The following Convents/Houses are now all part of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy. (Most of the information given below has been adapted from “Trees of Mercy”.)
In 1859 Father John O’Toole, Parish priest in Abingdon, asked Bishop Grant (Southwark) for some Sisters to found a Convent in Abingdon. Bishop Grant approached his old friend Mother Clare Moore in Bermondsey to sound her out about the possibility of ‘a colony of Sisters’ in Abingdon. Mother Clare’s response was positive. Sir George Bowyer, a man of wealth who lived at nearby Radley Park and who had built the Parish Church of Our Lady and St. Edmund (1857) offered the Sisters his cottage at Northcourt, lease rent free on a short term base. On January 10th1860, Mother Clare Moore, accompanied by Mother M. Gonzaga escorted the pioneer Sisters Mother Elizabeth Rigby who was to be the first Superior and a very longstanding one, Sr. M. Xavier Spence, and Sr. M. Joseph O’Hara (a Novice) to Abingdon. These three Sisters were the Abingdon pioneers! On January 11ththey began teaching in St. Edmund’s sacristy, a ministry that has continued to the present day. 1862 saw the Sisters move to two semi-detached houses on the Oxford Road, which once again Sir George Bowyer made generous in his provision for them.
The Sisters were soon involved both in education and visitation of the sick and needy, particularly the inmates of the Workhouse, near the Convent. At first the Sisters met with considerable hostility and anti-Catholic prejudice, having rotten eggs and stones thrown at them as they walked to and from school – but gradually, this was overcome and the works of Mercy continued.
Sisters from the Community later made Foundations in Bangor, North Wales (1915), Woodley, Berkshire (1956) and made possible the re-establishment of the Alderney Community (1948) which had been dispersed by the German occupation in 1940.
Much change and development has taken place since 1860 with Sisters engaged in teaching in the parish school, in their own Private School which comprised of both boarders and day pupils and boys and girls.
On June 3rd1999 the Community moved from the Convent on Oxford Road to Lismore Lodge, 34 St. John’s Road and 1996 saw the first lay Headmistress at Our Lady’s Convent Senior School and the first lay Headmaster at Our Lady’s Convent Junior School in 2007. This coincided with changes in the community which left two Sisters in residence until this smaller house closed in 2011 after 151 years of ministry in the Abingdon area.
In October 1890, Reverend Mother Evangelist Costello and four companions came from St. Peter Port, Guernsey to establish a Convent in Alnwick at the request of the Parish Priest, Fr. Edward Robert, with permission from the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle and the Bishop of Portsmouth. Their brief was ‘all the works of Mercy’ – to teach in the parish school, instruct converts and visit the sick and poor in the area.
In addition to teaching in school, Evening classes for young men and women who had left school at an early age and a Private School for fee-paying Boarders was started. Over the years the Convent High school expanded and was recognized as efficient by the Ministry of Education in 1956. In 1962 the High School moved into a completely new building to meet the required standards of Secondary education
The presence of the Sisters was greatly appreciated and there were many requests for help in surrounding parishes. As a result several branch houses were founded in Chester-le-Street (1904), Crook (1909), Felton (1929) and Esh (1977).
But times were changing. In 1993 the Sisters withdrew from the School because of lack of vocations, and it was leased to an Educational Trust who wish to maintain its Christian character and caring spirit. The influence of the Sisters, in education and caring for the poor and sick over the past hundred and more years, can never be taken away or forgotten, but continues - on and on into the future.
Lady Georgina Fullerton’s last act of charity for the sick poor of London was the opening of a Convalescent Home in Bournemouth in 1874. When the Matron became seriously ill, the Sisters of Mercy in Great Ormond Street Hospital were approached to take charge, but they were not in apposition to do so until fourteen years later.
