Venerable Mother Angeline: ‘Be Kinder Than Kindness Itself’

“If you must fail, fail on the side of kindness,” said the nun who was renowned for her sanctity. “Be kinder than kindness itself to the old people.”

Mother Angeline McCrory is pictured in front of a 1941 New York skyline.
Mother Angeline McCrory is pictured in front of a 1941 New York skyline. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

It was 1926, and over her years as a Little Sister of the Poor Mother Angeline McCrory had begun to wonder if the French customs that related to how the Little Sisters cared for the elderly were culturally the best fit for serving the aged in America. She loved her community and serving the elderly, so as superior in the Bronx, she implemented changes that she hoped would make the residents there more comfortable. She created a more middle-class home-like environment and celebrated American holidays with the residents. She encouraged their independence and freedom, and permitted married couples to remain living together in the same room if they wished. The international community was still trying to consolidate and focus on unity after the Great War, and was not ready for innovations at that point in time.

During her annual retreat, Mother Angeline still felt a strong call to serve the elderly in a new way, a way that it didn’t seem would be possible in her current circumstances. She had also realized that the middle class, not just the poor, often needed someone to care for them in old age, too. She approached Cardinal Patrick Hayes of New York with her ideas and asked for advice. He, too, was open to a slightly different approach to care for the elderly. He encouraged her to strike out on a new path. If it was God’s will, she would succeed, he told her. This gave her the courage to move forward. In 1929, she and six other sisters received a dispensation from Rome to leave the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The founding sisters of the Carmelites of the Aged and Infirm stayed temporarily with the Sparkhill Dominicans. The teaching sisters helped Mother Angeline and the other sisters sew their new brown habits. Mother Angeline’s Carmelite soul was coming out, and the Carmelites had taken an interest in her project from the beginning. The new community would be Carmelite. She was given an empty rectory in Upper Manhattan to start with. In September 1929, she opened St. Martin of Tours Home with seven residents. In 1931, the new community became officially affiliated with the Order of Carmel.

Mother Angeline faced criticism from the outside world for her new approach to elder care. She wanted her homes to be less like the institutions more typical of the time and instead have a cozier, warmer atmosphere. She also included rehabilitation care in the services and more opportunities for recreation and entertainment. With time, the emerging science of gerontology would validate her instincts. The Great Depression was also settling over the country as she was opening the first convent. But nothing deterred her. On the contrary, the community grew quickly and she opened new homes in short order.

She was originally from Ireland and never lost her Irish accent or her sense of humor and playfulness. Kindness was her outstanding virtue. She taught her sisters to give the elderly tender and affectionate care. “If you must fail, fail on the side of kindness. Be kinder than kindness itself to the old people.” she would say. The theme of kindness appears time and again in her pieces advice to her sisters. “Efficiency is wonderful, but it should never replace kindness” and “The best remedy for any elderly person is still TLC” and “I entreat you be kind, be patient, and be always understanding. Begin with yourself” were some of her most remembered maxims.

In her later years, her avant-garde work won wide recognition. When she celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a religious and 30 years since the founding of the Carmelites of the Aged and Infirm, she had opened 40 nursing homes. The count would reach 59 by the time she died. For her work in advancing elder care and the mission of the church, she was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award in 1965, the National Award of Honor from American Association of Homes for Aging in 1969, Honorary Degrees in Doctor of Humane Letters from Siena College and Manhattan College in 1970 and the papal Benemerenti Medal in 1978.

She lived to experience old age herself. In January 1984, after several years of frailty, she suddenly took a turn for the worse and died surrounded by her sisters on January 21. She was declared venerable in 2012. For her to move to the next stage of beatification, an intercessory miracle — an instantaneous, complete and lasting cure of serious medical condition not liable to go away on its own and with no treatment relative to the cure – must be identified by her canonization cause and validated by Rome.