Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 71(1) February 2021

Faith in Medicine

Mother Margaret Hallahan, O.P.:
A Model of Courage for Today

A reflection by Dr Pravin Thevathasan

Mother Margaret HallahanMother Margaret Hallahan was a foundress of the present Dominican Congregation of Saint Catherine of Siena. The congregation she founded was amalgamated with four other Dominican tertiary congregations in 1929.

She was born to poor Irish parents in London on January 23rd, 1802. Her parents instilled in her a love of the Catholic faith. From an early age, she developed a great love for Our Lord and Our Lady. From her father, she also inherited a quick temper, which would flare up when people spoke badly of her faith.

Unfortunately, she lost both parents in childhood. Through the intervention of a Catholic priest, she became a servant maid: she was only eleven years of age. At the age of eighteen, she became a nurse housekeeper to a retired physician who was a great example of generosity to the poor. He was so impressed by her care of him that he left her the then significant amount of £30 at his death. She spent it all on Masses for the repose of his soul.

With the next family, she went to live in Bruges. It was there that she discerned a vocation to the religious life. She maintained an intense plan of life. She woke up at four in the morning to walk to Mass. Apart from her domestic duties, she prayed and visited the sick and the poor. She became greatly loved for her kindness and compassion by the people of Bruges. She also became a Dominican Tertiary.

Upon her return to England in 1842, she worked in Coventry as a schoolmistress at a school for poor children founded by William Bernard Ullathorne, then mission priest, later Bishop of Birmingham. Apart from her school duties, she once again took to visiting the sick and the poor. She was soon joined by other women and they became a community of Dominican Tertiaries. They had to adapt the rule in order to suit the religious life. The first professions were made in 1844 and in 1846, the little community moved to Clifton. following Dr Ullathorne, who had been made Vicar Apostolic for the Western District. It was here that Mother Margaret, as she had then become, built her first convent. The community taught the poor children and visited the sick.

When the community was large enough, other foundations were made. The convent at Clifton became unsuitable for the novitiate house and Mother Margaret moved to Stone, after being granted land in 1852. Ullathorne had by then been made first Bishop of Birmingham, following the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy. A new convent was built. It was at Stone that she established a home for incurably sick women, a poor school, a High school, a work school for making vestments and a boys' orphanage. In the grounds of the convent, she had installed a large, wooden statue of Our Lady of Victories, which was to become a centre of pilgrimage. Further foundations were made near Torquay and Bow.

Her final illness lasted from November 1867 to May 1868. Her constant words were: " Thy will Oh Lord, nothing else." Her words at the end were: Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" followed by the word "Jesus."

Mother Margaret was the first English foundress of a religious order in the nineteenth century, a century of great religious foundations. She was friends with some of the greatest religious Churchmen of the nineteenth century, including Ullathorne and Newman. She was devoted to Saint Dominic, whom she considered the real founder of her order. Her intense apostolic activity was the fruit of her contemplation. Of her interior life, Bishop Ullathorne said: "the chief character-istic of her spirit was an almost continual interior contemplation of God, to which her unceasing activity was rather a help than an interruption." He went on to say: "Aspirative prayer was like a pulsation and rhythm of her spirit, and its subjects were of the most simple and spontaneous charac-ter." Mother Margaret herself said that aspirative prayers came to her as "natural as to breathe."

So much of Mother Margaret's spirituality can be helpful to all of us, laity and religious alike. Her advice on the interior life was really quite simple: practice silence as much as possible, turn away from idle curiosity and it becomes easy to speak with God. She loved the saying of Saint John of the Cross: "work, suffer and be silent." And what great sufferings they were. Her childhood was far from easy. While she worked as a servant, she was punished by some employers. She suffered from physical disabilities throughout her life. She had to face considerable hatred because she was a Catholic. Unpleasant rumours were spread about her, particularly by a Dominican priest, a convert from Anglicanism who subsequently returned to the Anglican fold. Of course, the rumours proved to be false, but they must have hurt her considerably.

What does it mean to be a person of prayer? For Mother Margaret, what matters is the love and generosity put in, not the feelings that may or may not accompany prayer. Zeal for God means to serve Him in darkness and in light . And where there is zeal for God, there is zeal for the salvation of souls. "The world is cold because it knows not Jesus," she wrote.

She had a great love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. She wrote: " May you ever increase in devotion, love and faith to this Gift of Gifts- the adorable Sacrament of the Altar, our Hidden God, our Spouse, our Life, our All.."

As for devotion to Our Lady, that for her was very much part of loving God. She was the organizer of the first procession in honour of Our Lady to take place in England following the Protestant Reformation. She did much to bring back Rosary and May devotions. Such was her devotion to her "own mother," as she called Our Lady, that when she first arrived in Bristol and found out that there were no statues of Our Lady in any of the Catholic churches in that city, she commissioned a local artist to make amends. She also asked the priest of St Mary-On-the Quay in Bristol to begin Marian devotions for the month of May. She wanted her Sisters to spread devotion to Our Lady wherever they went. On one occasion, the Sisters walked with schoolgirls reciting the Rosary from Stoke all the way to Stone.

Mother Margaret was unafraid to speak her mind. For example, when Archbishop Errington of Clifton, who had a recusant distaste for what he would have regarded as extravagant devotions, stopped the laity from attending Marian devo-tions organised by the Sisters, she confronted him over the issue. " Do you mean I did wrong?" he asked. " Yes Your Grace, you certainly did wrong, very wrong." In truth Mother Margaret had instructed the Sisters to teach doctrine first: " To know God, then to love Him; to keep the commandments of God and His Church, when this is all well learnt it will be time enough to give them a multiplicity of devotions." And in actual fact, she got on very well with most bishops, in particular with Cardinal Wiseman and Bishops Grant of Southwark, Brown of Shrewsbury and Amherst of Northampton. She also scolded her friend Cardinal Newman for his want of devotion to Our Lady! After her death, he wrote of her "singular powers of influence...and tenderness towards myself, her sympathy and interest in one who, in all his habits and circumstances, in his ways of thought and his history, was so unlike what she was."

She had a great sense of humour. She imagined that her shrine of Our Lady would one day consist of fifteen chapels dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary leading up a mountain to a great domed shrine church. When asked where she might find a mountain in Stafford, she replied: "Why, I suppose we shall make one." The fifteen chapels have not been built and there is no dome shrine. But people do go there on pilgrimage.

How relevant are the following words of Mother Margaret for these times: " There are innumerable wants in the Church, many souls to convert, and many indifferent Catholics who want the last grace to bring them to their duties. Think of all these things and leave yourself in the hands of God with a perfect spirit of abandonment. I should be weary of myself, and lose all courage should I occupy myself with myself. Keep the eye of your soul on our only good, God...There is but one perfect Being-God and all His works. Let us be content with our own nothingness."

 Only a saint could have written that sort of thing