The Two Catherines

April 28, 2021

By Sister Mary Sullivan

Catherine McAuley evidently thought the Sisters of Mercy and their companions in merciful action could learn something centrally important from St. Catherine of Siena. In the 1830s, when she composed the original Rule of the Sisters of Mercy, using the Rule of the Presentation Sisters as her guide, she inserted references to Catherine of Siena in two places.


In listing the saints to whom the sisters were to “have particular devotion,” she added Catherine of Siena. In composing the chapter on the “Visitation of the Sick,” a main ministerial work of the Sisters of Mercy, she named Catherine of Siena as one of “the most eminent saints [who] devoted their lives to this work of mercy.” Catherine of Dublin saw the saint of Siena as an inspiring exemplar of Jesus Christ’s “great tenderness for the sick,” and of care for Christ’s own human body “in the persons of the suffering poor” (Rule 3.2).

Although Catherine McAuley said nothing in the Rule about honoring the feast day of the mother superior of a community (a title she never used of herself), those at Baggot Street regarded her feast day—that of Catherine of Siena (now on April 29, then on April 30)—as a day of celebration. 

In a poem on that day in 1835, the novices told Catherine that they needed money to buy ingredients to bake a festive tea cake in her honor. Realizing their loving intentions and their probably minimal baking skills, Catherine told them, also in a poem, that she had anticipated their desire and had already ordered a “very nice” store-bought cake, a rarity at Baggot Street. She realized the pleasure a cake could occasion for the whole community (CCMcA, 68).

Yet in 1841, in a letter thanking Frances Warde for “the nice Saint Catherine” (a small commemorative card), Catherine wrote: “We had no folly here on her day— so many in retreat. Indeed, I was very glad” (CCMcA, 396).

Paintings and portraits of the saints attempt to picture their goodness. Rarely do these images illustrate the saint’s deepest spirit and central Christian action.  Sometimes they are even misleading. For example, many images of Catherine McAuley show her sedately sitting with her hands folded on her lap—a far cry from her seven months of day-long kneeling beside and consoling terrified and dying cholera victims; her days teaching homeless young women and barefoot girls life-sustaining skills; her visiting the sick and dying poor lying on straw mats in slum tenements; her walking through snow or riding bumpy stage coaches to minister to distant human needs; or her persistently urging reluctant clergy to provide adequate chaplaincy services for poor domestic servants and to finance a school for neglected, loitering girls.

Some portraits of Catherine of Siena show her leaning against a church wall profoundly absorbed in one of the God-given ecstasies that shaped her life. They do not show her giving away her black Dominican cloak to a person who was cold and poor: “I would rather go without a cloak than without charity.” They do not show her daily nursing an isolated old woman with leprosy and a bitter tongue.  They do not show her, during the plague that struck Siena in 1374, going at night, a lantern in her hand, to local tenements and hospitals to console the dying victims and then bury them with her own hands. They do not show her traveling to Avignon, Florence and Rome and vigorously telling popes and civic leaders to do their God-given duty of uniting God’s people and fostering peace.

The visual image of Catherine of Siena’s life that most reveals her following of the crucified Christ, whom she so loved and sought to serve, is given in her own Letter 9, dictated probably in June 1375, five years before her death. Then 28 years old, she describes her merciful outreach to Niccolo di Toldo, a condemned young man: her visiting him and then kneeling with him at the chopping block when he is beheaded. She writes:

“He made me promise, for the love of God, to be with him at the end. I gave my word, and kept it. . .. I said to him: ‘Courage, dearest brother. We shall soon be at the wedding. You will be going to it bathed in the sweet blood of God’s Son and with the sweet name of Jesus on your lips. I shall be waiting for you. …’

“So, I waited for him at the place of execution. All the time I waited I was praying [for] the grace. … that I might give him light and peace of heart at the moment of death, and then see him going to God.

“At last, he arrived, as meek as a lamb. When he saw me, he began to laugh and wanted me to make the sign of the Cross over him. I did so and then said: ‘Down with you to the wedding, brother! You will soon be in the life that never ends.’ He laid himself down with great meekness; then I stretched out his neck and bent over him, speaking to him of the blood of the Lamb. His lips murmured only ‘Jesus’ and ‘Catherine,’ and he was still murmuring when I received his head into my hands, while my eyes were fixed on the divine Goodness as I said: ‘I will.’

“Then I saw the God-Man as one sees the light of the sun. His side was open to receive into his own the blood that had just been shed: a fire of holy desire, which his grace had poured into and concealed in that soul, was now received into the fire of his own divine Charity.” (Kenelm Foster and Mary John Ronayne, eds. I, Catherine, London: Collins, 1980, 72–74).

We are the family of the two Catherines, in a true communion of saints. Grateful for their example, inspiration and encouragement, we too try to minister to the bodily sufferings and spiritual needs of our own day—in the sick and suffering people next door, at the southern border, on the streets, in prisons, in hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients and others.

May the memory of Catherine of Siena’s merciful life and of her transforming embrace of Jesus Christ’s crucified love transfigure our own lives, as it did Catherine McAuley’s. May we too kneel beside and cradle the heads, bodies and spirits of our neighbors in this world. And may God grant each of us something of their confident reliance on Christ’s constant presence and help.


