Ball, Frances (1794–1861)

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Ball, Frances (1794–1861)

Irish pioneer in the field of middle-class female education and founder of the Loreto Institute, which at the time of her death had 37 houses throughout the world. Name variations: Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa Ball, Mother Frances Mary Theresa, Mother Ball, Mrs. Ball. Born Frances Ball in early January 1794 in Dublin, Ireland; died in Dalkey, near Dublin, on May 19, 1861; daughter of John Ball (a merchant) and Mabel (Bennett) Ball; educated at the Convent of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, York; never married; no children.

Professed as a nun of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) at York (1816); established the first house of the Irish Institute of the BVM, known as the Loreto Institute, at Rathfarnham (1821).

On August 23, 1841, a ship left the quays in Dublin on the first stage of the long and hazardous voyage to India. On board were a number of nuns, charged with the task of establishing the first foundation of their Loreto Institute outside Ireland. The sisters' trepidation at the prospect of the journey and the challenge which faced them in a strange country was heightened by the knowledge that they were unlikely ever to return to their homeland. Hardly less moved was their mother superior and the founder of their congregation, Mother Frances (Teresa) Ball, who watched their departure from the shore. This was one of the very rare occasions on which Ball, normally an impassive and somewhat severe figure, was recorded as displaying emotion, and for that reason it made an unforgettable impression on those who witnessed it. As William Hutch, her first biographer, recorded the event:

On a tower within the enclosure of the newly established Convent [at Dalkey] … was stationed Rev Mother Ball, woe-stricken … pale, motionless, mute, in the intensity of her sorrow; and her eyes were never once removed from the receding sails of the out-bound vessel, until they firstly vanished from her sight, leaving her no hope of ever meeting her children again, until she should clasp them to her bosom in that land where there is parting nevermore.

The foundation of an Irish Loreto convent and school in India initiated a new phase in the mission of Mother Ball, who in the course of the previous two decades had established a network of schools throughout Ireland for the education of Catholic middle-class girls. In doing so, she drew on a family tradition of piety and public service. Her mother Mabel (Bennett) Ball was described by S.T. Coleridge as "a modest, retiring Christian lady, full of good works and of religious care for her family"; her father John Ball was a prosperous Dublin silk merchant and a convert to Catholicism.

By the closing decades of the 18th century, the legal and political disabilities to which Catholics had previously been subject had begun to disappear, and, as a wealthy man, John Ball was in a position to provide his four daughters with the best education currently available. However, the options available to middle-class Catholic girls were still very restricted; in fact, Frances, like her elder sisters, Anna Maria and Isabella, was sent to school at an English convent, that of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Micklegate Bar in York. In 1803, Frances arrived in York and stayed there for five years. She was a clever and serious-minded student, gifted, according to Hutch, "with talents of a high order … a clear, sound judgement … a retentive memory, and much quickness of apprehension," together with "remarkable application to study." When Frances was 14, however, John Ball died, and Mabel decided that Frances should finish her education and return to live with her in Dublin. Her life there, conventional and pleasant as it was, may well have seemed frivolous in contrast to what she had witnessed of convent life, but she did find a sympathetic friend in a local priest, Dr. John Murray, who encouraged her involvement in charitable effort and guided her in matters of faith and spirituality. Nevertheless, she shared her family's expectation that she would follow the normal path of marriage and motherhood and, according to her own account, had absolutely no attraction towards the religious life at this time.

At age 18, however, Frances was galvanized by a dramatic spiritual awakening. Drawing on her own version of events, William Hutch maintains that the awakening occurred during a ball and was sufficiently vivid to prompt her to an immediate and irrevocable decision, to "devote herself entirely to the service of God" by becoming a nun. For the present, however, she kept the experience a secret from her family and friends, confiding only in Murray. His advice was that she should take no decisive step for three years; in the meantime, she should "wait and pray" in order to test the reality of her vocation.

