One hundred and fifty years ago a legal case involving three nuns was front-page news in Britain and Ireland. The plaintiff was Susanna Mary Saurin, a member of the Sisters of Mercy, and she was suing her former superiors, Mary Starr and Mary Kennedy, for false imprisonment, libel, assault and conspiracy to force her out of the order. Or as the barrister representing Saurin put it, “wretched little bits of spite and hatred … heightened by all those small acts of torture with which women are so profoundly and so peculiarly acquainted”.
Saurin, also known as Sister Mary Scholastica, was not an obvious person to embarrass the Church; she was from an Irish Catholic family and two of her sisters were Carmelite nuns. One brother was a Jesuit and her uncle was a parish priest. Nor had Saurin been pressurised to become a nun. Her parents felt that two daughters in the convent was quite sufficient and consented with reluctance.
She was sent to a new convent in Yorkshire where Starr was the superior, with Kennedy as her deputy. Problems began after Starr asked Saurin what conversation she had had with the priest when she was in Confession, Saurin not unnaturally refused to say, and thereafter matters went from bad to worse.
Saurin claimed in the trial to have been subjected to numerous petty but vindictive actions by Starr and Kennedy. She claimed she was accused of disobedience for writing to her uncle, the priest, and she was not provided with letters sent by her family – either that or she was only allowed to have them for a short period before they were torn up.
She also said she was given humiliating physical work not allocated to others in the convent.
The situation had worsened when Starr contacted Robert Cornthwaite, the Bishop of Beverley (a Catholic diocese that existed between 1850 and 1878). Starr complained about Saurin and insisted that either Saurin should go or she would resign. Under the convent’s rules, the bishop had a duty to ensure the proper running of the convent and to resolve disputes.
Sadly he proved quite unfitted to the task. As letters in the trial were to prove, the bishop decided that he must support the convent Superior and assured Starr: “I will take care to have her [Saurin] removed.”
The bishop had then appointed a commission of inquiry into Saurin, later described in the trial as “a parody of justice”. A number of statements were made before the commission accusing Saurin of various failings, but the witnesses themselves were not produced. Saurin and her uncle, who represented her at the inquiry, were not shown the statements and she was not allowed to express any complaints about Starr or any other Sister. After the hearing, Bishop Cornthwaite ruled that Saurin should be discharged from her vows.
Following this decision Starr told Saurin to leave the convent. She refused, and from then on a campaign of petty cruelty was launched. Her religious habit was removed when she was asleep and a secular dress left in its place, which she initially refused to wear until forced to by the cold. She was not allowed a fire and was forbidden to go into the convent library or to have any books. A nun slept outside her room and she was accompanied wherever she went.
The ring she wore as a Bride of Christ was removed; the judge described this as “an act of unnecessary cruelty and harshness”.
After several months of this treatment Saurin became ill. Her family took her home, where she was regarded as an ex-nun thrown out of her order for unknown failings. In 1869, she sued Starr and Kennedy in part to clear her name.
In the trial, the defence denied that Saurin had been specifically picked on, and in any event argued that under the rules of the order Saurin had vowed obedience to her Superiors. The judge, however, ruled that this vow of obedience did not protect Starr if she was abusing her authority to target Saurin.
The jury found for Saurin on the counts of libel and conspiracy and awarded her £500 (£50,000 in today’s money).
The case itself was widely reported. Books were published about the “great convent scandal” and there was a scathing editorial in the Times. What happened to Saurin herself I have been unable to find out, but it unlikely she ever entered another convent.
The Bishop of Beverley was severely criticised by the trial judge for not carrying out his duty to investigate properly these “miserable squabbles of a convent” suitably and fairly. His failure is a warning and a lesson for today just as much as it was in 1869.
Neil Addison is a barrister
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