So it was in 1888 Sisters M. Evangelist Power, M. Catherine Collingridge and M. Ignatius Pitt, arrived in Bournemouth to fulfil Lady Georgina’s request. A generous benefactor, Mrs. Blake, a cousin of Sister Evangelist, undertook to give £200 p.a. for three years to defray rent and taxes on No.11 Branksome Wood Road, which became the Convent. Later legacies of £7,000 from the very generous Mr. and Mrs. Blake, enabled the Sisters to provide separate facilities for male and female patients, now called St. Joseph’s Convalescent Home.
The following year, 1889, the Sisters took on responsibility for the small school which had also been founded by Lady Georgina and they remained in charge for over forty years.
Despite financial and other difficulties, the Sisters nursed many poor people back to health. During the Boer and First World Wars, many wounded servicemen convalesced at St. Joseph’s as did many under-nourished patients during the hard years of the 1920’s and 30’s. During the World War II, evacuees from Southampton and patients requiring respite care from heavy bombing in large cities were given a home. For more than a hundred years, from 1874 through to the 1990’s, the Sisters of Mercy in were actively engaged in responding to the needs of the poor in Bournemouth and beyond.
As a result of continuous requests by Canon John Kyne, parish priest of Brentwood, for Sisters to teach in the schools and visit the sick, St. Joseph’s Convent of Mercy, Chelsea, established a Branch House in the town in 1872. Initially there was no Convent, so the Canon generously vacated the presbytery in favour of Mother M. Ignatius O’Keeffe and her two companions and took up temporary abode in a small cottage nearby.
Soon the Sisters experienced the great generosity of a local benefactress, Countess Helen Tasker, who had a convent built for them beside the church (later to become the Cathedral). In appreciation of her very generous gift, the Convent was dedicated to St. Helen. Her generosity continued throughout the remaining thirteen years of her life, in the building of a school and orphanage for girls in the grounds (which she partly endowed). Even after her death, the Community continued to be indebted to the Countess, since she had left by Will an endowment for the education of orphan boys. To fulfil her wishes, Shenfield Lodge, situated a short distance from St. Helen’s, was purchased and converted into a home with a school attached - this gradually developed into an Industrial Institution and did admirable work.
In June 1852, as a result of strong pleas from the priests in Brighton, made through Bishop Grant (Southwark), the Bermondsey Community agreed to make its third foundation in seven years. There was an urgent need for the Sisters to occupy the small house in Egremont Place which had been abruptly vacated by the French Sisters of Charity of St. Paul.
One of the founding Sisters, Sister M. Teresa Boyce who had received the habit from Mother Catherine McAuley on 12th December 1839 spent her remaining thirty-three years in complete dedication to the service of those in need, in Brighton. Mother M. Angela Graham was appointed the first Superior and later elected to that office several times until her death in 1895. “She loved the poor and they knew it.”
New schools were opened in 1854 and the Sisters moved to a new convent in Bedford Street. Evening classes had already been started to provide basic education for working girls. In 1856 a Work Room was opened and a market for its produce secured in local shops. After the Sisters acquired Bedford Lodge, destined to be their permanent Convent, the house in Bedford Street became an Industrial School for girls. Following an inspection in May 1860, the school was given a subsidy of one third of the cost of all materials used by the girls.
Two attempts had been made to establish a Religious Community in Burnley – but both failed until the parish priest, Canon Rimmer, managed to secure the services of the Sisters of Mercy from Commercial Road, East London.
On 22nd August, 1872, Mother Angela Gilsenan with Sisters M. Ignatius Dillon and M.Catherine Winship, arrived in Burnley and took up residence in the small cottage vacated by the Sisters of Mercy who had left for Oldham. In the intervening years, the schools had fallen into a deplorable state with the education of 1,158 Catholic children sadly neglected. The Sisters immediate concern was for the schools and within one year, the situation showed considerable improvement.
As numbers in the Community increased, permission was given by the Bishop for a building appeal to be launched. As a result the Convent was extended several times. During the following years, it was from this building that the Sisters went each day to teach in the Catholic Schools as they were built in other parts of the town. A Private School was also opened in the Convent and Evening Classes in cookery, needlework and the three Rs were held for young women working in the mills. All aspects of Social Work were carried out until well into the 20th. Century, when the State began to take a more active role in the fields of Education and Social Work.