Privately, however, Murray already had in mind a role which would utilize Ball's remarkable strength of character and her capacity for leadership. Acutely conscious of the part which women could play in the promotion of Catholic belief and practice, Murray, who was soon to become archbishop of Dublin, had a particular interest in female education. He had already been instrumental in the establishment of a new religious congregation, the Sisters of Charity, which was primarily concerned with the education of the poor, but no comparable facility existed for middle-class Catholic girls. Murray now proposed to Frances that she should establish and lead a sisterhood, which would have as its mission the creation of a system of middle-class female education. Her first response was to protest her unworthiness, but she eventually acceded to his request and prepared to embark on her task. Although her family was at first shocked by her desire to become a nun, they did ultimately approve her decision, and, on June 11, 1814, she re-entered the Bar convent at York, this time as a novice rather than as a pupil. As Sister Mary Teresa, she carried out the various duties of a novice, and, in September 1816, having completed her training, she took her final vows as a nun.

Although both she and Murray were anxious that she should return to Ireland as quickly as possible in order to begin her mission there, the shortage of other candidates for the proposed sisterhood made this impossible, and Frances stayed on in York for another five years, during which she taught in the Institute's school, gaining useful experience for her future career. Nevertheless, the period was one of discouragement and depression for her, despite Murray's continued support. In 1819, however, two Irish girls arrived at York for training and, in the following year, were professed as Sisters Baptist and Ignatia . Meanwhile, Murray had bought a handsome but decrepit mansion at Rathfarnham, just outside Dublin, as a future convent and school, and, on August 10, 1821, Ball, together with the two other sisters, left York to return to Dublin, arriving at the port of Dun Laoghaire to find a huge crowd gathered to greet King George IV. The contrast between the welcome provided for the king, and the virtually unnoticed arrival of the small party of nuns, prompted Hutch to declare that "in truth the cheers should have gone forth, and the banners should have waved … on that August morning … not for the Fourth of the

Georges, but for Mother [Frances] Ball and her devoted companions, who in visiting Ireland brought priceless blessings in their train."

In the short term, however, the sisters did not even have a permanent home. Their house was still unfit for occupation, and for over a year Ball and her fellow nuns stayed in temporary lodgings. On November 4, 1822, they were finally able to move into their new convent at Rathfarnham, but problems remained. The renovation of the building was not yet complete, and their first months there were dogged by disaster, including a storm which badly damaged the house and grounds, and illness among both the sisters and their pupils.

However, the number of pupils and of applicants for admission to the religious life soon began to show an increase: in 1823, the nuns were able to open a poor school in Rathfarnham, in addition to their fee-paying establishment, and, by 1825, the congregation itself had nine members, although lack of money continued to be a problem. The school had accommodation for only 40 pupils, and the shortfall between the income from their fees and the costs of running the establishment had to be made up by the dowries customarily brought with them by new entrants to the community. By 1833, with 80 people living in the house, it was apparent that expansion was necessary, and Archbishop Murray, when Ball sought his advice, suggested that rather than simply build a new wing to the existing premises, she should open a second foundation elsewhere. Shortly afterwards, therefore, a new foundation and school were opened in Navan in County Meath. At the same time, Ball set up a new fee-paying day school at Harcourt Street in Dublin, the first such establishment to be run by a religious order in the city. Overcoming some initial difficulties, the school moved in 1841 to new premises on St. Stephen's Green and, within a short time, became one of the leading Catholic girls' schools in the country.

As a schoolgirl in York, Ball had been profoundly impressed by the splendor of the Minster, and she retained a firm belief in the spiritual power of architecture, asserting that when her pupils "have a fine church to pray in, their minds will be impressed with reverence for the great Being who dwells in the tabernacle." In 1838, work began on the building of a new church at the Rathfarnham convent, and she commissioned the celebrated English architect Augustus Pugin to design the interior and the Irish sculptor John Hogan to carve the high altar. However, she herself had a major part in the planning of the new building, and, according to Hutch, the church was "entirely the conception of Mrs Ball herself. She possessed a most accurate knowledge of the principles of architecture … and used to prepare her own plans with an accuracy of detail which would reflect credit on many professional men."

