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Mary Ann Sadlier

By Maureen E. O'Reilly


Mary Anne Madden Sadlier (1820-1903): Irish-American author and publisher of over sixty works from 1839 to 1900. Her writing career began in her native Ireland and her first book of poems was published when she was 18. In 1844 she emigrated to Canada and continued writing, then married publisher James Sadlier (of D. and J. Sadlier). In 1846 the couple and their six children moved to New York. Nine years later her husband died, and her writing decreased until her death in 1903. Her concern for the spiritual welfare of fellow Catholic Irish immigrants and their families was the driving force behind the author's interest not only in specifically catechetical texts but also in novels, poetry and in translating from the French numerous books of classically spiritual interest.


"Every woman has a mission, either for good or evil…Let them [the young Irish-American immigrant women] be assured that it rests with themselves whether they do well or ill in America: whether they do honor to their country and their faith, or bring shame and reproach to both" (Sadlier,1861, p.5).

When she wrote those words in the Preface to her novel, Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America , Mary Anne Madden Sadlier was, at 41, not even at the half-way mark of her own life. Yet that expression can serve as a fitting reflection on this remarkable woman's eighty-three years of life on this earth, life of more than usual complexity, touching for good the lives of countless people through the prolific writing which earned her a distinguished place among American Women Catechetical Leaders. In fact, her work earned for Sadlier, in 1895, the Laetare Medal by Notre Dame University "as an outstanding lay contributor to the general work of the Church, and in 1902 she received a special blessing from Pope Leo XIII in recognition of her illustrious services for the Catholic Church" (Seward, 1935).

Born in 1820 in the town of Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland, Mary Anne Madden's early life was not that of a country girl whose family lived from meager gardens and flocks of sheep. Rather, she was the beloved daughter of a well-established, cultured couple whose love for literature bore much fruit as she grew to maturity. Onc source has her receiving "a private school education" (Wilson, J. G. and Fiske, J., Eds., 19887-1889, Klos, S. L. Ed., 1999), while another says only that she was "privately tutored." ( Retrieved July 9, 2004.). Whatever the exact form of her academic training, it must have included extensive study of the French language, given the frequency with which she translated works from the French in her adult life.

As for her religious formation, one can only draw generalities from Irish catechesis in the 1820's and 1830's. In his survey of catechetics from 1720-1950, Tynan found that it was "not the larger catechisms…but the small abridgments" that were the core of formation for the Irish people (Tynan, 1985, p. 15). Of the three types/traditions of catechisms that spanned those centuries, it is probably the O'Reilly/Donlevy tradition that was followed in Sadlier's home County Cavan. Michael O'Reilly, Bishop of Derry from 19739-1749 and later Archbishop of Armagh from 1749-1758 began his priestly work in Cavan, home county of Sadlier's birthplace, Cootehill (Tynan, 1985, p. 21).

What did the formation espoused in the catechisms of O'Reilly involve? Formatted on a Jesuit approach, these booklets included the "four 'things', the keire nehe of the early Irish printings, which enable us to know, love and serve God, and so gain eternal life ?followed by the sundry extras conveniently tagged and numbered" (Tynan, 1985, p. 29). But formal instruction was not the only element of his catechisms. O'Reilly found ways to combine the devout live with doctrine. Can one not imagine the Sadlier family living what Tynan described as the "ideal Tridentine day", beginning and ending with both private and family devotions? (Tynan, 1985, p. 35).

Sadlier's parents couldn't have guessed that by providing their daughter with schooling in French language and literature along with deep faith formation they were providing tools which she would later use to serve many a reader in the new world of America. But it wasn't formal schooling alone that contributed the gifts needed for an aspiring author. In "Shan Dempsey's Story," Sadlier relates a tale supposedly told by an old Irish beggar, one of many who, as she claims, "had more to do than, perhaps, is generally believed with developing what nature gave of imagination. How eagerly the children of the family longed for the periodic visits of these successors of the senacheries of old!" (Sadlier, 1897, p. 241). One could imagine that even in her more cultured family home, young Mary Anne had herself sat at the feet of many a Shan Dempsey. Her education and well-developed imagination allowed that by early adulthood, her poetry was being published in LaBelle Assemblee , a London magazine (Sadlier, 1897, p. 239).

Mrs. Madden had died sometime during Mary Anne's childhood, and by the time the future writer was in her early twenties, her father also died, due at least to some extent, say many biographers, to "business embarrassments and financial troubles" (Sadlier's Biography, p.1).

In 1844, Mary Anne ventured out to America. With no records of that decisionnor of the journey involved, one could conclude that at least some of Sadlier's own storywas written into her novel about another young, single, Irish woman's journey. Elinor Preston had grown up in a fairly well off family, only to move much lower when Mr. Preston's career plummeted. The novelist had Elinor landing in New York and then moving on to Montreal - mirroring the author's own passage over from Ireland.

