Ursuline Has Lived the Writer's Life

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ursuline Has Lived the Writer's Life


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. * In all candor Irene Mahoney just wanted to be famous, a writer and a nun.

"To be a writer was in every sense a vocation to me, much more than a profession," the 91-year-old Ursuline sister said at her College of New Rochelle campus home. She graduated from the college, and taught there for three decades: writing, and English and French literature. She has written 18 books, including four novels, four plays, three biographies and three histories of the Ursuline sisters--in China, Thailand and Montana. Her latest, China Dreams, was released in June, written from notes and memories of teaching in a Taiwan modern languages college in 1980-83.

Her life as a woman religious was not preordained. She was educated at an experimental elementary school on Long Island, has little record of receiving the sacraments, had no formal CCD training, hated her Catholic all-girls boarding school, and the Ursulines found her resume wanting "in a steady pursuit of virtue." She graduated from high school at 16, finished college in 1941 and worked for Prentice Hall publishers.

She rented an apartment in Manhattan and began to date. "Ultimately I received a grudging assent from religious authorities and, 'leaving the world,' I entered the Ursuline novitiate in 1943," Mahoney said. College teaching and her graduate work at Fordham University (a master's in Victorian poetry) and The Catholic University of America (a doctorate, Herman Melville) didn't dissipate her desire for the writing life. It simply left no time for it, except in diary format.

In hindsight, she recognized that religious life before the Second Vatican Council had little room for the nun-as-writer.

It began when her superior assigned her to produce a pamphlet on Marie of the Incarnation, who brought the Ursuline order to North America. Mahoney researched with gusto, traveled during summer breaks to Marie's native France and to the Ursuline Generalate in Rome.

Her superior changed, but Mahoney kept digging. After 13 years her pamphlet had grown to a 600-page manuscript. "In my superb innocence I put it in a discarded typing paper box, wrapped it in brown paper and sent it to Doubleday--the only publisher I knew with a Catholic books department." In less than a month she received a letter and an invitation to come in and chat about a contract.

"Joy knocked me off my feet and I took to my bed with the worst headache I had ever had," Mahoney recalled. Confessing her secret to her superior raised no eyebrows. "She neither congratulated me nor reprimanded me," but gave her the train fare into New York and assigned another sister to go with her.

A single issue from Doubleday does not assure fame, and certainly not fortune, Mahoney admitted. But it led to her being asked to write a life of French King Henry of Navarre, and of Catherine de Medici. She was also able to publish the selected writings of Marie of the Incarnation, who brought the Ursulines to Quebec, Canada, in 1639 and told the story of Ursulines in Montana in the 1880s in the book Lady Blackrobes: Missionaries in the Heart of Indiana Country. …

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