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January 11, 2023
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January 11, 2023

The Count and the ‘Little Mother’ – in grateful remembrance

Neila Todd, a Tertiary of Carmel (lay Carmelite) looks at the contributions of Count Finbar Ryan OP and the foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites as the Congregation marks another anniversary of her death.


On the morning of January 11, 1949, Count Patrick Finbar Ryan, the Archbishop of Port of Spain, hurriedly returned to the Carmelite Convent on Belmont Circular Road and to the room of the Foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, O Carm.

He entered scant moments after she had made her transition from this world to the next. He would therefore be witness to the phenomenon of the odour of sanctity which very few persons exhibit when mortal life ceases.

Visibly moved, he would solemnly intone to the Sisters gathered at her bedside, “I tell you, pray to your Little Mother.”

Count Finbar Ryan, an Irish Dominican and her Ecclesiastical Superior, had known her many years previously in England when he was Fr Ryan. He would also be witness to Little Mother laying the foundations for her charism of leadership.

Their paths would cross again when he was appointed Archbishop of Port of Spain in 1940 and she, by that time, had become one of the most successful of female missionaries of the age. Her spiritual journey had taken her across the Atlantic, from England to United States and here to Trinidad, where the Mother House is located.

These were two important persons who through the guidance of the Holy Trinity would meet here in Trinidad to continue their vocations. Both because of their education, training and lived experiences made them God-ordained to tremendously contribute to education and, by extension, social life in Trinidad at the time of its transition from the rigours of  colonialism and the yearnings for independence.

Both had demonstrated the component elements of education, and the Catholic ethos an important component to be disseminated in an incipient multi-religious, multi-ethnic society.

Apart from his religious career, Count Finbar Ryan had distinguished himself as a teacher, lecturer, and writer. He had come from a family which served the British Empire in Public Service in the UK and abroad in India.

Both our leaders were interested in the dynamics of education at its various levels. Both had zealously delivered in their missionary objectives. Their vision of life had been broadened by international travel. His earlier teaching years were spent in the education and training of the youth.

She began her foundations with a children’s school that offered a curriculum for well-being in body, mind, and spirit. He became an authoritarian figure, an outstanding preacher and lecturer.

Mother Mary Ellerker treasured friendship and intellectuality; interacting with her superiors at a time when women’s liberation was still dormant. She was well-educated, curious, an academician. She wrote copiously and possessed amazing entrepreneurial skills.

Consequently, Trinidad in 1918 benefitted from authentic pioneers, who took over the management of the L’Hospice and the Girls’ Industrial School, later called St Jude’s.

They would establish Carmelite convents in the north, south, east, and west of the island. They were also responsible for building the first convalescent home; undertaking prison, mental and general hospital visitation.

Mother Foundress possessed that rare combination of talents, skills, and abilities in the intersection of place and time. She had been criticised in the United States for working with coloureds. Black lives always mattered to her as she was sociologically ahead in response to the dynamics of race, class and gender in emerging societies such as ours.

Both our leaders recognised that continuing progress lay in the education of children and by extension adherents whether they were Catholic or not.

Count Finbar Ryan would continue the provision of churches and schools for the descendents of liberated slaves and each succeeding wave of ethnic indentured workers.

As the seventh Archbishop of Port of Spain, he initiated a definite programme from Pope Pius XII to build more schools and churches so our people would not be misled through lack of knowledge. He was also commissioned to build a seminary. The programme comprised a literary apostolate commensurate with the new advances in education and the arousing of Catholic responsibility among the laity. This task was achieved through the cooperation of clergy, the faithful and the Government despite the difficulties of the war years and its aftermath.

His doctrinaire mode of religion preceded the cultural revolution in this country and continued into the theological revolution in the Church.

The lyrics of the hymn, Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, succinctly describe his persona. Little Mother demonstrated the quintessence of femininity which drew all persons to her. Her funeral tributes came from every strata of society, secular as well as ecclesiastical.

Count Finbar Ryan was the foremost religious leader in this country. He was feared but his idiosyncrasies anecdotally reveal a man with intriguing frailties in his interpersonal relationships at every level.

On this anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Mother Foundress, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, O Carm, we are morally reminded of the immense contribution to this country’s tapestry by these two persons, particularly now that the Concordat on Education (1960) has become so contentious.

It is incumbent on us all to remember with gratitude the sterling, accustomed contribution made by Holy Mother Church so that all may be one in truth, justice, and joy.

Gratitude profound! Count Patrick Finbar Ryan, Seventh Archbishop of Port of Spain.

Gratitude profound! Servant of God, Mother Mary Ellerker of the Blessed Sacrament, Foundress of the Corpus Christi Carmelites.