To mark the Centenary of its Foundation, (1972) the Community began a new chapter in its history; the care of retired and infirm priests of the Diocese – and so the Works of Mercy continue…...
In 1890, at the suggestion of a leading parishioner of Colchester and a benefactress of the Convent of Mercy, Brentwood, a Mercy foundation was made in Colchester. This would meet the teaching needs of St James' Catholic School, then situated in the crypt of the Church in Priory Street. The foundation begun with three Sisters and the first Convent was officially opened on the 23rd January 1891.
The Community opened a private school, and in 1902 a small private academy. By 1917, with the beginning of the new diocese of Brentwood, there were fourteen Sisters, many of whom taught in the parish and private schools. They also visited the poor and the sick in their home and the catered for the many homeless people who came to their door. They were responsible for three Sodalities in the Parish. During this time many changes took place to the Convent and the school.
Throughout the 1950's there were fifteen in Community and the apostolate of the Sisters widened. By 1977 the number in Community had fallen to twelve. At this time the Friends of Peru were formed. This vibrant and faithful group still continue to support our Mercy Missions among the poor in the barrios of Lima.
Between 1987 and 1994, the Convent became the House of Initial Formation and Joint Novitiate for the Institute and Union of Sisters of Mercy. The centenary was celebrated on the 9''' January, 1991. Following the withdrawal of the Formation Community in 1994, the Community catered for students from the University of Essex and other colleges. This continued until 1999. In 2000 the Convent opened as a Retreat and Conference Centre. Lack of personnel led to the closure of the Convent in 2003.
Sister Helen was given permission to remain on in Colchester in rented accommodation to continue to be a Mercy presence in the area. Having lived in the Community for all of her fifty years of religious life, she felt led to this new and exciting challenge. It was a steep learning curve in a number ways from finding housing, making the rental contract, to looking after the car, the flat, herself and the affairs of the Congregation without the automatic support of "being one of the Sisters."
Sr Helen’s ministry included supporting and leading groups of Mercy Associates by days of reflection and prayer; weekly prayer meetings with staff at the local Catholic College; being a Eucharistic minister and taking communion to the housebound and elderly and many more activities besides.
However in 2008 Sr Helen became seriously ill and needed the support of a community around her. She spent some time in Poplar and Wanstead and on 2nd March 2009 died in St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney and thus the Mercy ministry is carried on today by the faithful group of Mercy Associates that Sr Helen had encouraged.
The Sisters of Mercy were in Croydon from 1886, when the Ave Maria Industrial School at Eltham, which had been run by the Sisters since 1874, transferred to Wellesley Road, Croydon. As well as running this establishment, they were also active in local parish primary and secondary education, and parish work. The Ave Maria Industrial School transferred back to Eltham after World War II (the Wellesley Road property was bombed in the war) and for a time the Croydon sisters lived with the Ladies of Mary (now known as the Daughters of Mary and Joseph - DMJ’s), continuing their teaching ministries. In 1956, the present house was opened and for a time was used as a hostel for young women who had finished at the Ave Maria school and were trying to re-integrate into society. This work ceased in 1982 and the house became a convent once again. The House was used for a short time as a House of Formation and then had another lease of life when the community offered hospitality to carers for a rest. Finally the community returned to their parish ministries until the closure of the house in 2011.
In 1849 Bishop Ullathorne invited Mother M. Francis Bridgeman, Superior of Kinsale Convent in Cork, to undertake the work of Catholic education in Derby The parish priest of St. Mary’s, Fr. Sing and the Honourable Lady Beaumont, offered to help in any way possible.
