HARRINGTON, JOANNA, named Sister Mary Benedicta, member of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, mother superior, and educator; b. 15 Aug. 1845 in Chatham, N.B., daughter of John Harrington and Elizabeth O’Keefe; d. 12 Feb. 1895 in Halifax.
In 1864 the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, founded in 1849 by Rosanna McCann*, named Sister Mary Basilia, opened schools in Bathurst and Newcastle, N.B. Joanna Harrington was one of several young ladies from New Brunswick who promptly applied for admission to the community in Halifax. She entered the congregation on 19 March 1865. When she was admitted into the noviciate three months later, she took the name Mary Benedicta, and began preparing for a teaching career. In October Mother Mary Josephine Carroll, mother superior of the congregation at that time, wrote to Bishop James Rogers* of Chatham about the candidates from his diocese, “I am very much pleased with them. They show the very best dispositions.”
In 1867, after admission to vows, Sister Benedicta received her first teaching assignment, at the Russell Street school in the north end of Halifax. From 1868 to 1870 she taught 47 girls in the second grade at St Mary’s School. Holding a second-class licence, she earned an annual salary of $240. In the fall of 1870 she returned to the Russell Street school to replace Sister Mary Elizabeth O’Neill, who had been elected mother superior in that year. A small convent had been opened in St Joseph’s parish in 1868 to house the teaching sisters of the Russell Street school, as well as a number of orphans. Because the living quarters at St Joseph’s Convent were limited, Sister Benedicta came into close contact with the orphan children and experienced for the first time the work that was to be her greatest love.
The period between the death of Archbishop Thomas Louis Connolly* in 1876 and that of his successor, Michael Hannan*, in 1882 was particularly hard for the Sisters of Charity. A struggle developed between Archbishop Hannan and the mother superior at the time, Mother Mary Francis [Mary Ann Maguire*], both strong-minded individuals, concerning the archbishop’s jurisdiction over the congregation. Nowhere was the situation worse than at St Anne’s Convent at Eel Brook (Ste Anne du Ruisseau), where by 1878 Sister Benedicta was teacher and local superior. Facing what the annals of the convent call the “persecution” of the sisters there, Sister Benedicta played her role with courage and wisdom. Despite the efforts of the over-zealous local pastor, Eugène d’Hommé, to discredit the sisters and even to have his parishioners boycott them and their school, not one child was withdrawn. In 1879, probably acting on the advice of their lawyer, John Sparrow David Thompson, the sisters took their case to Rome. Although Pope Leo XIII decided in their favour on 30 April 1880, the strain of the struggle had undermined Mother Francis’s health and at an emergency election in June 1881 Mary Benedicta Harrington was named to succeed her.
As mother superior of the congregation during a most crucial time in its history, Mother Benedicta served the community and the church with selfless generosity. Remaining documents indicate neither extraordinary administrative ability nor any desire for power or prestige, but her term of office was both peaceful and fruitful. Despite the fact that 13 of some 60 sisters had left the community during the time of trial, Mother Benedicta opened new missions in Nova Scotia, at Lourdes and North Sydney, and took the initial steps that led to the opening of St Patrick’s Girls’ High School in Halifax in 1884. She also undertook an expansion of the motherhouse, Mount St Vincent, that doubled the size of the original building.
In 1884 Mother Benedicta refused a second term as superior of the congregation. She went instead as local superior to St Patrick’s Convent in Halifax. When St Patrick’s moved to larger quarters in 1888, the former convent was converted into a refuge for unmarried mothers and their babies, named the Home of the Guardian Angel. Mother Benedicta became its first local superior and directed the institution through its early poverty-stricken years. In this, her final apostolate, Mother Benedicta was most content. Her compassionate nature and her tactful, selfless cordiality made this work, so much in the tradition of her patron, St Vincent de Paul, very fruitful.
In 1894 the home was transferred to larger quarters, and the move and reorganization made demands that Mother Benedicta’s frail physique could not endure. The following February she died at the Home of the Guardian Angel and was buried from St Patrick’s Church. The Acadian Recorder reported that at her funeral, “The church was filled by the congregation, who mourn the loss of the true daughter of St. Vincent de Paul, who sought no applause, but whose deeds of charity will keep her memory green in the hearts of all who knew her.” In the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, Mother Benedicta is revered for a ministry that was, above all, healing, at a time in the community’s history when that quality was most essential.
Arch. de l’évêché de Bathurst (Bathurst, N.-B.), Arch. of the former diocese of Chatham, N.B., reg. of baptisms, 1845; Group II/2 (Rogers papers), Mother Josephine to Bishop Rogers, 19 Oct. 1865 (transcripts at Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul Arch., Halifax). Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Lettere, decreti e biglietti, 375: f.463; 376: f.234; Scritturi riferite nei Congressi, America settentrionale, 21: ff.767–70; 22: ff.164–80, 425 (copies at Sisters of Charity Arch.). PANS, RG 14, 31, school commissioners’ records, 1867–70. Sisters of Charity Arch., Annals, Holy Family Convent (West Bathurst, N.B.), “History,” 1–2; Sacred Heart Convent (Bathurst), “History,” 2; Sainte-Anne-du-Ruisseau Convent (Eel Brook [Ste Anne du Ruisseau, N.S.]); St Joseph Convent (Halifax); St Patrick’s Convent (Halifax); Biog. records of professed sisters, 1859–1951: 18. Acadian Recorder, 16 Feb. 1895. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 22 Aug. 1883. J. B. Hanington, Every popish person: the story of Roman Catholicism in Nova Scotia and the church of Halifax, 1604–1984 (Halifax, 1984). Marguerite Jean, Évolution des communautés religieuses de femmes au Canada de 1639 à nos jours (Montréal, 1977). [M. A. McCarthy, named] Sister Francis d’Assisi, A valiant mother, Mother M. Francis Maguire, 1832–1905; a selfless mother, Mother M. Benedicta Harrington, 1845–1895 (Halifax, 1971). [Mary Power, named] Sister Maura, The Sisters of Charity, Halifax (Toronto, 1956).