Walking and Praying with Catherine

16 May 2017

Jenny Smith, the Archivist for the Sisters of Mercy for the Union of Great Britain shares her reflections on her recent visit to Baggot Street:

Around lunchtime on Tuesday 4th April, six travellers from St Mary’s Convent, Handsworth took a flight from Birmingham to Dublin.  Our destination was to be Catherine McAuley’s first Mercy house – of course Baggot Street, Dublin.

For all of us the trip was filled with much excitement and promise.  We were a bit of a motley crew in many respects, a mixture of Sisters, Archivist, Associate, staff and volunteers with a wide spectrum of knowledge of Catherine and experience of Mercy and the Mercy story.  We all either live or work at the convent which was Catherine’s last foundation.  We too have a centre for heritage, hospitality and outreach.  How could a visit to Baggot St inform our lives at St Mary’s? Some wanted to improve knowledge of Catherine’s story and early days of Mercy, some wanted to get to know Catherine, and some wanted to understand her early 19th century Dublin, where it all began almost 200 years ago.

We spent three and a half days at Mercy International Centre on a Walking and Praying with Catherine programme led by Sr Aine Barrins and it was a most wonderful and memorable experience for all of us.  Sr Aine led us gently through Catherine’s spaces – her physical spaces and her space of time at the very end of penal laws and the flourishing of visible Catholics and active Religious.  We began with lighting a candle for each of us, the flame taken from Catherine’s candle in the centre.  This idea was really powerful – that she is giving us each something and that we are a part of something; a Mercy something.  We spent time in the chapel and sitting there was the first time it had struck me how big a space was given over for prayer by, at the time of the building, a woman who was not a Sister of Mercy but a lay woman.  We had tea in the Callaghan room where Sr Aine talked more of those early years of Baggot St – the sale of Coolock and the bringing of furniture and crockery to the new venture.  The myriad of practicalities and opposition to be overcome were undeniable, yet the blend of Catherine’s faith and pragmatism were shining through and all of us were so impressed by this strength of one woman.  We were each given a card with some of Catherine’s words and this was a very special moment as I think we all felt their relevance to our own lives and experiences.

We had time in two of Catherine’s bedrooms: her bedroom at Coolock where she spent many years being a companion then carer, whilst forming those Mercy ideals; and the small infirmary in Baggot Street where she died.  Sr Aine infused this time in Catherine’s bedrooms with not only pure facts about her life, but also a very spiritual connection to Catherine.  Through the use of flowers and our senses of touch, smell and sight, we thought about the fertility and variety of nature.  For me this was a symbol of how we are all different but can all try in our own way to contribute to the continuation of the Mercy story. 

We were lucky enough to be able to attend Mass in the chapel; to walk to the sites of many of Catherine’s former homes; to see the Presentation chapel where Catherine and the first Sisters of Mercy took their religious vows; to have a ritual at Catherine’s grave.  Really the activities and meaning surrounding them were too numerous and complex to elucidate here.  What can and should certainly be said though is that the hopes and objectives of all our group were met, and more.  I learnt what I wanted to learn, and it will no doubt inform my work with the Mercy archives.  But it was more than that.  It was an experience.  At Baggot Street I was in fact reminded of a quote that I’ve recently read in the archives about an entirely different Mercy institution in the 1920s:  “From the first crossing of the threshold one is conscious of being in a religious atmosphere.  Religion that is not a frill tacked on but fundamental to the whole, and though never obtruded, it can never be overlooked.”  It was a feeling of this woman and of this story – and there is no doubt that you can feel Catherine at Baggot St.  It was an energy of purpose within the historic Baggot St that endures tangibly in the contemporary MIC.  You feel part of a bigger international picture and that is quite inspiring.  The Mercy hospitality at both MIC and Coolock were second to none.  We were made most comfortable and to feel most welcome.  The Dublin weather decided to be relatively kind to us.  However the whole thing just would not have been the same without the brilliant leadership of Sr Aine.  She tells the Mercy story with such knowledge and also such love.  Input and participation was not forced but easy and natural.  We all felt included – Sisters, volunteers, staff and archivist alike and there were more than a couple of tears when it was time to leave.

We thank all those responsible for our time with Catherine and I’m sure some of that spirit has some back with us to Handsworth.