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Marymount Founder's Day Tea

Marymount Founder's Day Tea

The Spirit Lives On: Thoughts on Mother Butler, R.S.H.M.

Kathleen Connell, R.S.H.M., MC '61, GRE '01
Sunday, 5 December 2010

How happy I am to be with you in this place and to have the chance to share with you some thoughts about the foundress of Marymount, Mother Joseph Butler.

The murals in the dome above us are a reminder of some of the important events in her life. These murals were unveiled with fanfares on December 8, 1940—the year of Mother Butler's death. They depict young Johanna in her parish church in Ballynunnery, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland, where she experienced a call to religious life; her early years in Béziers, France, where Gailhac received her vows; the laying of the cornerstone of Butler Hall in 1935 with many of the significant persons who made this possible; Mother Butler's meeting with Pius XII, our Cardinal Protector, then the Pope in 1939 as war was beginning in Europe.

If you were at Marymount as a student on any Founder's day, you are already familiar with the story of Mother Butler and six R.S.H.M. coming up from the railroad station down near the lakes, with some of their luggage and a small statue of Mary, on December 8, 1907. Mother Butler placed the statue on the mantel in the parlor in what is today Marymount Convent and proclaimed: "In honor of Mary Immaculate and in memory of Mary Ann O'Rourke Butler, we shall call this new home MARYMOUNT."

But this afternoon, I want to share with you just three events which, though rooted in the past, have significance for all of us in the present.

1. A few months after December 8, Marymount Academy opened with just six students, and by the following fall, there were just twenty students. But almost immediately, Mother Butler began the construction of a four-story, south wing with a dining room, small chapel, classrooms and bedrooms because she KNEW that Marymount Academy would thrive. She had another purpose also: she wanted, as soon as possible, to introduce summer retreats for laywomen, a movement, which, though not unique, was still uncommon.

Recently the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., gave a lecture on the pioneering work of the Rev. Terence Shealy, S.J., who is credited with beginning the retreat movement for laymen in America in the early 20th century. But what he forgot to mention is that Mother Butler and the Rev. Terence Shealy, S.J., were very close friends and collaborators in the retreat movement for the laity. As long as she lived at Marymount, retreats for working women and alumnae were an important commitment. Today, in addition to retreats offered for the students in our schools and at Cormaria, in Sag Harbor, the R.S.H.M. Extended Family invites our friends and alumnae to continue their on-going spiritual development through lectures, workshops and days of recollection.

2. The first Marymount was a secondary school but, increasingly, girls who graduated from the Academy chose to remain on there for a fifth and even a sixth year. In the oft-quoted advertisement from in the NY Sun in 1917, we read: "The time has gone by when to be feminine meant to be helpless. The world has never needed womanly intelligence and sympathy so much as it does today." The ad then went on to explain that advanced courses in history, philosophy and languages were already being offered during the fifth and sixth years and that courses in law and political economy have been added." Our founder, Jean Gailhac, had encouraged the R.S.H.M. in the schools to do everything possible to make the students happy! Perhaps this accounts for the fact that some of the students at Marymount, having received their secondary diplomas, asked to stay on at the school after commencement and take these advanced courses.

These fifth and sixth years of "finishing school" carried the seed of R.S.H.M. institutions for the higher education of women, a ministry uniquely American in the R.S.H.M. Institute at that time. It is significant that almost all of the R.S.H.M. colleges grew out of the students' desire to stay on after graduating from a Marymount secondary school. Thus for example, from Marymount Academy, Tarrytown (1907), came Marymount College (1918), from Marymount School of New York (1926) came Marymount Manhattan College, from Marymount School of Los Angeles (1923) and Marymount School Palos Verdes eventually came the two colleges in California, and later, Marymount High School in Arlington, Va., gave rise to Marymount University thriving there today. Mother Butler must have seen that the personal education our students were receiving "had made them happy" and that insight spurred her to develop this new mission field in America focused on making her Marymount girls into Catholic Women.

3. Lastly, I am impressed by Mother Butler's global vision of education and her instinct to network. She assumed that once World War I ended, students would be eager to complete their studies in Europe. Just three years after the end of the war, she and Mother Gerard traveled to France to begin searching for a site for Marymount in Paris. The following year, 1922, they agreed to open a Marymount in Los Angeles and traveled on the transcontinental railroad to find a site in California. But it is the year 1923 that really marks the beginning of the Mother Butler's dream of expansion. In the spring of that year, she and Mother Gerard once again took the transcontinental railway 3,000 miles to the west and arranged to begin a Marymount foundation in Los Angeles in June 1923. Then, in June, Mother Butler and Mother Gerard made a 3,000-mile trans-Atlantic trip to Paris, where this time, they found the house they were looking for—in Neuilly.

What intrigues me is that in the two weeks between their finding the site and their return sail to New York, they wrote the catalogue for Marymount Paris. In the front of the catalogue, they included a picture of Marymount in Tarrytown, and a picture of the Archbishop of New York with his blessing for the school. Next came a picture of Marymount in California, not yet opened, and a picture of Bishop Cantwell of the diocese of Los Angeles. Following this was the picture of Marymount in Neuilly, with a picture of the Archbishop of Paris. It was an unmistakable example of Mother Butler's instinct, from the beginning, to link the schools together, to network. Today, that same instinct to network has resulted in the R.S.H.M. Network of Schools—linking together 20 Marymount and Sacred Heart of Mary schools, on three continents, with the same goals and objectives and R.S.H.M. spirit.

Daughters of Marymount, the spirit of Mother Butler has not faded with the years. It is alive and well.

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