Finding herself in Canada at age twenty-four, with no immediate family, the future Mary Anne Sadlier was not likely to sense her potential call to serve as a catechetical leader. Indeed, her need to earn a living was the strongest "call" at that point. Again it is in the Preface of one of Sadlier's works - here, her first book - that her purpose was laid out. "Had it been my fate to belong to that fortunate class which is happily exempt from the necessity of working, I should, in all probability, never have presented myself before you" (Sadlier's Biography, p. 1). While some speculate that domestic work may have been part of her early wage-making, records make it clear that Sadlier's writing of poems, stories and other works began bringing in a daily income (Sadlier's Biography, p. 1). In 1846, Mary Anne Madden met and married James Sadlier, and thus began a union whose ripple effect on generations of Catholics still continues.

Dennis and James Sadlier had begun their publishing as the D. and J. Sadlier & Company, at early ages in New York City, and later James moved to Montreal, assuming leadership for their branch among the Canadian Catholic public. During their years in Montreal, Mary Anne gave birth to six children, including three daughters and three sons. One daughter, Anna Therese, later followed her mother's writing career, making countless contributions in her own right. A son, Francis Xavier, entered the Society of Jesus, but died only three months after ordination. In between her immense maternal responsibilities, Sadlier managed to write nineteen of her major works, with the majority yet to come! In 1860 the family moved to New York City, which became home to Mary Anne and her future work.

In an article written much later, in 1891, Kelly maintains that, "during her husband's life, Mrs. Sadlier frequently received most valuable assistance and inspiring encouragement from his wise counsel, keen business instincts and truly Catholic spirit. In return for all the aid which Mr. Sadlier rendered his devoted wife in her literary labor, he received much useful assistance from her ever-ready-pen and versatile talents" (Kelly, 1891). Before and after her husband's death in 1869, Sadlier wrote weekly columns, served as editor, sub-editor, solicitor of articles by well-known authors, and truly did live the picture described above by Kelly.

It is helpful to consider the "sitz im leben" of her life. She was a woman, (single, later married with children, then widowed), Irish-American-Catholic immigrant writer. Every word of that description carries deep layers of meaning that color and make unique the final picture of who Mary Anne Madden Sadlier was, and why the works she produced were so much needed and appreciated.

First, consider some facts about Irish-American immigration. Curran claims, "Immigration has apparently been the greatest single factor in the growth of the Catholic Church in the United States. While in 1820 [the year of Sadlier's birth] there were but 195,000 Catholics [2%] among the 9,638,000 inhabitants of the U.S., a century later Catholics numbered about 20,000,000 [20%] in a population slightly above the 100,000,000 mark"(Curran, 1946). Sadlier found herself among the 1,880,000 Irish immigrants whom Curran estimates emigrated to the U.S. between 1820 and 1865 (Curran, 1946).

Crossing the Atlantic may almost have been the easiest challenge that Irish-American immigrants faced. Anti-Catholicism coupled with anti-Irish prejudice were great enough, but the history of Catholic-Protestant warfare only complicated things further ?no small realities for all in the Sadlier Company to contend with in their writing/publishing careers.

As to the hundreds of years of Catholic vs. Protestant history in which she lived, itis important to note that Mary Anne Sadlier had grown up in a county bordering the Protestant North of Ireland, "suggesting the possibility that [her] distrust of everything Protestant could have originated in the hostility common between ethnic groups in border areas"(Sadlier? Biography, p. l).

Focusing back on the U.S., Curran found that "Anti-Catholicism reached its acme of influence and virulence in the decades immediately preceding the Civil War." By 1850, "the Catholic Church had grown from a minor denomination to one of the four largest religious groups in the nation."

What, then, did this tremendous surge of immigrants and Catholics in a country rampant with prejudices of all kinds, mean for the Catholic Church and thus for Mary Anne Sadlier? In her view, would Curran have been right in interpreting that "The prime task of Catholicism… for the immigrants in a strange and frequently hostile atmosphere was to keep the immigrants in one Church amidst the welter of sects and schisms which American conditions had occasioned in Protestantism"? (Curran, 1946, p. 86). Had Sadlier and the Church of her time been able to foresee the words of Pope John Paul II more than a hundred years later, would they not have agreed with him that, "The most valuable gift that the Church can offer to the bewildered and restless world of our time is to form within it Christians who are confirmed in what is essential and who are humbly joyful in their faith" (John Paul II, 1979, §61).

Whether Mary Anne Sadlier could point to a moment in time when God called herto serve as a catechetical leader with the vision of John Paul II described above, a moment when she specifically listened, accepted and committed herself, cannot be known with certainty. But as her mission/purpose in writing is explained, it would seem that the words of the pope who would follow her in the next century could easily describe her own journey.

The words that she gave to another Irish immigrant as her ship approached New York Bay, might also have echoed a sense of call in her own life. "That night was, as it were, the threshold between two stages of life. It was neither of the past nor of the present, but a solitary measure of time, separating them from one from the other" (Sadlier, Elinor Preston ,1861, p. 199).

