24 November 2022

Mother Mary Clare Whitty:
Sign of the Cross in Korea

Lectern by Sophia Angel St John Whitty in Christchurch, Bray. Image courtesy of Christchurch, Bray

Patrick Comerford

Mother Mary Clare Whitty (1883-1950) was a tewntieth-century Anglican nun and martyr who spent her childhood in Limerick. The daughter a doctor who practised in the Crescent, she was a cousin of Catherine O’Brien, the stained-glass artist. She died during a so-called ‘Death March’ in the closing days of the Korean War, and was buried in a lonely, shallow grave by French Catholic nuns, but her story is often untold, even within Church of Ireland and Anglican circles.

Mother Mary Clare was born Clare Emma Whitty in Fenloe, near Newmarket-on-Fergus, on 30 May 1883, during one of many family holidays in Co Clare. Her sister, Sophia Angel St John Whitty (1877-1924), was born in Dublin and was a celebrated artist and woodcarver. The family claimed descent from an old Co Wexford family that once lived in Ballyteigue Castle, near Kilmore. Their father, Dr Richard Whitty (1844-1897), was from Rathvilly, Co Carlow, where at least three members of the Whitty family were Church of Ireland priests. Another branch of the family included three Rectors of Kilrush, Co Clare. Through their mother, Jane Alicia (Hickman), the Whitty sisters were cousins of Catherine O’Brien (1881-1963), the stained-glass artist of An Túr Gloine studios; the Irish nationalist historian Alice Stopford-Green (1847-1929); and the controversial hymn-writer Stopford Brooke (1832-1916), who translated Still the Night, a version of Silent Night that has lost popularity. The Whitty sisters spent their early childhood in Whitechurch, near Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, but family holidays were spent in Co Clare. When they were still children, Dr Whitty qualified as a medical doctor, the family moved to Limerick, and for many years they lived at No 11 The Crescent, on the corner of Barrington Street. Clare Emma Whitty later studied art in Paris, where she became fluent in French, and then became a teacher in Birmingham, and worked as a church worker at Saint Alban’s in Birmingham, whose vicar, the Revd Alfred (Cecil) Cooper, later became the fourth Bishop of Korea. In 1912, she joined the Anglican Community of Saint Peter, then based in Kilburn, London, taking her vows in 1915 as Sr Mary Clare. Before the outbreak of World War I, her friend Mark Trollope (1862-1930) was appointed the third Anglican Bishop of Korea. As the Vicar of Saint Augustine’s in Kilburn, Trollope had known Sr Mary Clare, and he invited her to start a society of Korean sisters.

The First World War disrupted those plans, and when she eventually reached Korea in 1923 she began Korean language studies. With the help of Bishop Trollope, she founded the Society of the Holy Cross in Seoul in 1925, and was appointed novice mistress. Back in England for a time in 1928-29, she lived at the mother house of the Community of Saint Peter in Kilburn. She then returned to Seoul to take up her role as the first Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1929. In Korea, she earned a reputation as a botanist and she contributed papers to the journal of the Korean branch of the Royal Asiatic Socety.

During World War II, Mother Mary Clare was repatriated in 1941. She left England in 1946, and returned through Kure in Japan to Korea, arriving back in January 1947, describing herself as a teacheron the ship’s passenger list. On the outbreak of the Korean War, she turned down an offer from the British embassy to evacuate from Seoul, deciding to stay with her congregation. When the North Koreans captured Seoul in June 1950. she took refuge with other foreign civilians in the British Embassy. But, when the North Korean forces consolidated their occupation of Seoul, she was interned.

Following the success of the United Nations forces landing at Inchon, the North Korean forces retreated from Seoul. Mother Mary Clare and other foreign civilian prisoners, including many Christian missionaries, were marched into the northern part of North Korea. The last part of their ‘death march’ began on 30 October and involved a forced march of over 150 kilometres in early winter with little food or warm clothing. Mother Mary Clare died on 6 November 1950 near Chunggangjinon. The sixty-seven-year-old nun was buried in a shallow grave near the Chosin Reservoir in the north-west part of North Korea by five French-speaking Roman Catholic sisters. They used an improvised bier to bring her to the top of a neighbouring hill, close to the camp, where they dug her grave.

