emigrants is noted in the exhibition ‘Cobh, the Queenstown story’ at the Cobh Heritage Centre, Co. Cork. Chisholm had a family connection with Ireland. Her daughter and namesake married Edmund Dwyer Gray, owner of Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal newspaper and an Irish nationalist MP at Westminster. Their son, also Edmund Dwyer Gray, went to Australia after his family lost control of the Freeman in the early 1890s. He settled in Tasmania and was a prominent journalist and politician there. He was premier of Tasmania for a short time in 1939, and died in Hobart in 1945 (see HI 25.2, March/April 2017).


Felix M. Larkin is a former academic director of the Parnell Summer School.


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