Mary Joseph Butler
Irish Abbess, b. at Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland, in Dec., 1641; d. at Ypres, 22 Dec., 1723
Butler, MARY JOSEPH, first Irish Abbess of the Irish Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Grace, at Ypres, Flanders, b. at Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland, in December, 1641; d. at Ypres, December 22, 1723. Sent to be educated under the care of her aunt, Lady Abbess Knatchbull of the English Benedictine Dames at Ghent, she petitioned, when twelve years old, to be received into the order, a request granted two years later. She made her religious profession November 4, 1657 at the English Benedictine convent at Boulogne, at the age of sixteen. In 1665 the mother-house of Ghent made another foundation, at Ypres, with Dame Beaumont as abbess, but as the house did not thrive under her auspices, it was decided, upon her death in 1682, to convert the house at Ypres into a national foundation for the Irish Benedictine nuns of the various houses founded from Ghent. Dame Butler accordingly was sent to Ypres in 1683, and, on the death of the second abbess, in 1686, was elected Abbess of the Irish Dames of Ypres, August 29. Soon after her election she was called upon to take a leading part in a new Benedictine foundation in Dublin, set on foot by King James II. By letters-patent or charter, which is dated in the sixth year of his reign, and still preserved in the convent of Ypres, King James confers upon this his “first and chief Royal Monastery of Gratia Dei”, an annuity of one hundred pounds sterling to be paid forever out of his exchequer, and appoints his “well-beloved Dame Mary Butler” first abbess. Her brother was King James’s Chief Cup-bearer for Ireland, a title hereditary in the Butler family, as their name implies. Having overcome many difficulties Abbess Butler set out for Dublin in the year 1688, and in passing through London was presented with her nuns in the Benedictine habit to the Queen at Whitehall. Towards the end of the year she arrived in the Irish capital, and took up her abode in a house in Great Ship Street. Here the Divine Office and regular observance were at once begun and a school opened. About thirty young girls of the first families were entrusted to the nuns for their education and no less than eighteen of them expressed a wish to become religious. But the good work was rudely interrupted by the entry of the usurper William’s forces into Dublin, after the battle of the Boyne (I or July 11, 1690). The convent was sacked by his soldiery, and the nuns forced to seek refuge in a neighboring house, but the church plate and other treasures were saved by the presence of mind of a lay sister, Placida Holmes, who disguised herself in secular clothes, and mingled with the plunderers. On the closing of the Dublin convent, the Duke of Ormonde assured his cousin, Abbess Butler, of his special protection, should she consent to remain in Ireland, but she decided to return to Ypres, upon which the duke procured for her, from the Prince of Orange, a passport (still preserved at Ypres) permitting her and her nuns to leave the country without molestation.
On her arrival at Ypres she resumed conventual life in extreme poverty with only a few lay sisters to assist her. So great indeed was their destitution that the bishop strongly urged her to sell the house and retire whithersoever she pleased, but she would not abandon the work, and her faith was rewarded, for at length in the year 1700, she had the happiness of professing several new subjects (among them two Irish ladies from the French subjects who assisted her in keeping up the choir and regular observance. She continued to govern her flock with much wisdom and discretion until the year 1723, when she died in the sixty-sixth year of her religious profession, and the thirty-sixth year of her abbatial dignity. King James II, and more especially his Queen, Mary of Modena, were great benefactors and friends of Abbess Butler, and of the Irish convent of Ypres, which she saved from extinction and which has survived ever since. It enjoys the distinction of being the only religious house in all the Low Countries which remained standing during the storms of the French Revolution and of being the only Irish Abbey of the Benedictine Order.