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Butler, Mother Marie Josephlocked

(22 July 1860–23 April 1940)
  • Kathleen A. Mahoney

Butler, Mother Marie Joseph (22 July 1860–23 April 1940), Roman Catholic nun and founder of schools and colleges, was born Johanna Butler in Ballynunnery, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the daughter of John Butler and Ellen Forrestal, prosperous farmers. Johanna initially attended a secular Irish national school, but her secondary education was under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy in the town of New Ross. As her interest in religious life developed, she was influenced by a friend whose sister had joined the congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Founded in France in 1849 by Père Jean Gailhac and a wealthy widow, Mme Apollonie Cure, the congregation devoted itself to providing quality Catholic education for girls.

At the age of sixteen Johanna Butler set sail for the congregation’s headquarters in Béziers, France. Under her new name of Marie Joseph, the novice was assigned in 1879 to the congregation’s school in Oporto, Portugal; soon after she was transferred to the school in Braga, Portugal, where she headed the English and French departments and eventually became superior of the local community.

In 1903 Mother Butler came to the United States to direct and invigorate the congregation’s school in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York. As the congregation’s educational endeavors expanded, she was called upon to work at its schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

The establishment of Marymount College realized the congregation’s goal of providing higher education for Catholic women. Mother Butler’s reputation as an excellent teacher, administrator, and superior, coupled with her commitment to quality education, made her the obvious choice for establishing and heading the new school. On 9 December 1907, with seven other sisters, she took up residence at Reynard Mansion in Tarrytown, New York, on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. The site was a gift of Mother Butler’s cousin, James Butler, in memory of his wife, Mary Anne, who believed in the importance of higher education for Catholic women. Mother Butler named Marymount in honor of the Sacred Heart of Mary and in memory of Mary Anne O’Rourke Butler. Under her direction the school opened as a junior school and academy in 1908 with one student. Soon, even though the student body consisted of only a handful of students, she was making plans to expand the campus.

Marymount was chartered as a college in 1919, and Mother Butler was named the first president. Her goal was to create a college comparable to the best secular institutions of higher learning. Convinced that women’s sphere included, but extended beyond, the home, she created a curriculum blending traditional values with progressive thought. Courses in law and political economy helped to enlarge the traditional curriculum; religious training included four years of study in Christian apologetics, coupled with charitable work and involvement in social causes. While fostering what she called “the three C’s” of catholicity, charity, and courtesy, Mother Butler also prepared Marymount students to take an active role in public affairs. She hoped to produce politically astute, intellectually keen, socially active, and religiously motivated graduates.

Mother Butler’s keen business sense allowed her to expand the campus at Tarrytown to meet the needs of a growing student body and to establish the congregation’s American novitiate and a lay retreat movement. Though associated most closely with Marymount at Tarrytown, Mother Butler helped establish nine other Marymount high schools and colleges in California, New York City, France, and Italy. The international campuses (Mariemont in Neuilly, France, opened in 1923; Mariamonte in Rome opened in 1930) allowed Mother Butler to develop one of the first study abroad programs. Since her death, Marymount schools and colleges have multiplied in the United States and Europe and have spread to Africa and South America.

In recognizing her leadership, devotion to her sisters, and rich spiritual life, the congregations unanimously elected her to the first of three terms as superior general in 1926, a position she held for the rest of her life. Having become a U.S. citizen in 1927, she was the first American to head a major religious community headquartered in Europe. Although she maintained her principal residence at Marymount in Tarrytown, she traveled extensively as superior general, visiting the congregation’s institutes and establishing new ones.

The establishment, expansion, and reputation of Marymount schools and colleges testify to a successful and ambitious national and international educational leader; the reminiscences of colleagues and friends reveal a respected, witty, well-liked, and deeply religious woman.


Archival matter on Mother Butler is located at Marymount Convent in Tarrytown, N.Y. An anonymous editor collected her writings, which were published under the title As the Eagle: The Spiritual Writings of Mother Butler (1954). For a eulogistic biography, see Katherine Burton, Mother Butler of Marymount (1944).