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Row erupts in Rhode Island over late nun’s inheritance

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — The estate of a wealthy Irish-American nun is being sued for her medical and burial costs in an unprecedented legal challenge to her will by her former Order, the Sisters of Mercy, which was founded in Dublin 1831.

Sister Sean Condon of Providence, R.I., was left about $400,000 nine years ago — part of her devoutly Catholic family’s textile fortune — but she never touched her inheritance and lived frugally while her kindergarten teacher’s wages went to the Order.

Now a three-year legal row about her inheritance, which centers on her vow of poverty, is due to end up before a U.S. court in May with her family pitted against her former religious colleagues.

Sister Sean died of leukemia in 1996 at 53.

In addition to recovering the $65,000 medical and burial costs, the Order is also claiming that the $400,000 capital in her trust fund should be shared with them.

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In her will, Sister Sean left 75 percent of her fortune to relatives, 20 percent to the Order and 5 percent to charity.

The nun’s grandparents had emigrated from Ireland and built up the textile business.

Ironically, it was an inheritance that originally led to the founding of the Order in Dublin. Catherine McAuley, whose portrait is on Irish £5 notes, used a bequest equivalent to about a million dollars in today’s money to establish the first Order house in Baggot Street.

McAuley was left the money by a childless couple in Dublin when she was 40. She originally planned to set up an elite corps of devout social service workers and use the Baggot Street building to train young women from the country as domestics or dressmakers.

The House of Mercy began to attract scandalous gossip and McAuley was persuaded to make it an uncloistered Order which was dubbed "the walking nuns."

There are now 6,000 sisters in 11 countries and the church has completed the first stage of the process to McAuley’s sainthood with Pope John Paul having declared her "Venerable."

On the internet

The Sisters of Mercy’s lawyer in Rhode Island, James Sloan III, said the Order is disappointed the row has gone public, since details of the court documents were filed on the internet by Sister Sean’s brother-in-law, who is her executor.

"All the Order wants is that Sister Sean’s will is carried out," the lawyer said.

He said the Order maintains that it should get 20 percent of the $400,000 capital and not just a share of the $100,00 interest it has since earned.

When Sister Sean’s mother left her the money in 1990, she included a proviso that she would not get the principal as long as she was a nun in an Order "where members take a vow not to own and retain property."

Sloan said that was "an error" and that the bank that set up the trust never contacted the Order to check.

"The Order’s constitution says that sisters are expressly permitted to own property," Sloan said. "It has always been the case. We would not want parents or relatives of other members of the Order to think that they could not have any possessions of their own.

"This is the first case like this that I know of. It is most infrequent that the sisters are wealthy."

Sloan denied that the case was an effort to bolster the Order’s finances.

Dropping vocations and an average age of 68 for women in religious orders in America has left many Orders facing a cash crisis.


Sister Sean’s executor, Charles Goetz, is a law professor at the University of Virginia. He contends the lawsuit is an example of "greed and belligerent litigiousness."

He has posted all the details of the case on the internet, claiming the leadership of the Order had dishonored her memory. He appealed to the nuns to disavow the complicated legal action that he says threats to bring shame to the long and distinguished tradition of service of the sisters.

Goetz said his sister-in-law had worked all her life and given her wages to the Order. He said he was "astonished" when the Order made the claims, particularly for her medical and burial costs.

"I said it seemed to me that it had been part of the deal for 30 years that she paid in her income to the Order and they had always paid all of her expenses during her lifetime," Goetz said. "I can’t understand why the costs of her last illness and burial are now not being paid for.

"This is a sad story in many ways. Her life of love and service is the most important legacy that Sister Sean left, but her death has triggered an unseemly struggle over her financial legacy."

Goetz said a lawsuit had also been filed to reopen the nun’s mother’s estate and challenge the trust for Sister Sean.

"The litigation has been very costly and threatens to consume the entire estate," he claimed.

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