Contributions to Christian Education

Beyond the general Catholic readership, who were the specific audiences that Sadlier addressed? One could say that she was either ahead of her time or following time-honored traditions, but in any case, Mary Anne Sadlier was already anticipating John Paul II's Redemptoris Missio directives echoed in the 1997 General Directory for Catechesis . "Hence it must be recalled that those to be evangelized are 'concrete and historical persons', rooted in a given situation and always influenced by pedagogical, social, cultural, and religious conditioning" (Congregation for the Clergy, 1977, §167).

Kelly claims that, beyond children and youth, Sadlier's main audience was that majority of Catholics who didn't read Catholic newspapers. And he writes that "her work was all the more valuable because there were few persons then capable of performing it in the acceptable manner she did" (Kelly, 1891). His findings were perhaps in line with one of the voids of Catholic literature of her time, pointed out by the well-known editor Orestes Brownson, "who in the July 1884 issue of the Quarterly called for a new kind of Catholic secular literature, one which would 'amuse, interest, instruct, cultivate in accordance with truth the mind and affections, elevate the tone of the community, and when they did not directly promote virtue, they would still be powerful to preserve and defend innocence, often a primary duty'" (Szabo, 1995, p. 2). No small order, but many were the short stories and other works of fiction that came from Sadlier's pen and met Brownson's challenge. Irish young women who emigrated to America were objects of especially great concern to Mary Anne Sadlier. Studies show that single Irish women were a unique group among immigrants of her time. Unlike other nationalities, Irish women outnumbered their male counterparts, and they were "the only group that chose to migrate in primarily female cliques" (Szabo, " The Irish Domestic Servant ").

Szabo found the theme of social consciousness, of social orientation to be another of Sadlier's themes. "Her focus is consistently socially oriented - interested not in the consciousness of anyone person, but in the journey of a society"(Szabo, 1995, p. 11). A prime example offered was how Sadlier "critiques many of the social institutions taken for granted in American patriarchal culture" such as urbanization, industrialization, and corrupt American politics (Szabo, 1995, p. 7).

She was in a unique position to be aware of and to discuss "social problems such as alcoholism, poverty and wife beating as they affect practicing Catholics." However, Szabo seems to slightly contradict that statement toward the end of her paper, when she writes that "Sadlier indicates that discussing inter-ethnic tensions and violence is acceptable only when dealing with the deviant Irish; practicing Catholics have no contact with such a world" (Szabo, 1995, p. 9). It is also interesting to note Szabo's view that "Sadlier finds the root of all Irish social problems in Protestant-dominated public schools, rather than Catholic doctrines that encourage large families and discourage married women from working, a tradition of Irish drinking, capitalist exploitation of urban workers or other sources" (Szabo, 1995, p. 3).

How does one compare Szabo's critiques with those of Kelly, the late 19th-century Irish Catholic writer? He found Sadlier's writings"… aimed at making Irish-Catholics … proud of their native land and their mother Church; and at keeping alive and active their affection for the old folks at home, and the good old Catholic customs and practices of their forefathers" (Kelly, 1891, p.4). Was he too close in nationality, religion and time to be objective or was he closer to the truth when he wrote:

And among the potent agencies to exert a salutary influence on her Catholic countrymen and women in those early days, when their religion was subject to constant assault and misrepresentation, and when temptations of various sorts beset them on all sides, must be reckoned those of her writings in which the Catholic Church and faith are defended with such womanly warmth, the rewards of fidelity to Catholic teachings so pleasantly described, and the consequences of disloyalty thereto so graphically portrayed (Kelly, 1891, p. 2).

Comparing the names of Shan Dempsey and MacCarthy More with that of Count Charles Forbes de Montalambert gives the reader another tool for beginning to grasp the tremendous flexibility that Mary Anne Sadlier had in putting her writing skills at the service of catechesis. Her vision and love extended well beyond her own native and adopted lands, and thus more proof of a catechetical heart.

Montalambert had written a lengthy account, The Life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary,duchess of Thuringia . Why would Sadlier undertake the work of translating the book's Introduction that, at 103 pages, comprises 25% of the 423 page biography? Sadlier explained why she thought this section was vital. Skipped by the original translator of the books' chapters 1-34, she wrote that the Introduction "presents a beautiful and graphic picture of the Christian world during the half century which included the brief career of Elizabeth" (Montalambert, 1863, p. ii). Once again, Sadlier's dedication to sharing the riches of the Catholic faith with her nineteenth-century American audiences is demonstrated.

What can be said about the literary styles that Sadlier chose in order to address her various audiences, champion the themes that were most important in her view and express her theology for her times? Her prolific works include 23 novels, 5 plays, 10 catechisms and other pedagogical writings, 3 collections of poems, 7 short stories and 17 works translated from the French demonstrate her creative use of many kinds of literary tools. (

Szabo highly values the depths of Mary Anne Sadlier's novels about Irish immigrants. Primarily focusing on two works, The Blakes and Flanagans … and Bessy Conway , Szabo claims that Sadlier's fiction "is…vastly complex - both structurally and psychologically"(Szabo, 1995, p. 11). One cannot help but notice the immense contrasts between the almost flighty style (on the surface!) of her fiction and the heavy material and style of Sadlier's Catechism and other religious works. For example, consider this passage from MacCarthy More (Note: throughout this paper, the reader will notice apparent grammatical errors in quotations from Sadlier's works. However, in the times during which she wrote, it was accepted to begin certain phrases or sentences in lower case.)

