Sadlier, Mary Anne (1820–1903)

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Sadlier, Mary Anne (1820–1903)

Irish-born author. Name variations: Mary Anne Madden; Mary Ann Sadlier; Mrs. J. Sadlier. Born Mary Anne Madden on December 31, 1820, in Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland; died on April 5, 1903, in Montreal, Canada; daughter of Francis Madden (a merchant); married James Sadlier (a publisher), in November 1846; children: three daughters, including Anna T. Sadlier (a writer); three sons; one foster son.

Selected writings:

The Blakes and the Flanagans (1855); Willie Burke: A Tale of the Irish Orphan in America (c. 1856); Bessy Conway (1862); Catechism of Sacred History and Doctrine (1864); Maureen Dhu (1870); Purgatory: Doctrinal, Historical, and Poetical (1886); De Fromental (1887); (with daughter, Anna T. Sadlier) Stories of the Promises (1895).

Although Mary Anne Sadlier published her first poems in the London periodical La Belle Assemblée at age 18, she produced her most serious work after immigrating to North America at age 24. The author of nearly 60 novels, many of which originally appeared in serial form in Catholic newspapers, she explored in her work the cultural and religious dimensions of Irish immigration in the United States, with a distinctively conservative Catholic perspective. Despite her distrust of literature on moral grounds, Sadlier used the novel as a forum for providing young Irish Catholics with models for ways to resist what she felt were the damaging effects of American liberal Protestantism. She affirmed the values of the traditional Irish patriarchal family and hierarchical society, and argued against American individualism. A strong voice for conservative Catholicism, Sadlier was praised for her treatment of Irish Catholic issues, and won the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame in 1895.

She was born Mary Anne Madden on December 31, 1820, in Cootehill, County Cavan, Ireland. Her father Francis Madden was a successful merchant who raised Mary Anne following the death of her mother while the girl was quite young. He suffered business losses in the 1840s and soon died, after which she sailed for New York City in 1844. In November 1846, she married James Sadlier, co-owner (with his brother, Denis) of a Catholic publishing house. The couple then moved to Montreal, Canada, where James managed a branch of the firm and Mary Anne gave birth to three daughters and three sons. She and her husband also took in a foster son. During her 14 years in Montreal, Sadlier published a collection of short stories, several novels, and contributed to numerous Catholic journals, including the Boston Pilot, the New York Tablet, The Literary Garland, and The American Celt. The family returned to New York in 1860, by which time Sadlier had gained a reputation as a Catholic writer for her poetry and fiction in defense of the faith (sometimes produced on request).

In New York City, Sadlier cultivated a wide circle of literary, clerical, and lay acquaintances, hosting weekly receptions at her East Broadway house as well as at her summer home in Far Rockaway. She also supported Catholic charities. Those in her circle included Archbishop Hughes of New York and the Irish statesman and poet Thomas D'Arcy McGee, whose Poems of D'Arcy McGee she edited in 1869.

Sadlier wrote out of her concern for Irish youth, constructing such characters as Bessy Conway in her novel of the same name to show the moral dilemmas faced by Irish servant girls. Her other novels, also didactic in nature, addressed conflicts facing young Irish immigrants to America. Despite artistic flaws, her novels were quite popular with their intended audience, and are now considered important depictions of Irish immigrant life of the era. Willie Burke: A Tale of the Irish Orphan in America sold 7,000 copies following its publication around 1856. Other significant titles include The Blakes and the Flanagans (1855), The Confederate Chieftains (1860), Aunt Honor's Keepsake (1866), Confessions of an Apostate (1868), and De Fromental (1887). After the death in 1869 of her husband, who had often suggested topics for her books, Sadlier focused her writing increasingly on religious and historical themes. Later works included two produced collaboratively, Catechism of Sacred History and Doctrine (1864), with Mother Angela Gillespie , and Stories of the Promises (1895), with her daughter Anna T. Sadlier , who herself enjoyed a career as a well-known Catholic writer. She also published a translation of Matthieu Orsini's Life of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God (1885) and wrote Purgatory: Doctrinal, Historical, and Poetical (1886). Sadlier returned to Montreal in the 1880s to be near her children, and died on April 5, 1903.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Lolly Ockerstrom , freelance writer, Washington, D.C.