The building of the chapel fulfilled one of Ball's dearest wishes. Nevertheless, according to her own account, she was haunted by foreboding: "an inward voice was ever whispering in doleful prophecy, 'You will have the church, but sore trials will follow.'" According to Ball, this misfortune took the form of a number of deaths in the sisterhood, with seven members dying, all of tuberculosis, between 1836 and January 1840. Concern about the incidence of illness in the house confirmed Mother Ball in her wish to acquire what she called "a bathing lodge," where pupils and nuns might retire for rest or convalescence. After some research, she found a suitable site in the small fishing village of Dalkey, established a community there and set about the building of a new convent, reputedly drawing up the plans for it herself.

Meanwhile, after deliberation, she had agreed to the request of a ladies' committee in Calcutta that she send some sisters to run a convent school there. On August 23, 1841, 11 nuns left for India, where they started schools for both European and for poor Indian children, as well as an orphanage. Over the next two years, 14 more nuns were sent out, and ultimately three more convents were founded. These were followed by other overseas projects in Mauritius and Gibraltar (1845), Canada (1847), and Manchester and Cadiz (1851). New houses were also opened at home, and, by 1852, Rathfarnham and its six dependent convents in Ireland housed 126 nuns and 193 boarders, while the "select day-schools for young ladies" had 208 pupils and the free schools 503.

These successes, however, were countered by a number of disappointments. In 1852, Ball lost a valuable supporter and advisor when her old friend Archbishop Murray died. Two years later, on Ascension Day, 1854, the Clontarf convent was destroyed by fire. According to Hutch, Mother Ball showed her customary stoicism and unwavering faith. "She was stunned for a moment; but quickly recovering her self-possession, she said with incredible calmness, 'The Lord gave it, the Lord hath taken it away, and blessed for ever be the name of the Lord.'" Rebuilding began almost immediately, and, by Ascension Day of the following year, the sisters were able to return to Clontarf.

Most serious, however, was the growing unrest and dissension within the community at Stephen's Green, whose members apparently resented Ball's authority. They found a supporter for their case in Murray's successor, Archbishop Paul Cullen, and the dispute dragged on for a number of years, ending only when Mother Ball appealed over the head of the archbishop to the pope, who responded by ordering the dissident sisters back to obedience. Ball declared her joy at being able to "receive them back again to a mother's bosom," but she had been deeply hurt by what she regarded as a betrayal by those whom she had nurtured, and in fact relations between the Green and the mother house continued to be strained until after her death. The sensitivity of the whole affair can be deduced from the fact that Ball's 19th-century biographers made absolutely no mention of the quarrel: on the contrary, in Hutch's words, "the history of the Loreto House, Stephen's Green, since the day of its foundation, may be epitomised in two words—uninterrupted success."

By now 65 years old, Ball was as active as ever in the direction of her various foundations: as she told a colleague, "I am stronger now than 38 years ago. I enjoy more vigour and am more ready to found, when called upon." However, on October 17, 1860, she was hurrying through the corridors of Rathfarnham after a typically busy day when she fell, injuring her hip. Her condition soon worsened, although she survived for another seven months, in increasingly severe pain. In May 1861, aware that she was dying, she insisted on being moved to her "little paradise" at Dalkey, arriving there on Ascension Thursday. According to Hutch, "From the moment that Mrs Ball entered the room assigned to her at Dalkey, she abandoned all hope of ever leaving it alive, and began to make her immediate preparation for the great passage to eternity." A week later, on May 19, Pentecost Sunday, she died peacefully, in the presence of four of her nuns, and was buried a few days later at Rathfarnham.