"Sweet Ellen," said the chieftain, approaching the younger lady and laying his hand on her shoulder with the paternal familiarity warranted by his age, and rank, and long tried friendship to her house; "sweet Ellen! Why so sad? Cheer thee up, fair flower of Killarney! all is not lost that is in danger. Nicolas Brown shall never put ring on the daughter of MacCarthy More. Better a minstrel of Clan Carthy than an English undertaker" (Sadlier, 1868, p.19).

Compare this with only a partial list of the Doctrinal and Devotional selections in her Purgatory compilation. She chose from the writings of Suarez, St. Catherine of Genoa, Thomas a Kempis, SS. Augustine and Monica, St. Gertrude, Cardinal Gibbons and many others. Yet, along with those majestic works, Sadlier was adept at using her own unique writing style in the volume's Introduction. She wrote, "As we advance into the vale of years and journey on the downward slope, we are happily drawn more and more toward the eternal truths of the great untried world beyond the grave" (Sadlier, 1886, p. 5).

Describing some of the legends which were included in the book, she referred to them, "as some of the wild flowers of poetry and romance that have grown, in the long lapse of time, from the rich soil of faith and piety, amongst the Catholic peoples of every land" (Sadlier, 1886, p. 5). Sadlier's familiarity with such a breadth of theological and literary sources reminds one of the writer whom Jesus commended. "Every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom new things as well as old" (Matthew 13:52, The new Jerusalem bible).

As to Sadlier's use of novels, Clement refers to Carmody's research indicating, "that teaching novels became a popular form of Catholic adult education from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1920's" (Clement, 2000). The brief passages already presented in this paper seem obvious proof of the credibility of that statement, and of Sadlier's wisdom in using the teaching novel.

Having considered Sadlier's mission/purpose, audiences, themes, theologies and styles evidenced in her many writings, what fruit can be found from her tremendous outpouring of materials?

One resource claims that Sadlier "performed a real service beyond mere entertainment, and as social studies some of her books retain a pronounced value" (Seward, 1935, p. 284). Of more interest from a catechetical viewpoint is Kelly's article from 1891. In looking at American Catholic novelists, he concludes, "it is doubtful if a single one can be found whose works exerted in their day… a wider, deeper or more beneficial influence that those of Mrs. James Sadlier" (Kelly, 1891, p. 1). He found that Sadlier's works produced "…a warmer religious fervor and a larger love for his Church" in the readers than did other authors. Focusing on her audience, he describes what he believed to be her effect. In the "careless one, a sense of shame for his tepidity." The wayward "have been stayed in and recalled from their wanderings" (Kelly, 1891, p. 2). He adds that people wrote Sadlier, "thanking her for a moral victory won or a better spirit awakened by the perusal of her books" (Kelly, 1891, p. 7).

Delaney's Dictionary of American Catholic Biography states that Sadlier "became one of the most popular Catholic authors of the time [1860's]" (Delaney, 1984, p. 505). It is worthy of note that in an introduction to a collection of Irish writers, its editor explains that there is "emphasis on twenty-two authors, including… ". He goes on to name seven of them, and Mary Anne Sadlier is one of the seven (Murray, 1978, p. 7).

"Possibly no Canadian Catholic family has taken so active a part in the making of literature as have the Sadliers" (Williams, 1932, p. 4). Indeed, that family had already been living the message of the letter, "The Bishops and the Catholic Press," by the time it was written in 1866. The bishops strongly stated that "…the power of the press is one of the most striking features of modern society; and that it is our duty to avail ourselves of this mode of making known the truths of our Religion…" (Ellis, 1987, p. 388).

Moving into the twenty-first century, one finds perhaps the briefest but most succinct summary of Mary Anne Sadlier's life. In a list of "Irish Leading Women", she is described as follows: "Mary Anne Madden Sadlier produced sixty books, published a newspaper, ran a business, and raised a family in the middle of the 19th century!" Perhaps the exclamation point at the end tells the most (Friend, in , 3).

