Gaffney, Honoria (Mother Mary Evangelista) (1853–1920), missionary nun, was born 1 May 1853 in the parish of Kilronan, Keadue, Co. Roscommon, the seventh of ten children of Patrick Gaffney, cobbler and smallholder, and his wife Mary (née Quinn). Gaffney's parents farmed eleven acres of poor land in the townland of Bolarry, on the slopes of Kilronan mountain above Keadue. Honoria was educated in the local infants' school and girls' national school, and trained as a national teacher under the pupil-teacher system. Despite contemplating a religious vocation, she remained at home to care for her mother until she died in 1879. The older siblings emigrated; the oldest, Mary, died of tuberculosis soon after arrival in USA. Honoria appears to have contracted the disease as a child. Her father and relatives actively supported the Land League.
In December 1881 Gaffney took up a teaching position at Rooskey national school in Knock parish, Co. Mayo, where her aunt was headmistress. By the time of Gaffney's arrival (autumn 1880 or early 1881), the Knock apparition of 21 August 1879 had led to an upsurge of activity in the parish. In the following three years she worked closely with Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh (qv), who sought to expand local school provision. She again considered a religious vocation; Cavanagh, however, discouraged her from entering the local Mercy convent as he hoped to found a new community in Knock dedicated to St Joseph and the souls in purgatory.
On 15 November 1882 Gaffney entered the new religious community established in Churchfield House, Knock, by Margaret Cusack (qv), 'the Nun of Kenmare', to whom she had been introduced by Fr Cavanagh, who regarded Cusack's plans as fulfilling his hopes. Gaffney was the second recruit, after Mary Byrne from Tulsk. Martha Smith, a Poor Clare lay sister seconded from a convent in Cavan, oversaw the formation of Gaffney and Byrne, and other novices who joined the community early in 1883. The novices took part in various forms of active ministry locally; Gaffney's post was transferred from Rooskey to Knock by the Education Board and in May 1883 she was appointed headmistress of Infant School, Churchfield House.
Gaffney and three other novices received the Poor Clare habit on 24 May 1883 after a retreat and took religious names associated with the apparition: Gaffney became Sister Mary Evangelista after St John the Evangelist. She always treasured the memory of the simplicity and harmony of community life in their make-shift accommodation in the stables of Churchfield House. The experience was the foundation of what was to develop into the spirituality and distinct collegial character of the later Sisters of St Joseph of Peace. In the memoir written a few months before she died in 1920, Gaffney paid tribute to the home-spun piety of Sr Martha Smith and also to the organising genius of Cusack that made the situation possible. Despite later debacles, she held that Cusack's decision to found a new order (eventually the Congregation of St Joseph of Peace; CSJP) that reflected the message of the apparition had been divinely inspired and that the congregation's development represented the fulfilment of God's will.
While the day-to-day novitiate formation was in the hands of Sr Martha, Cusack went ahead with the construction of an imposing abbey she already named 'Ave Maria'. Her ideas were not in accord with those of Cavanagh and Archbishop John MacEvilly (qv). She became increasingly embroiled in personal quarrels with church authorities and, after several attempts to establish her prerogative, she realised she had no future in Knock. In November 1883, after consulting the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Henry Manning, Cusack hastily moved the community to the diocese of Nottingham (which covered much of the east midlands and English east coast). Cusack's abrupt announcement caused considerable confusion in the community (as well as to well-wishers in Knock and to numerous unpaid workmen and other creditors). Some novices associated with Cavanagh returned home; Gaffney was one of four who chose to follow Cusack to England, possibly expecting an eventual return to Knock.
The choice of Nottingham reflected the missionary needs of the thinly stretched catholic community in the area, and the fact that Bishop Edward Gilpin Bagshawe (1829–1915) was well known for his social concern, Hibernophilia (he was the only English catholic bishop other than Manning to advocate home rule for Ireland), and willingness to accept clerics and religious whom others regarded with suspicion. (Some of these experiments were highly successful; from 1877 Bagshawe enabled Mary Potter (1847–1913), who was widely dismissed as eccentric, to establish a highly successful order of nuns, the Little Company of Mary (LCM).)