Ten months after the end of the Korean War, the Church Times published a short obituary notice in April 1954 that described Mother Mary Clare as a ‘devoted and courageous English Sister.’ But she was very much an Irish nun, with strong links in Limerick and Clare, one of at least eight Irish or Irish-American missionaries – the others were members of the Columban Fathers – to have died during the conflict. Sophia Angel St John Whitty (1877-1924), Mother Mary Clare’s sister, was an artist and woodcarver and an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. She designed carved walnut figures for Christ Church, Bray, including two angels and St Patrick. She died in 1924 and was buried in Powerscourt. Their mother, Jane Whitty, was living at Wayside, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, when she died on 17 June 1931. Mother Mary Clare’s former community now runs Saint Columba’s House, a retreat house and conference centre in Woking, near London. There, one of the guest rooms remembers her with the name ‘Mary Clare.’

Biographical Note (p. 261):

Patrick Comerford, former adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College Dublin, is former priest-in-charge of the Rathkeale group of parishes (Church of Ireland),and former Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

• ‘Mother Mary Whitty: Sign of the Cross in Korea’, is published in David Bracken, ed, Of Limerick Saints and Sinners (Dublin: Veritas, 2022, ISBN: 9781800970311, 266 pp), pp 213-215. The book was launched by Dr Liam Chambers in the Limerick Diocesan Centre on Tuesday night, 22 November 2022.

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Thursday 24 November 2022

The ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila, surrounded by Carmelite saints … a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Carmelite Church, Loughrea, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the final week in Ordinary Time this year in the Calendar of the Church, the week between the Feast of Christ the King and Advent Sunday.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

During this week, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, a reflection or thought from the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Saint Teresa of Avila … one of a series of windows of Carmelite saints by Frances Biggs in the Carmelite chapel in Terenure College, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 20-28 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 20 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22 for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24 they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

Saint Teresa of Avila … a stained-glass window by Phyllis Burke in Saint Teresa’s Carmelite Church, Clarendon Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nikos Kazantzakis, 4:

Last month marked the 65th anniversary of the death of the Greek writer and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis in Freiburg, Germany, on 26 October 1957.

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is a giant of modern Greek literature, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on nine separate occasions. His books include Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified, Captain Michalis (also published as Freedom or Death), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). He also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs and philosophical essays such as The Saviours of God: Spiritual Exercises.

His fame spread in the English-speaking world because of the film adaptations of Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Alongside Saint Francis of Assisi, who inspired him to write a semi-fictional biography, The Poor Man of God, Kazantzakis admired and wrote about two other post-schismatic Carmelite saints and mystics, Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, in their ‘dark night of the soul’. In spite of his hesitation and impatience, Kazantzakis discovered that the darkness can be fertile, a dwelling place of God, where all is renewed.

He had a particular interest in the places and churches in Spain associated with Saint Teresa of Avila, with whom he enjoyed a lifelong fascination. From her he also derived his metaphor of silkworms, one of his favourite metaphors.

He wrote about her: ‘For Teresa the holy life was not a mad fury that sprouts wings and tries to escape from the world. It was a patient hard-working life of love … Patience, logic, gaiety, love – these are four mares that pulled the carriage of Saint Teresa and her soul’ (Nikos Kazantzakis, Spain, trs Amy Mims, New York, 1963).

And he wrote: ‘Even the most mystical of Spanish women, Saint Teresa, never lost the sacred mean. And if there is a paradise, and if they tackle housekeeping up there too, and if there things up there too that need locking up, surely Saint Teresa, the Spanish woman, will keep the keys.’

In this way, he suggested too that if Saint Teresa of Avila was alive today she would be a political activist, for this is the contemporary form the soul takes in its struggle to ascend.

Saint John of the Cross by Phyllis Burke in Saint Teresa’s Church, Clarendon Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Prophetic Voice of the Nation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Bishop Matthew Mhagama, from the Diocese of South-West Tanganyika in the Anglican Church of Tanzania.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the leaders of Tanzania to serve impartially and revive the economy for the benefit of all.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint John of the Cross depicted in a window by Frances Biggs in the Chapel of Terenure College, Dublin (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org