This paper has presented only a small amount of all the research that has and could be done on Mary Anne Madden Sadlier. Yet is seems reasonable to conclude from this study that she had already fulfilled, in an extraordinary way, the Fundamental Tasks of Catechesis that would be articulated long after her death:

  • To promote knowledge of the faith;
  • To enable the faithful to participate fully, consciously and actively in liturgical and sacramental life;
  • To enter into the process of conversion, which is evidenced by response to the social consequences of Gospel imperatives;
  • To have all activity be permeated by the spirit of prayer;
  • To form genuine Christian communities;
  • To educate to a missionary vision. (GDC,#87)

Works Cited

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  • Sadlier, M. A. (1845). Tales of the olden times: A collection of European traditions . Montreal: Lovell.
  • Sadlier, M. A. (1850). The red hand of Ulster; Or, the fortunes of Hugh O'Neill . Boston: Donahoe.
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  • Sadlier, M. A. (1851). Alice Riordan; the blind man's daughter . Boston: Donahoe.
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  • Sadlier, M. A. (published serially 1850). The Blakes and the Flanagans: a tale illustrative of Irish life in the United States . Dublin: Duffy (1855); New York and Boston: Sadlier, 1858). Translated into German as Alt-Irland un Amerika; ai hengemalde aus den Vereingten Staaten . Koln, Germany: J.P. Bachem, 1866. Printed at least twice in German.
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  • Sadlier, M. A. (1865). The old house by the Boyne, or recollections of an Irish borough . New York: Sadlier.
  • Sadlier, M. A. (1865). Aunt Honor's keepsake, a chapter from life . New York: Sadlier.
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Works about Sadlier

  • Blain, V., Clements, P., & Grundy, I. (1990). Feminist companion to literature in English . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Bolger, S. (1976). The Irish character in American fiction, 1830-1860 . New York: Arno Press.
  • Brady, A., Cleeve, B. (1985). Biographical dictionary of Irish writers . New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Buss, H. (1992). Creating the Can-American self: the autobiographies of American women immigrants to Canada. In The literature of emigration and exile . Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press.
  • Clement, C. D. ( 2000, Winter). Catholic foremothers in American catechesis. The Living Light , 57.
  • Daly, J. (1923). Catholic contributions to American prose. Catholic builders of the nation . Boston: Continental Press Inc.
  • Szabo, L. (1996). The Mary Anne Sadlier archive . Retrieved January 30, 2002, from Virginia University site:

Review of Major Works

  • Fanning, C. (1987). The exiles of Erin: nineteenth-century Irish-American fiction . Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press.
  • Fanning, C. (1987). The Irish voice in America: Irish-American fiction from the 1760s to the 1980s . Lexington, KY: Kentucky University Press.
  • Kelly, W. D. (1891, April 5). A benefactress of her race. Ave Maria (pp. 321-325). In
  • Lacombe, M. (1984, Summer). Frying pans and deadlier weapons: the immigrant novels of Mary Anne Sadlier. Essays on Canadian writing , 29, 96-116.

Other Resources

  • The person who has done perhaps the most extensive research on Mary Anne Madden Sadlier is Liz Szabo. Her work can be accessed at

Excerpts from Publications

Could the young Mary Anne Sadlier's extended family in Ireland have responded to her decision to emigrate, as did the Prestons? "What! you, Elinor [substitute Mary Anne?] - you brave the perilous ocean - you expose yourself to the unknown trials of an emigrant's life?" (Sadlier, 1861, p. 157). Were Sadlier's own feelings attributed to Elinor in this passage, describing the emigrants' last sighting of Ireland before moving out to the Atlantic? "Many a fervent blessing was wafted then over the waters… Never did I feel so intense a sympathy as at that moment - never was I so sensible to the mighty strength of the bond which binds together the children of one country - that country, moreover, an 'island of sorrow' (Sadlier, 1861, p. 181).

From just this one passage of the novel, one can see why, in the Preface to Elinor Preston , there is indirect mention of another of Sadlier's audiences - Irish parents. She writes, "… it is a matter of surprise that so many of the simple-hearted peasant girls of Ireland retain their home virtues and follow the teachings of religion in these great Babylons of the West" (Sadlier, 1861, p. 5) The emphases added here indicate, perhaps, goals of the Adult Formation in which Sadlier was deeply engaged! And though this thought has not specifically to do with catechesis, it would be interesting to compare at greater length Sadlier's expressed fears of the dangers of America with many Americans' fears of Irish immigrants during that same period seems to lend even more credence to this work being in some ways autobiographical.

Facing prejudice against the Irish in general, Sadlier was as "shrewd" as the hero of one of her short stories. Note how, in describing him, she spoke out, perhaps not so gently, against some of the negative stereotypes common in her day. She wrote, "As it was, poor Shan was confessedly illiterate, yet his natural shrewdness and quickness of perception gave him, like many other Irish peasants , a considerable knowledge of human nature"(emphasis added) (Sadlier, 1897, p. 242).

What did Sadlier see as her mission? We turn again to the beginning of one of her books for answers. In the Introduction to her monumental collection of various resources in the 500-page book, Purgatory , written at age 66, Sadlier comments on her life's literary work on many "subjects, nearly all of which , thank God now with all my heart, were more or less religious , at least in their tendency" (emphasis added) (Sadlier, 1886, p. 5). Then comes a statement which narrows her focus a bit, indicating that she was well aware…in collaboration with her publisher husband…of what resources were already available to the reading Catholic public, and thus what was still lacking. "Taken altogether, I think this work will help to increase devotion to the Suffering Souls and excite a more tender and more sensible feeling of sympathy for them, at least among Catholics."

