The Nun of Kenmare

Mags Gargan looks at the part a charismatic Poor Clare sister played in the story of Knock

Two years after the apparition at Knock, a Poor Clare nun travelling from Co. Kerry to Co. Down made a stop off at the shrine, which was to last two years and had a huge effect on the history of the shrine and the people of the parish.

From 1881 to 1883, Sr Francis Clare – known as the ‘Nun of Kenmare’ –  began several ambitious programmes to develop Knock Shrine, including a building project to construct an abbey opposite Knock parish church to house a new community of female religious to promote the shrine, care for visiting pilgrims and run an industrial school.

Born Margaret Anna Cusack to a wealthy Protestant family in Dublin in 1829, she first entered religious life with the Anglican Sisterhood to help the poor in London. However, when this did not give her the fulfilment she hoped for, she converted to Catholicism and eventually joined the Poor Clare order in Newry. In 1861, the now Sr Mary Francis Clare joined seven other sisters to found a new abbey in Kenmare.


Sr Francis Clare was a woman of great energy, determination, charm and strong will. She became a prolific author – writing biographies of saints, pontiffs, prelates and nationalist leaders – but also became famous her outspoken political views and criticism of the hierarchy in her declarations on social justice. Income from her books and from her famine relief fund was distributed throughout Ireland.

She was researching a book on The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which would include a description of the apparition at Knock, when she was given permission to visit the shrine.

The Parish Priest of Knock, Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh was thrilled with the news that the famous author was coming to Knock, and that she had agreed to assist him in making it a destination for international pilgrimage.

He believed the way forward was to have a religious community to educate and care for the people of the area and visitors to the shrine, and suggested this to Sr Francis Clare in their correspondence.

On arrival at the shrine, Sr Francis Clare knelt at the gable end of the church and declared she has been cured of a rheumatic disease. In a letter to Archbishop MacEvilly of Tuam in 1882, she revealed that after she was cured she received a vision of Our Lady and heard the words of the Lord saying that the people of Ireland needed to be patient and that they had his pity. A few weeks after receiving this letter, Archbishop MacEvilly set up a second commission of enquiry in Knock, but his thoughts on the validity of her claims are unknown.

While not realising the nun had not received permission from her superiors, the archbishop accepted her proposal to build an abbey and found a new community at Knock. This led to a period of uncertainty where numerous letters were exchanged between the Archbishop of Tuam, the Archbishop of Dublin, the Bishop of Dromore and the Vicar-Capitular of Kerry to establish her canonical status.

Now known as Mother Clare, the ‘Nun of Kenmare’ eventually settled as a guest of the Sisters of Mercy in Claremorris. She then set about fundraising for her project, including applying to her former abbey in Kenmare to release her dowry and the proceeds from the publication of her book The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This went against the stipulations of Canon Law in regards to enclosed orders and led to a legal battle and a bitter financial settlement. Later in 1885 Mother Clare published the pamphlet Why I Left Kenmare which denounced the sisters in Kenmare.


After this Mother Clare received the proceeds of her books directly and donations were also pouring in for her project from Irish emigrants. She rented land directly across the road from Knock parish church to build her convent on a 99 year lease.

By 1882 the Archbishop of Tuam was satisfied the project was financially viable and Mother Clare set about finding Poor Clare sisters to volunteer to join her. Sr Martha Smith volunteered from Cavan, and she moved with Mother Clare and her companion Miss Dowling to a temporary convent in Knock made from converted outhouses.

Young local women began to join the community and in February 1883 they held their first retreat. As the community grew in size Mother Clare came to an arrangement with her landlord to allow the community to move to Churchfield House and to establish a small school on the ground floor.

Before long various industries were thriving at the community, classes were offered to young women and land-workers, the building of the convent beside Knock church began and Mother Clare launched her spiritual initiative, the Confraternity of Peace.

During this time, however, her relationship with Archdeacon Cavanagh began to deteriorate after she refused his suggestion of making Sr Martha choir sister to care for the spiritual needs of the novices, while she was busy with her writing, industrial training and building projects.

Her main objection was that she wanted to form a new order of her own and she was determined that she would not finish building the convent for someone else to move in.

Finding no support from Archbishop McEvilly, who only gave her permission to found a convent of the Poor Clare order, not a new order, she appealed for an interview with Cardinal McCabe in Dublin.


Rumours were flying about Mother Clare at this stage – that she did not attend Sunday Mass, that she was a “wandering nun” always out of enclosure and her adherence to canon law was still being called into question – and she was branded a troublemaker. Her strong personality was leading to clashes with those around her, and Archbishop MacEvilly wrote to Cardinal McCabe that she would “surely be my death”.

When Cardinal McCabe wrote back to Mother Clare reinforcing what Archbishop MacEvilly said about appointing a choir sister, she was on the point of abandoning her project. She went to London to consult with friends and on advice applied to the Bishop of Nottingham to make a foundation in his diocese. Sr Martha returned to Cavan and five novices joined Mother Clare in Nottingham. Two of them made their vows as St Joseph’s Sisters of Peace of the Immaculate Conception in Nottingham in 1884 and a new mission was established in Lincolnshire.

Mother Clare applied to Rome to be released from her Poor Clare vows and an audience with Pope Leo XIII was granted. She received her dispensation and founded a Mother House in Nottingham, and the congregation continues in the UK and USA today.

The question of who owned the money raised for the project in Knock was in dispute for years. Mother Clare never returned to the town and her unfinished convent was used as a ball alley by children until it was demolished.

She was missed by the people of the parish for her organisational skills and the industries that she set up. The fame of Knock faded after her abrupt departure for nearly 30 years until the arrival of another great female figure of Knock – Dame Judy Coyne.

In the end Mother Clare left religious life and indeed the Faith. Sadly, Margaret Anna Cusack died in 1899 staunchly anti-Catholic.