The nun who sued her Mother Superior – the strange case of Saurin v Starr

In a guest post, Neil Addison recalls a judgment handed down this day 150 years ago that was something of a cause célèbre in its time…

On February 26 1869, a jury gave its decision in a civil trial in the Court of Queen’s Bench before the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, Bt. Almost forgotten today, the case of Saurin v Starr was at the time front-page news in Britain and Ireland, lasted three weeks, led to questions in Parliament and a Times editorial, and caused acute embarrassment to the Catholic Church.

The Plaintiff was Susanna Mary Saurin, also known as Sister Mary Scholastica, a professed member of the Sisters of Mercy, and she was suing her former superiors Mary Starr and Mary Kennedy for false imprisonment, libel, assault and conspiracy to expel her from the Order. The allegations as set out in the claim were that

“the defendants did subject [Saurin] to a long series of indignities, persecutions and annoyances and did deprive her of food and clothing and divers articles of her property, they imprisoned the plaintiff to prevent her from attending divine services and made a false charge against her to to the Bishop [of Beverley] whereby she was expelled from the order.”

The barrister representing Saurin was none other than the then Solicitor General, Sir John Duke Coleridge MP (at that time the Law Officers were permitted to continue their private practice), who in his opening said that the case

“showed what women are capable of when they shut themselves up from their kind, and do violence to the instincts of their nature; and what mean and petty cruelty, they can wreak upon sister-women in the name of the God of Love.”

and in a beautifully non-PC addition:

“the wretched little bits of spite and hatred which are to be seen throughout the case become doubly detestable when wreaked by women upon a woman, heightened by all those small acts of torture with which women are so profoundly and so peculiarly acquainted.”

Mary Saurin was not an obvious person to embarrass the Catholic Church. She was from an Irish Catholic family in Drogheda, the youngest of six children, two of her sisters were Carmelite nuns, one brother was a Jesuit priest and her uncle was a parish priest. Nor had she been pressurised to become a nun – quite the contrary: her parents felt that two daughters in the convent was quite sufficient and actively discouraged her vocation, only consenting with reluctance when it became apparent that she was determined. This became an important aspect during the trial when it was suggested that Saurin did not have a real vocation and was only interested in eating and smart clothing. As her counsel pointed out, if a woman wanted nice clothes and good food becoming a nun was not the obvious way to get them

The facts as alleged were that Saurin was sent to a new Convent in Yorkshire where Starr was the Superior with Kennedy as her deputy, this meant that under her vows Saurin owed them both a duty of obedience. At first, things went well then for some reason things changed. Saurin said that the change happened after Starr had asked what conversation Saurin had had with the Priest when she was in confession, Saurin not unnaturally refused to say and thereafter matters went from bad to worse.

Saurin claimed to have been subjected to numerous petty but vindictive actions by Starr and Kennedy. She was not allowed to write to her family and was accused of disobedience for writing to her uncle who was a priest. She was not provided with letters sent by her family or she was only allowed to have them for a short period before they were torn up. When her father was extremely ill she was not allowed to go to Dublin to see him, she was not told when one of her brothers had died and she was given humiliating physical work not allocated to others in the Convent. She alleged that she was routinely given mutton to eat even though she specifically detested it and she was given it when others had different meat. The allegations were what today would be regarded as a course of conduct of harassment – though harassment as such was not recognised by the law at that time.

The defence denied that Saurin had been specifically picked on in any way but in any event relied on the fact that Starr was the Superior of Saurin and under the rules of the Order she had the right to permit or refuse the sending or receipt of letters and to allocate tasks within the Convent, since Saurin had vowed obedience to her Superiors in the Order they had right to make the decisions which were complained of. The Lord Chief Justice, however, did not agree that a vow of obedience meant that Starr had an open-ended right to give any orders she wanted.

“Right means what is rightly exercised and we are not now enquiring merely what may have been within the power of the Superior …. but whether that power was honestly exercised or abused for the purpose of oppression and persecution.”

This legal analysis by the Lord Chief Justice would probably still be regarded as valid if any case involving a vow of obedience ever came before the Courts today.