On 1 January 1884 Bagshawe formally received the community into his diocese amid extensive press coverage, and accepted their Knock novitiate as valid. On 7 January Gaffney and Sister Rose Kelly (from Tuam) took first vows, and the community was sent to open a primary school at two weeks' notice in a difficult parish in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Gaffney was the only trained teacher among the community. After clashes between Cusack and a newly appointed parish priest who replaced her as school manager, Cusack went to Rome (taking Sr Rose as companion) to seek initial approval for the new congregation. Sr Evangelista remained in the school as headmistress while the other two sisters engaged in home nursing and pastoral work, which they financed by opening a small private school. Novices were recruited, and on Cusack's return from Rome a convent and girls' hostel were opened in Nottingham on 15 May; new premises were also secured in Grimsby. In October Gaffney's work was abruptly interrupted when Cusack ordered her to accompany her to America.
Cusack had never intended to make a long-term personal commitment to Nottingham; she had high hopes of building on her American literary reputation and eclipsing Charlotte Grace O'Brien as emigrants' advocate. On stopping off in Cork en route and on arrival in New York, Cusack and Gaffney discovered the Knock debacle had permanently alienated the Irish and Irish-American clergy, who wanted nothing to do with Cusack. The new congregation was, however, received into the diocese of Newark, New Jersey, run by a German-American bishop, Winand Michael Wigger (1841–1901). While Cusack travelled and wrote, Gaffney oversaw the development of the new province until she was recalled to Nottingham in May 1885. (Sr Rose who had been left in charge had quarrelled with Cusack and been dismissed); Bagshawe suspended the order and closed the novitiate until Gaffney returned; when harmony was quickly restored more schools were established in rural areas of the diocese.
In July 1887 Gaffney's work was again disrupted when she was summoned to America to deputise as mother general for six months and share the workload with Sr Ignatius Casserley (a mature woman, also from Co. Roscommon, who had been hastily professed and had taken over Gaffney's tasks after her departure in 1885). Unknown to the other sisters, Cusack was now contemplating a return to protestantism, and in 1888 she unexpectedly left the convent. Her subsequent activities as a protestant polemicist and anti-catholic lecturer proved highly damaging to the nascent congregation, deterring potential donors and recruits; the sisters in Nottingham were only kept from disbanding by Bagshawe's assurance that, having approved the congregation, he considered himself its founder and would work on its behalf, while some American recruits left and Wigger temporarily suspended the order in his diocese.
Gaffney consulted Bagshawe, and the order's first general chapter was called in Nottingham. Gaffney (who had remained in America) was elected mother general (Cusack had never been formally elected) and returned to Britain. She worked with Bagshawe to establish new missions (notably a children's home in Hanwell, west London, so that the order now had a presence in three dioceses). Having been supplied by Bagshawe with the LCM constitution as a model, Gaffney revised the constitutions drafted by Cusack so that they could be tested in practice and sent to Rome for formal approval. In 1890 Gaffney revisited Ireland to recruit postulants; the last of her siblings emigrated to America after their father's death in Keadue (23 October 1890). This Roscommon connection persisted; many recruits were subsequently drawn from Gaffney's home region and extended family.
In 1891–4 Gaffney paid a visitation to America, where a new mission field had opened in the diocese of Tacoma (which then covered much of the Pacific north-west). This new frontier, where the church was in urgent need of personnel, less Irish-dominated, and less concerned with the rows surrounding Cusack, was to prove central to the order's future development. Here the congregation founded and staffed schools and hospitals, and acquired a reputation for simplicity and practicality. Gaffney paid a nine-month visit to this new territory, opening and teaching in a school during her stay, and worked in New Jersey before returning to England for the second general chapter, where she was re-elected.