Sister Mary Sullivan is Professor Emerita of language and literature, and Dean Emerita of the College of Liberal Arts, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York. She is the author of numerous works, including The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, 1818-1841 (2004), Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy (1995) and The Path of Mercy: The life of Catherine McAuley(2012).

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  1. Monica Knipfer

    Your reflection brought life to words I have read over the years. I pray that the two Catherine’s and yours continue to call us to respond in love to the needs of our time.


  2. Jane Bower

    Mary, this is beautiful! Your words brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.


  3. Katie Mindling

    Thank you, Mary, for recounting these touching stories of how each one of these Catherines responded to the call to spread lavishly the mercy of God in unique and inspiring ways as they reached out to the sick and suffering of their day. Inspired by their attentive compassionate outreach, may we continue to support each other in oneness as we seek out and respond daily in myriad ways to similar opportunities that surround us now to be there for each other and for those whom we serve. Happy Feast Day!


  4. Patricia Cook, RSM

    From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Mary, for this earthy reflection on our 2 Catherine’s. Your faith-filled imagination handed us a portrait of their lives of strong love and strong service.

    Blessings to you!

    Peace, Patty


  5. Suzanne Ryder

    What a dramatic connection, Mary. It’s hard to envision the world in which Catherine of Siena lived but her life is inspiring nonetheless. Thank you for sharing.


  6. Mary Daly

    Oh Mary! Thank you for your heartfelt words and for bringing to fuller life these two women.


  7. Mark Fitzpatrick

    My Dear Sister Mary, This was a powerful piece that you have shared with us. Thank you for all the insight about both of the Catherines, truly amazing words of reflection. God Bless, Mark


  8. Marian Uba

    Thank you Mary, this was beautiful!


  9. Carren Herring, RSM

    Thank you Mary for this intimate view into the Catherines. As we work to end the death penalty in Ohio I weep at how we have crucified Jesus over and over in our brothers and sisters.


  10. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM

    Thank you, Mary, for bringing into view still another beautiful aspect of ‘our Catherine’s’ live!


  11. Mary Elizabeth Hunt

    This is an informative and beautifully written piece published in a timely way for tomorrow’s feast.
    Many thanks. Mary E. Hunt


  12. Diane Koorie

    Thanks, Mary. Your words make the two Catherine’s so real!


  13. Janet Rozzano

    Mary, I loved your reflection! It made both Catherines so real in their practice of mercy under difficult and/or terrifying circumstances


  14. Erencia Saipweirik

    What a beautiful reflection on the two Catherines! Thank you very much for sharing it.


  15. Jean Kearse

    Thank you, Mary, for enlarging our understanding and deepening the challenge to live Mercy.


  16. Renee Yann, RSM

    Wow, Mary. I love this post! Thanks for sharing your amazing gifts of spirituality, scholarship and love for Mercy.


  17. Pauline M Reynolds

    Inspired and inspiring. Thank you.


  18. Sr. Jody Kearney

    Mary, I so appreciate your gift for writing. You make words come alive!
    I have a new appreciation for both Catherine’s. Thank you. Happy Feast


  19. Kay Schwenzer

    Thank you so much, Mary!


  20. Marie Joseph

    Mary, this reflection is beautiful and enriching for all of us. I, among many, am deeply grateful for new thoughts that link our Catherines togrther.


  21. Mary Ellen Twist

    Mary, this reflection is so moving. Thank you for opening up Catherine of Siena in a new way along side our Beloved Catherine of Dublin.


  22. Katherine Ann Rappl

    Mary, this is beautiful and enriching! Thank you for sharing.


  23. Natalie Rossi

    Mary,. Thank you for showing the connection of Catherine to Catherine of Siena. I did not realize that.


  24. Kathleen O'Connell

    Thank you, Mary, for once again bringing Catherine to life for us. And my own patron saint, Catherine of Siena. I celebrate two Catherines.


  25. Rachelle Harper RSM

    Your words/images are consoling and invigorating, Mary. Thank you for pulling me forward to the often unpleasant tasks/needs!


  26. Diane Matje, RSM

    Mary, thank you so very much for this beautiful and very touching reflection of the two Catherines! You are such an amazing story teller and writer!
    Happy feast!


  27. Fran McManus

    Your reflection is great gift this evening. Thank you!


  28. Bonnie Brennan

    Mary, thank you once again for inspiring us. I am afraid I knew little of the mercy ministry of Catherine of Siena – no wonder our Catherine chose her as a principal patron of the ‘Order’. Can you recommend a book on the life of Catherine of Siena? Gratefully ….


  29. Margaret McBride, RSM

    Mary, thank you for that beautiful reflection of the two Catherine’s. It was a powerful reflection on two saintly women.


  30. Sr. M. Lalemant Pelikan, rsm

    Mary, my dear, thank you for this beautiful, moving message about our Catherines. Even though I’ve read a biography of Catherine of Siena, I didn’t know about her accompanying the young man to his execution. That confirms my own experience of “prison ministry”, and makes an even deeper connection to our Catherine. You never cease to amaze me in the wealth of knowledge about Kitty!


  31. Canice Hanrahan

    Mary, thank you sincerely for sharing with us this striking link between the two Catherines – inspiring , as always, in your writing! Canice Hanrahan rsm