Sept. 14, 1891 – To General Superior Sr. M. Edward, Kingston ON From Archbishop Cleary, Archbishop of Kingston ON

Kingston, Ontario
Sept. 14, 1891
To Rev. Mother Superior
Sisters of Charity, House of Providence,
Dear. Rev. Mother,

I heartily sympathize with your Community in the trouble that has been brought upon you so unexpectedly. But I beg of you not to be disquieted. Keep your confidence in God, and He will protect and direct you safely. Happy are we in having a Pope to apply to for the preservation of good order and religious peace. Be fully confident that the Holy See will shield you and your Community from the terrible disorder that would ensue from violent disruption of the bonds of religious life and thinly disguised encouragement to insubordination and open contempt of the vows of religion. In so far as my authority may avail, be assured that I will exercise it in steadfastly maintaining the rule of authority and obedience over my subjects who made their religious profession under the Constitutions of your Institute, declared to me in solemn form their vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

To your plain and pertinent questions I return the plain answers:

1. Of the Bishop of Springfield’s petition to the Holy See for withdrawal of the Sisters from our Diocesan Institute and obedience to us, we have no official knowledge, no communication from Propaganda having been made to us on the subject. Neither does it appear that the Holy See has taken such a petition into consideration. Numerous petitions are forwarded to Rome every year, and are dismissed or laid aside or postponed for consideration at a future time. It can hardly be believed, because it would be contrary to the invariable practice of Rome, that a question involving the religious rights and I may say, the stability of a Religious Institute would be seriously considered with a view to action, till after intimation of the proposal is given the Mother Superior of the Institute or the Archbishop of the diocese and their counter statement is carefully examined. Consequently the petition of the Bishop of Springfield does not absolve your Sisters from their Religious obligations, and in particular from their vow of obedience to you, as their Superior General, and to me, as their Archbishop and ecclesiastical Superior; nor does it in any way or in any degree alter their relations towards you and me.

2. Neither by the general law of the Church, nor by any local law of the United States does the Bishop of Springfield possess any power or right whatever to absolve professed members of the diocesan Institute of the Sisters of Charity in Kingston from their obligations to their Superior, religious and ecclesiastical; or to dispense them or declare them dispensed, from their vow of obedience; or by advice or exhortation or encouragement to mislead them from due subjection to their Superior, or anywise to weaken their conscientious belief in the undisturbed power of the Vows to bind their souls to ready and cheerful submission to legitimate authority. The general law of the Church on this subject is too plain and too well known to need exposition. The local law of the United States (3rd Council of Baltimore No. 93) to which the Bishop of Springfield refers for justification of his extravagant action, is in perfect harmony with the general ecclesiastical law. It not only gives him no authority or pretext to instigate the Sisters to revolt against their Superior General in defiance of their vows, but in positive and most explicit terms, it declares all branch-houses, such as yours in Holyoke to be “still subordinate to the authority of their institute”, and furthermore that “these branch-houses must remain under obedience to the Superior of their primary Convent (Mother-house) as to their internal regulations and administration; that is in regard of the selection and allocation of Sisters to such branch-houses; the distribution of offices amongst them, their discipline of life in Community and all else that appertains to the membership and internal organization and government of branch Communities, with subordination to the religious Institute of which they are part”. The aforesaid decree after laying down these inviolable principles, does indeed subjoin, that the Sisters temporarily resident in any Bishop’s diocese are subject to his jurisdiction as ordinary of the place, and in this it only expresses the Common law of the Universal Church, nowise contradictory of the supreme principles previously laid down in the same sentence. It merely signifies that members of religious institutes called “diocesan”, do not enjoy (as regular monastic orders do enjoy), exemption from the local Bishops’ ordinary jurisdiction; and accordingly are subject to him and the laws of his diocese in regard of their external conduct, and depend on him for the faculties of their confessor, ordinary and extraordinary; for the appointment of their Chaplains and preachers; and the number and order of Masses and Benedictions in the Convent Chapel, and in general all that appertains to Divine worship, etc. , and to the good order and decorum of the Sisters’ life before the public. I am confident that when His Lordship, the Bishop of Springfield will have read this decree again, he will at once perceive how strangely he has misunderstood it; and how self-contradictory and ridiculous the enactment would be, were it to insist primarily on the subordination of the Sisters in the Branch-house to their Religious Institute and its Superior General, and then subjoin that the local Bishop has the power of annulling the authority of the Superior General and requiring her subjects to resist in contempt of their vows her mandates. Indeed it is surprising that the fundamental maxim of law, common to civil and ecclesiastical courts alike, which limits the authority of synods and other legislative bodies to their own territory, did not occur to the mind of the good Bishop of Springfield, when reading this very plain and unambiguous decree of the Baltimore Synod. Surely he could not have conceived it possible that the Fathers of the Baltimore Synod, had intended to stretch across their round of authority into Canada and dissolve the Canonical bonds existing between the Archbishop of Kingston and his religious subjects in his own diocesan Institute of Sisters of Charity, and nullify the vows of obedience made by those Sisters at their religious profession. Everyone knows they had no more power to do this than to decree the deposition of Pope Leo XIII from the Chair of St. Peter.