The situation worsened and Starr then contacted the Bishop of Beverley to complain about Saurin and to state that either Saurin had to go or Starr would resign. The Bishop was involved because the convent was within his Diocese of Beverley (today the two Dioceses of Leeds and Middlesborough), and under the convent’s tules the Bishop had ‘visitatorial rights’, meaning that it was his duty to ensure the proper running of the convent,  to hear and determine complaints and, in effect, to act as an Ombudsman where issues could not be resolved within the convent itself. Sadly, the Bishop, Robert Cornthwaite, proved totally unfitted to the task. As letters in the trial were to prove, he decided that he must support the Convent Superior and assured Starr, “I will take care to have her [Saurin] removed”.

After the Bishop had given that assurance to Starr he appointed a Commission of Inquiry, overtly to enquire into the conduct of Saurin but in reality to rubber-stamp a decision the Bishop had already made. The Commission was described in the trial as “a parody of justice”, a number of statements were before the Commission accusing Saurin of various failings but the witnesses themselves were not produced. Saurin and her uncle (who represented her) were not shown the statements. Instead, parts of them were read out and Saurin asked to respond – and when making her response, she was not allowed to express any complaints about any other sister, including Starr. After the Commission hearing, the Bishop told Saurin that she was to be discharged from her vows.

In the trial, the complaints against Saurin were examined in detail and the witnesses produced. Many of the allegations were astonishing in their sheer triviality:

“talking unnecessarily to the children [in the Convent School], getting up early and going into the Garden without permission, denying her faults when accused of them.”

But there were other points which had a more unpleasant imputation: “She is particularly fond of talking to priests and putting herself in their way.” At one point the jury objected to the triviality of many of these incidents, but the Judge pointed out that “things which might to people in the world appear trifling … in the Convent might assume a very different aspect.”

The more important part of the case turned on what happened after the Bishop had made his decision. Saurin was told to leave the Convent and she refused: “I will never leave this Convent of my free will, if you are determined to expel me you must put me out by force.”

Unwilling to remove Saurin by force, a campaign of petty cruelty was launched to “persuade” her to leave. Saurin’s religious habit was removed when she was asleep and a secular dress left which she initially refused to wear until forced to by the cold, she was not allowed a fire and was not allowed to go into the convent library or to have any books – not even prayerbooks. When she was in a corridor saying the Stations of the Cross she was told to leave by Kennedy, who “saw no reason why she should be there”, a nun slept outside Saurin’s room, she was accompanied wherever she went and her wedding ring which she wore as a ‘Bride of Christ’ was removed – an action described by the Judge as “an act of unnecessary cruelty and harshness.”

After several months of this treatment, Saurin was visited by her brother, who arranged for a doctor to be called and then removed her back to her family in Ireland. There she found herself in an ambivalent and unpleasant position: still regarding herself as a nun and bound by her vows but regarded by others as a woman who had been thrown out of the convent for unknown offences. Eventually, she sued Starr and Kennedy in part to clear her name.

The jury found for Saurin on the counts of libel and conspiracy and awarded her £500 (equivalent to £50,000 today). The case itself was widely reported, books were published about the “Great Convent Scandal” and an editorial in The Times talked of “the spiritual tyranny and the moral degradation which might be concealed in Conventual Institutions under the most harmless exterior”.In 1870, Charles Newdegate MP relied on the Saurin case to obtain a majority vote in Parliament to form a committee to inquire about the state of affairs in the convents and monasteries of Britain, though the Government ignored the vote. What happened to Saurin herself after her court victory I have been unable to find out, other than that she died in 1915

One fact that does, however, stand out from reading the papers in the case is the sheer incompetence and unpleasant deviousness of Bishop Roger Cornthwaite of Beverley. As the Lord Chief Justice said:

“the miserable squabbles of a convent might much better have been disposed of, and ought to have been disposed of, by the visitatorial jurisdiction of the Bishop … if [the Bishop] had thoroughly investigated the whole matter he might have settled it, and so the matter might have ended, without the painful consequences which have ensued.”

Bishop Cornthwaite clearly failed to carry out his responsibilities properly, he had a problem which he preferred to sweep under the carpet and he went for the easy answer of supporting the Superior instead of properly investigating the facts. His failure inflicted a gross injustice on Saurin and led to the case and a great deal of public scandal for the Catholic Church. His failure is a warning and a lesson for today just as much as it was in 1869.

Neil Addison is a Barrister

Transcripts of the speeches and evidence in the Trial are available on Google Books

Cite this article as: Neil Addison, “The nun who sued her Mother Superior – the strange case of Saurin v Starr” in Law & Religion UK, 26 February 2019, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2019/02/26/the-nun-who-sued-her-mother-superior-the-strange-case-of-saurin-v-starr/,

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