In October 1894 Gaffney and Bagshawe presented the completed constitutions at Rome, but were ordered to change everything connected with Cusack – name, habit and constitutions. Gaffney wrote a brief account of her order and her connection with it for the benefit of the Roman authorities, which survives in the Roman archives. The new constitution received a 'decree of praise' under which it operated for the remainder of Gaffney's life; it was not formally approved until 1924 (after the 1917 codification of canon law tightened procedures).
After bringing the new constitutions to Nottingham, Gaffney spent four years in America (September 1896–November 1900) trying to hold the order together; a rival draft constitution had been prepared by Fr MacAtee, a Jesuit priest who was the order's chaplain in Newark, and Wigger wished it to become an order of diocesan right under his jurisdiction as bishop of Newark. Bagshawe supported Gaffney in securing its position as an order of pontifical right (i.e., answerable directly to Rome), though at one point he had doubts about its survival prospects and suggested a merger with the LCM. It was through Gaffney's personal work and influence (which she combined with extensive pastoral work of every kind) that the CSJP survived as a united and independent body.
Gaffney returned to Britain in November 1900, suffering from tuberculosis; for the remainder of her life she suffered from spasmodic haemorrhages. After three months in a sanatorium on the Isle of Wight, she attended the third general chapter in Nottingham (October 1902), where she was replaced as mother general; shortly afterwards, Newark became the base of the mother general. The last eighteen years of Gaffney's career were spent in Nottingham as English provincial, general counsellor to the mother general, and novice mistress. Sisters formed by her recalled her as taking a strong personal interest in their interests, joys, and anxieties, bringing to them – as she brought to the sick she nursed and the working girls for whom she founded night classes – a spirituality based on the confident acceptance of God's will in the present moment. 'Mother taught us to appreciate manual labour. The humbler it was the more she herself esteemed it', recalled Sister Ignatius Killian.
Gaffney continued to take an interest in Ireland (which she revisited on a recruiting mission in 1905, visiting Sister Martha Smith in Cavan), but did not allow it to interfere with her mission. During the first world war, she and the sisters worked with Belgian refugees and nursed wounded soldiers. After the 1916 Easter rising she assisted the Sinn Féin alderman Tom Kelly (qv), whose sister was a CSJP nun in Grimsby, to reside in Grimsby after he was deported from Ireland, leading to the donation to the National Library of Ireland of books left by Cusack in Grimsby. On her deathbed Gaffney asked that the Irish RM stories of Somerville (qv) and Ross (qv) should be read to her, as she appreciated their humour and glimpses of Irish country life.
In 1920 Gaffney wrote a brief manuscript memoir of the CSJP foundation for the benefit of Bishop Thomas Dunn of Nottingham (appointed 1916), who was unfamiliar with the order and its connection with the diocese, where she was now 'elder stateswoman'. This is preserved in the Nottingham diocesan archives.
Honoria Gaffney died in Nottingham of tuberculosis on 21 July 1920, and is buried there. Although she never described herself as the CSJP foundress (both her reminiscences emphasise Cusack's role despite the subsequent debacle), the order generally regarded Gaffney and Bagshawe as co-founders. Two under-researched and over-romanticised biographies of Gaffney were published by Sister M. Rita Bates (1953) and Sister M. Rosarii McDermott (1961), but from the 1960s her reputation went into eclipse. This was partly because the American province of the order became numerically dominant; since Gaffney spent her last years in England; few American sisters retained personal memories of her or received them from those who had met her. Its primary cause, however, was the rediscovery of Cusack, which tended to accept uncritically her literary self-presentation as a long-suffering victim of arbitrary power. This retrospective eclipse of Gaffney by Cusack represents a serious historical injustice. Cusack, though a talented and in some respects tragic figure, contributed substantially to her own difficulties through egoism and arbitrary behaviour. Her interest in the order was primarily as a support mechanism for her own literary activities, and her image of religious life was heavily conditioned by her experiences as a Poor Clare and her aggressively uncritical reading of older devotional material. It was Gaffney's emphasis on simplicity, flexibility and unity which preserved the congregation and underpinned its subsequent activities in England and America.