She went on to acknowledge the many books already written on this subject, but said she wanted to "fill up a void of which I have long been sensible in our English Purgatorial literature" (Sadlier, 1886, p. 8). Specifically, she wanted to make average readers more familiar with Purgatory. To that end, she brought together not only the Church's teachings via many theologians and scholars, but legends and poetry. The fact that many of the legends, poems and anecdotes in her collection were translated from the French gives further proof of her seeking to fill a void. "I have endeavored to give only those that were new to most English readers" (Sadlier, 1886, p. 7). A very touching note to this commentary: Sadlier dedicated this book to he memory of her son, Rev. Francis X. Sadlier, S.J., who had died only three months after ordination, and who had a great devotion himself to the Holy Souls in Purgatory (Sadlier, 1886, Title Page).

After considering the various audiences Sadlier addressed, one could examine themes that were interwoven throughout her works. Perhaps strongest of all was that of loyalty to her faith, to Catholicism. Her research led Szabo to write that, "Religion always supersedes all other loyalties and ties in Sadlier" (Szabo, 1995, p.6)

One of the numerous examples of this theme is found in Elinor Preston , where the author composes a scene in the life of a 19th-century Irish family, discussing university options for their youngest son. Mr. Preston, apparently hoping to secure a good financial future for the boy, is opting for Old Trinity College, Dublin. Fuming at this possibility, his wife and sister respond, "Old Trinity, as you call it, is no place for Catholics.'" The boy's mother continues, "If he did not come back to us a thorough-going Protestant, you would find him a very bad Catholic, and that, in my opinion, is still worse" (Szabo, 1995, p.41).

Later in the story, as daughter Elinor makes known her intention to emigrate, a family friend is somewhat calmed by the fact that, at least, it's "to Catholic Canada she wants to go" (Szabo, 1995, p.171). When she has finally embarked for America, Elinor tries to explain to the older friend of a young man very interested in Elinor why she couldn't pursue a relationship with the younger one. "If I do marry," she said, "the man of my choice must be a Catholic." While acknowledging the many fine qualities the young man possessed, she concludes that he would have been her choice if only he was Catholic. Later, reflecting on that situation (the whole novel is in the form of a diary), she writes, "Lonely as I was, it was very tempting to be offered such advantages on the eve of landing in a strange country, but I knew it was a temptation, and I prayed for strength to resist it." She relates that strength was given and with it, great peace (Szabo, 1995, pp.202, 203).

From her writings, what insights into Sadlier's theology can be speculated? Like others of her era, in dealing with Scripture, Sadlier took the many dates and years mentioned in the Old Testament literally. Her New Catechism of Sacred History , for example, states that Enoch was taken up to heaven in 3017 B.C. and Sodom was destroyed in 1897 B.C. (Sadlier, 1866, pp. 15, 25). The entire Old Testament history was divided into six Epochs or Ages of the World. Each embraced a unique number of years, depending on what was involved.

Her account of original sin in that same text indicates the traditional view of Eve, whom the tempter approached first, "she, being the weaker." Adam then ate the apple "in order to please his wife" (Sadlier, 1866, p.13). One can't help but compare this passage with the dialogue related above, on the issue of what college the son will attend. Sadlier's Catechism description of the first woman and man's relationship does not seem strongly mirrored in that of the Prestons!

Before leaving her Catechism , it should be pointed out that Sadlier employed the common style of generations before her - that of question and answer, no discussion and no citations from Scripture. Aside from the fact that her work had ecclesial approval, the reader takes on trust that what she presents is accurate information.

On the theology of Providence, Sadlier's views are again easily discerned in the Introduction of one of her works. "Visible agents are always employed to carry out the divine economy in regard to human affairs. Now who was Denis Conway's Providence?…who, but his own daughter, Bessy!" (Sadlier, 1861, p. 7). Here, it seems Sadlier was bringing into the present the Sacred History she translated and wrote.

Did Sadlier have a theology of women? It would seem so, by her words in Bessy Conway , which opened this paper. "Every woman has a mission" (Sadlier, 1861, p. 5). In that Preface, Sadlier points out that for a woman, marriage expands her "sphere of influence" and thus all society will either be better or worse depending on her fidelity to that mission within her marriage… and, of course, depending on whom she chooses as a marriage partner." One cannot help but see those words she wrote as prophetic for her own life.

Another source may give an alternative view on Mary Anne Sadlier's theology of women and marriage. Reading even a small selection of Sadlier's stories and novels, it would be hard to disagree with Szabo's conclusion that "as always, it is the women who suffer most and pay for their men folks' crimes" (Szabo, 1995, p. 9). Though approaching her works from a more literary than catechetical interest, Szabo compared Mary Ann Sadlier with Harriet Beecher Stowe, saying that both authors "preached domestic passivity while leading a very active, very public, very non-traditional life" (Szabo, 1995, p. 2).