At the time of her death, Ball had established 37 houses of her Order throughout the world. Enterprise on this scale clearly demanded not just piety, but also outstanding intelligence, toughness, and the ability to command. As Hutch described it, "Mrs Ball was born to rule," possessing "a clear, penetrating mind, solidity of judgement, discernment of character, prudence, forbearance, and a firmness of will which nothing could shake when she believed that what she had resolved upon was right." Her most immediately apparent traits were dignity and reserve, qualities which, according to her, were sometimes "misunderstood, and not infrequently led to a disesteem of her worth." According to those who knew her best, this formidable exterior concealed great thoughtfulness and compassion for those in spiritual or physical distress, but "by many," it was reported, she "was thought stiff and stand off," even "somewhat stern and unamiable," and her autocratic character may have created difficulties in dealing both with subordinates and with high-ranking clergy. Nevertheless, in her determination to fulfil what she believed to be God's will, she insisted on absolute obedience to her dictates. "No military commander," Hutch declared, "had ever drilled his troops into more perfect discipline than she had established among her nuns at Rathfarnham…. 'This regularity in our actions,' Ball would say to them, 'is like symmetry in a building, which adds to its beauty as well as to its strength.'"

In some instances, probably in relation to the quarrel with the St. Stephen's Green community, Hutch clearly felt that she had been too autocratic. As he suggests in a rare criticism, in her "zeal for the enforcement of obedience … she carried her views of authority too far…. In a word, she wished Rathfarnham Abbey to be the centre around which all her other convents should revolve." Such assertiveness was bound to be unpopular in a hierarchical and patriarchal church, but it is characteristic of Ball that, having decided that centralization was an essential part of her strategy, she should persist in it against the opposition even of her own archbishop. To the end of her life, indeed, she displayed her determination to ensure the unity, and thus safeguard the future and the effectiveness of her congregation. In this, as in all her work, the motivating force was her deep and unwavering religious faith. According to Hutch, "God's glory was the principle which shaped and guided her every action. This same spirit she laboured … to infuse into the hearts of her children. 'No effort,' she would often say to them, 'should be lost, when there is question of the salvation of souls.'"

While Ball certainly hoped that her legacy would be primarily a spiritual one, her work also had practical implications for the place of women in Irish society. While her pupils included poor children, her schools were principally intended for the daughters of the Irish Catholic middle-class and were the first to address the educational needs of this category on a widespread basis. Initially designed to produce godly and virtuous wives and mothers, they adapted impressively to the economic, social, and cultural changes of the later decades of the 19th century, not least in the area of women's rights, and were among the first establishments in which Catholic girls could prepare for state examinations and could study for university degrees. If Ball did not foresee this development, it is likely that she would have approved it. As Hutch recorded, she taught her pupils "to aim at perfection in everything, and to be content with nothing less…. She frequently repeated to them this favourite maxim of hers: 'whatever is done for God should be well done.'" In this, as in all her precepts, she demanded of herself no less than she did of others.


Coleridge, Henry James. The Life of Mother Frances Mary Teresa Ball. Dublin and London: M.H. Gill & Son, 1881.

Forristal, Desmond. The First Loreto Sister. Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1994.

Hutch, William. Mrs. Ball: A Biography. Dublin and London: James Duffy and Sons, 1879.

MacDonald, Mother Evangeline. Joyful Mother of Children. Dublin: 1961.

suggested reading:

Clear, Caitriona. Nuns in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin: 1987.

——. "The limits of female autonomy: nuns in nineteenth-century Ireland," in Maria Luddy and Cliona Murphy, eds. Women Surviving. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1990, pp. 15–50.

Fahey, Tony. "Nuns in the Catholic church in Ireland in the nineteenth century," in Girls don't do honours. Edited by Mary Cullen. Dublin: 1987, pp. 7–30.


Archives of Loreto Convent, Rathfarnham, Dublin.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland

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Ball, Frances (1794–1861)

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