3. The answer to your third and fourth questions is included in the foregoing. The professed Sisters of your Institute, temporarily resident in your houses in Holyoke, are not in any way or in any degree independent of your authority and mine. The obligations contracted by their Religious profession under your constitutions remain undiminished in their binding force on every conscience before God and the Church. Their vows are sacred to-day as on the day they pronounced them; and cannot be weakened by any act of the Bishop of Springfield or any other person on the face of the earth, except by dispensation from the Archbishop of Kingston or the Pope of Rome. The regulation recently made by your Chapter in the usual form whereby seven Sisters were transferred from Kingston to Holyoke and three from Holyoke to Kingston, holds good and effective, and binds the consciences of those Sisters as firmly as similar mandates have hitherto done.

Adding my authority, as Archbp. of Kingston and their ecclesiastical Superior, to the authority of you and your Chapter, I hereby declare most solemnly that, should any one of your Sisters unhappily resist that mandate, she becomes at once guilty of mortal sin and sacrilegious infraction of her vow of obedience, absolution from which sacrilege I reserve to myself exclusively; and furthermore, I hereby interdict such rebellious Sister the use of the Sacraments of the Church, and entrance into any Chapel or Church in which the Blessed Eucharist is reserved, until such time as she shall have renounced her contumacy and fully obeyed the aforesaid mandate of your Chapter, and shall have asked pardon from me and from you and from your Community for her most grievous crime of infidelity to her vows, and thus repaired the scandal she has given. It is competent to me to inflict the further and most severe censure of excommunication upon a Sister who publicly and defiantly tramples under foot her religious vows; but I confidently hope this necessity shall never by forced upon me, and that, by God’s blessing, every Sister will recognize her plain and obvious duty of obedience to her Superior General and her Archbp. It is with great pain I feel myself constrained to put forth my full authority and utter threats of ecclesiastical censure against Religious Sisters whom I have ever regarded with fatherly care and affection in Christ. But I should be gravely delinquent before God and the Church, were I to remain passive, whilst insubordination and sedition and flagrant contempt of Religious vows are openly preached to them. May God in His mercy enlighten and strengthen every soul in your Community, and guide them all in the ways of religious peace and holiness and conscientious fulfilment of every duty, most particularly the duty of obedience to their Superior, which they vowed to God on the morning of their profession, and which constitutes the very essence of Religious life.

I ordain that the Rev. Mother Superior shall forthwith proceed to Holyoke for formal Visitation of the two Houses of her Institution in that City: that her Visitation shall continue until I shall have ordered its termination: that during her Visitation she shall take charge of every office in each of the two Houses for absolute control and direction by herself or any Sister she may delegate: that she shall read aloud to the full assembly of Sisters in each house this, my letter of instruction and authoritative direction to her, and through her to the Sisters collectively and severally: that, after having read it, she shall call the Sisters, one by one, beginning with the youngest and demand from each a declaration on bended knees and with crucifix in hand, that she absolutely and unreservedly accepts the mandates and directions delivered by me in this letter to her and will instantly comply with them in obedience to her Superiors and in conformity with her religious vows: finally that the Mother General shall report to me whether any Sister shall have proved herself rebellious in spirit and contumaciously disobedient, and shall have thereby drawn upon herself the anger of God and the penalties of the Church specified by me in the former part of this letter.

James Vincent Cleary, Archbishop of Kingston
Notes: Another three copies of this letter exists as handwritten individual copies. One of the copies is also accompanied by a handwritten and signed declaration. 105.6-C, Mother Mary Edward General Superior sous-fonds, Correspondence series, Letter September 4, 1891.
Source: 407-409-A, General Secretary Fonds, Annals of the Congregation/Generalate series, Volume 1861-1892, pp. 207-211, Archives, Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.
Catherine McKinley’s Letters

This letter is part of a large database of correspondence written by and to Catherine McKinley, who is considered one of the founders of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul. As a Sister of Providence she was known by her religious name Mother Mary Edward.

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