Szabo finds that "to Sadlier, the true Catholic woman was more acutely sensitive to religion than her husband, and was therefore expected to lead the family in its religious duty. Irish-Catholic women owe two allegiances in life: to God and to their husband" (Szabo, 1995, p. 8). At the beginning and again near the end of her paper, Szabo refers to the "double bind of Irish women, who must obey the orders of their church, as well as their husbands, even when those demands are in direct conflict." She follows that statement by asserting that, "Sadlier… was herself living under these very restrictions" (Szabo, 1995, p. 11). Later, she comments that, "Sadlier, arch Catholic that she was, graphically illustrates how Irish-Catholic tradition gives women an untenable position" (Szabo, 1995, p. 9). Since Szabo presented no specific examples of these conclusions, it seems impossible to assess her findings without further research.

One aspect of Sadlier's theology was her use of some of the financial income derived from writing. A generous philanthropist, she established "a Foundling Asylum, a Home for the Aged, and a Home for Friendless Girls"(Glazier & Shelley, 1997, p. 1234) Could some of those "Friendless Girls" have been the young Irish-American immigrants so close to Sadlier's heart?

If there is such field as theology on Jesuits, Sadlier had one. When Elinor Preston's mother proposes Clongowes as a better university for their son than Protestant Old Trinity, her father dismisses that choice thus: "Pshaw!…I don't much like the Jesuits - that's the truth!" But just as strong is Mrs. Preston's reply. "More shame on you! … If you were a more practical Catholic, my dear Harry, you would never say so. It is always a bad sign to hear Catholics saying they don't like Jesuits; for, after all, what order has done more for the advancement of religion? what order has waged a more vigorous warfare against the powers of darkness?"(Sadlier, 1861, pp. 41-42). Is this another example of Sadlier cleverly presenting a common negative stereotype, only to overcome it with a different view? Recall, too, that one of her own sons, named after the Jesuit. Francis Xavier, had himself entered the Society of Jesus.

Aside from her works that are primarily catechetical in purpose, and even woven through some of them, Sadlier's passion for the preservation of Irish history is clear. Introducing the historical novel, MacCarthy More , she wrote, "This [subject] was chosen with due deliberation, for the purpose of bringing before the new generation the half-forgotten name and fame of one of the most remarkable Irishmen of the troubled sixteenth century" (Sadlier, 1868, p. iii) (emphasis added). Yet, as in all of her seemingly fictitious works, history was not Sadlier's only mission in this long novel. After a long passage building up to the fact that a most unique moment in time was upon the Irish Catholics of those years, she comes to this strong moral lesson:

… when a little more success would have emboldened all the Catholic Irish, old and new, to join hands for God and native land, and hurl defiance in the face of haughty England, -- had Florence MacCarthy More then cast off the mask and thrown himself and his thousands of followers into the national cause, all might yet be well, and Ireland might have been loosened once for all from the cruel chain of bondage. Well for him, well for Ireland, had he at that critical moment of his country's history adopted a bolder and more honest course, and followed the instincts of his truer and better nature. But he did not, and soon, very soon, the opportunity had passed and forever - at least for him (Sadlier, 1868, p. 263).

Some of the "concrete and historical persons" she catechized via her writing were young people. Whether at the request of the Christian Brothers of Canada, or out of Sadlier's own familiarity with the French Catechism of Rev. P. Collot, she translated his substantial text, the Doctrinal and Scriptural Catechism: or, Instructions on the Principal Truths of the Christian Religion in 1853. It was adopted by the provincial of the Christian Brothers, for use in the schools under his charge.

From a catechetical heart she wrote this dedication to the Brothers of the Christian Schools: "To you, fervent and devoted children of the venerable De La Salle! to you, who so well fulfill your lowly yet most important mission, and work on silently and steadily, year after year, training the rising generation for the glory of God, the salvation of souls, and the well being of states and communities, to you, who may be called the benefactors of mankind, this series of instructions… is most respectfully dedicated by the Translator" (Collot, 1853, p. ii). Later, in the Introduction to her own New Catechism of Sacred History , still used in Catholic schools at least in 1891 (Kelly, 1891) Sadlier reveals her intent in taking on the project. She indicated there was a lack of resources suitable for the learning capacities of "the lower classes [grades, not socio-economic] of Catholic schools"(Sadlier, 1866, p. 7).

In the second line of her Preface to Elinor Preston…Sadlier writes, "The object of the book is plain. It is … an attempt to point out to Irish Girls in America… the true and never-failing path to success in this world, and happiness in the next"(Sadlier, 1861, p. 1). One almost hears the answer to the Baltimore Catechism's question, "Why did God make you?" in Sadlier's impassioned words.

A sub-theme throughout this novel is echoed in the recurrent warnings of the evils to be faced in America. While on board crossing the Atlantic, Elinor is approached by an older Irishman who's quite concerned about a beautiful young colleen who was being deceived by the first mate. "I'm sure an sartain he'd never think of marrying a poor bit of a girleen like her, but he'll make her b'live anything he likes" (Sadlier, 1861, p.193). Greatly concerned for poor Margaret, Elinor approaches the captain's wife, who shares the disturbing news that the first mate in question has a wife and children.

