Unconventional, forward-thinking nun who had a pilot's licence

Sr Katherine Butler, who died on August 8th aged 86, could remember the time and place when she discovered she had a vocation…

Sr Katherine Butler, who died on August 8th aged 86, could remember the time and place when she discovered she had a vocation. In an interview with the Ob- server, in 1969, she recalled: "The vocation to become a sister is terribly personal and intimate and some people seem to get it gradually. I could tell you the date and the day and the hour of mine: 9th November, 1931, in a nursing home for a tonsillectomy.

"I knew God wanted me, and also that I was to be a Sister of Charity, because you don't give yourself in a vacuum, you give yourself to serve. I hadn't been dedicated to good works, but I'd been horrified by the awful poverty of those days.

"Coming home from the pictures and looking forward to a lovely tea, I would find my heart torn by the sight of barefoot little boys selling papers in the street."

From the time she entered the Sisters of Charity novitiate in Milltown, Dublin, at the age of 21, Katherine Butler's vocation never wavered, and she sometimes remarked to her colleagues about the privilege of her calling. Although staunchly loyal to the church, and deeply spiritual, she was, in some ways, unconventional for her time. She had a strong interest in ecumenism before it became popular within the church, and in activities outside the convent walls. She had a lifelong interest in aviation, securing a pilot's licence before becoming a nun. She had a wide circle of friends through her teaching, her interest in other religions, and her membership of the Old Dublin Society. Katherine Butler was born in Dublin in 1914, one of two children of James and Katherine Bayley Butler, who lived in Dartmouth Road. Mr Bayley Butler was professor of zoology in UCD. When she became a nun, she dropped the Bayley in her surname, remarking that there were no nuns with double-barrel names. Her interest in other religions probably came from her experiences in the multi-denominational Alexandra School, then based in Dublin city centre, where she received her primary education. She went to secondary school in the Ursuline Convent, Waterford, and after finishing there had intended to enter the novitiate. However, her parents persuaded her to wait until she was 21, so she took a science degree in University College Dublin.


An air show, where she observed displays of flying, gliding and parachuting, gave her an interest in aviation, and she went on to become the third woman in the State to secure her pilot's licence. Fifteen-minute lessons cost her 10 shillings in old money. She saved her pocket money and sold her second evening dress to help pay for them. Katherine Butler was awarded her licence in 1936. Five days later, she entered the Milltown novitiate and was professed after 2 1/2 years. She taught in the order's British schools for part of the second World War, until illness forced her return to Ireland. In 1953, her biography of the founder of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Mary Aikenhead, A Candle Was Lit, was published.

She taught in a secondary school in Mountjoy Street, Dublin, and she later helped to set up new secondary schools for the order in Foxford, Co Mayo, where she was principal, and Walkinstown, Dublin. In the 1960s, she did a course in religious studies in Rome. She also taught in the order's Marymount school in Harold's Cross, Dublin, where she established a religion room, a classroom set aside specifically for religious teaching and study, before moving to the order's Crumlin convent in 1977, where she remained until her death.

In Crumlin, she was ahead of her time in establishing an outreach programme, where she visited the homes of students. Her retirement from teaching gave Sr Katherine Butler more time to pursue her other interests. She regularly attended Jewish, Salvation Army and Quaker services and gatherings, making a wide range of acquaintances. In 1981, her paper on the history of Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, won the Old Dublin Society's annual award. She had previously won it in the early 1970s with a paper on the synagogues of old Dublin. Although sometimes in poor health, she remained active until shortly before her death, once remarking that she was "growing old gratefully". Her dedication to her vocation never faltered, despite the inevitable frustrations.

In the 1969 Observer interview, she said: "The religious life has its ups and downs and at times the discipline used to be irksome. You may find that for a while you are doing a job you don't feel particularly feel suited for, but you learn to accept this as part of the ordinary trials of life.

"Sometimes you come to a flat period when you feel spiritual progress is slow and you don't seem to be getting anywhere. Or everything seems a struggle and life is bumpy.

"These periods are something you must learn to live with: they could last quite some time, months even, and they just don't happen once. You come through deepened, for in reality you have been climbing steadily."

Sr Katherine Butler is survived by her sister, Beatrice Dixon.

Sr Katherine Butler: born 1914; died, August 2000