Elinor's choice of words in response to this alarming news seems reflective of Sadlier's own theology and mission. "Only let us keep her out of the fangs of this serpent while on shipboard… I have heard many a sad tale of unprotected creatures, such as she, being seduced and corrupted on their passage to America" (Sadlier, 1861, p.194).

When, through carefully constructed machinations arranged by Elinor and the captain's wife, young Margaret discovers the truth behind the clever young man, she responds (as if on cue by Sadlier the catechist?), "Well! The Lord be praised anyhow that I found it out in time!" To her credit and strength, she let him know most clearly that they were finished. Following this saga, Elinor reflects on "the manifold snares laid for their innocence both on board the emigrant ship and on the foreign shore to which they are hastening" (Sadlier, 1861, pp.196,197). Would that it was possible to know what effect such accounts had on the young women who read them.

Even in a story that would seem, on the surface, have little to do with faith, Sadlier did not miss opportunities to subtly instruct parents on their responsibility as primary catechists, as those who are first models and teachers of prayer and of who God is. The General Directory for Catechesis affirms that, "the witness of Christian life given by parents in the family comes to children with tenderness and parental respect" (Congregation for the Clergy, 1997, § 226). In the fantastic, almost frightening tale of "Shan Dempsey's Story," we learn that one of his daughters was transformed into an evil fairy.

In Irish literature such as this, with details about the fairies, their habits and where they "lived", it is important to keep in mind information provided by Szabo. She writes that, "unless bribed by gifts or rituals, they would blight the peasants' crops, … even steal healthy infants out of their cribs, leaving dead 'changelings' in their place"(Szabo, Pre-Christian mythology in famine-era Ireland).

Sadlier's audience hears Shan say, "an' Lord save us, she'd tumble into that [bed] at night and get out of it in the momin' without ever bendin' a knee or even as much as blessin' herself" (Sadlier, 1897, p. 252).

Later, after losing his wife, and five of his six children, Shan still was able to say to his spellbound listeners. "God had greater trials in store for me, blessed be his name !" (Emphasis added). (Sadlier, 1897, p. 269). Towards the end of the tale, Sadlier's own words identify her audience and give the reader some idea of the inner power and faith behind this catechetical leader. "May his doom be a warning to all foolishly indulgent parents…"(Sadlier, 1897, p. 271). (Shan and his wife had spoiled their youngest son, who in adulthood betrayed his father after everyone else in the family had died.)

Sadlier, M. A. (1861). Bessy Conway; or, The Irish Girl in America . New York: D. & J. Sadlier. Retrieved August 30, 2004, from Virginia University site:

It is easy to imagine that any of the countless young female immigrants from Ireland who found themselves searching for someone who understood their plight would devour Sadlier's account of someone so like themselves. Written in a the more flourishing style of the middle and late 1800's, with many exclamation points, dashes, etc., and in her own Irish dialect, Sadlier addressed the "sitz im leben" of her intended audience! Even a cursory glance at some of the chapter titles in Bessy ­ "Leaving Home", "The Storm", "Bessy Arrives in New York", "Bessy Makes a Friend and Finds Another Mistress" - offer proof that the author knew the journeys of these young women.

Sadlier, M. A. (1862). The Pope's niece and other tales . New York; Montreal: D. & J. Sadlier. Retrieved August 30, 2004, from

In her preface to this translation of French tales, Sadlier seems to give evidence of being a wise mother, intent on forming her children in faith while understanding they had other interests, too. She wrote, "Are we to leave the rising generation to receive their ideas of men and things from the brainless, godless book-makers who are flooding the world with 'sensation stories' ­ men and women who have no higher end in view than making money and pandering to the morbidly-depraved tastes of the multitude? Heaven forbid!" (p. 8). And thus her motivation in bringing to Irish American families this collection of stories which, written almost in novel form, would hopefully entice young readers to see that the faith they were learning in church had a true bearing on everyday life.

Sadlier, M. A. (1860). The Spanish cavaliers; a tale of the Moorish wars in Spain . New York; Montreal: D. & J. Sadlier. Retrieved August 30, 2004, from

The same philosophy described above seemed to have been the motivating factor behind Sadlier's decision to translate still another work from the French. Indeed the opening of her preface affirms her passion for young peoples' faith. "I offer no apology for presenting the SPANISH CAVALIERS to the reader in and English dress. It appears to me well calculated to promote pure and noble sentiments in the youthful mind whilst coming to them in the attractive garb of a story." (p. 3).

Author Information

Maureen E. O'Reilly

Maureen E. O'Reilly is Director of the Office for Faith Formation/Catechetics in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Her extensive catechetical experience includes faith formation with people who have developmental disabilities. Leadership in the international ecumenical communities of Faith and Light (co-founded by Marie-Helene Mathieu and Jean Vanier) has extended her experiences to communities around the world.