In was on 15th October, 1849 that Mother M. Evangelist Benson, with five other Sisters and three orphans – to assist in the start of an orphanage – left Kinsale, arriving in Derby two days later. They took up residence in the spacious Convent in Nottingham Road, which had recently been vacated by the Holy Child Sisters and surveyed the area of the Lord’s vineyard where there was grinding poverty and deprivation of every kind and agreed that it was decidedly “Mother McAuley territory.“
Children as young as seven years old, worked a fourteen hour day in the mills, earning a shilling a week; within the next decade, social deprivation was further compounded by the arrival of three hundred families, fleeing the famine in their native Ireland.
In 1862 the Sisters moved to a healthier residence in Bridge Gate, put at their disposal by Lady Beaumont where they had already embarked on varied and challenging apostolates. They had opened an orphanage and a House of Mercy for training girls, who were then placed in suitable employment and had undertaken the organisation of Day and Night Schools. All this had taken place within a period of twelve/thirteen years.
In 1855, Clifford had the joy of receiving a group of Sisters under the leadership of Mother M. Magdalen Kennedy, direct from Baggot Street, Dublin and in 1857 a Branch House was established in Hull. However, after weighing the needs of a city against those of a village, the Sisters withdrew from Clifford in 1867, leaving the Convent unoccupied.
The Parish Priest, Father J. Cullimore approached Bishop Cornthwaite of Beverley to ask his help in seeking a new Community for Clifford, but. it was not until the Bishop met with Bishop Grant of Southwark in Rome during the Vatican Council, when the needs of Clifford were discussed, that the Foundation came about. The Bermondsey Community was approached, and on 21st April, 1870, Sister M. Teresa Kearney and three companions, arrived from London to make their home in Clifford.
Immediately, in May 1870, the Sisters opened an Elementary School for Girls and a Night School for young men and women, especially those working in the local Flax Mills, or who had left school at an early age. Suddenly, in June 1870, the Headmaster of the Boys’ School left, resulting in the school role jumping to 115 in premises designed for a maximum of 60. Alongside teaching, the Sisters were now visiting the sick and the needy and had taken charge of the Church Sacristy.
Over the next decades, many changes took place in education and social work and six Branch Houses had been founded. It was a Century after the Sisters first arrived in Yorkshire that the Catherine McAuley School for Girls and Boys aged 13 – 18, was opened in September 1970. Sisters are no longer teaching there, but they are still engaged in works of Mercy in the area.
The educational and pastoral needs of the people of Guernsey had been the concern of the Norbertine Order of Priests from the 12th to 16th centuries, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries forced them out of the Channel Islands. From then until 1902 Blanchelande was a Seigneurie and it was then that the Seigneurs sold the property to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who had fled from the wave of anti-clericalism sweeping France.
For over fifty years, this Order carried out the apostolate of education in Boarding and Day Schools in Blanchelande, but post-war restrictions and reduction in personnel led the Community to withdraw from Guernsey in 1956.
In 1948 a small group of Sisters of Mercy from Abingdon had joined the Sister of a former Community in Alderney wishing to return to the island from which German occupation had forced an abrupt evacuation in 1940. Under the leadership of Mother M. Ethelburga O’Callaghan, Alderney Convent of Mercy was re-founded. In 1956 Archbishop King who had asked the Sisters to leave Abingdon for Alderney, approached the Community with the request that they now leave Alderney in favour of Guernsey. The Sisters accepted this new challenge and the Press in Guernsey commented “They came with no material assets and faced a tremendous task both financially and educationally.”
From the outset, developing an educational programme was a priority and financing it was a cause of great concern because of the high costs of providing new equipment, buildings and the rising cost of teachers’ salaries. These challenges were courageously met. By 1971 Blanchelande was the only recognised Grammar School for Girls on the island and Scholarships were granted by the States of Guernsey for Catholic girls to attend the school.
The Community was also involved in a great variety of external Mercy apostolates, but by the early 1980’s the future of Blanchelande was in the balance because of falling numbers of vocations, ever-rising costs in education, and reduction in the demand for boarding facilities. It was between 1990 and 1993 that the Sisters withdrew from Guernsey leaving behind them a legacy of excellence in education and of care for the sick, poor and elderly.
In 1856, with the approval of the Right Rev. Dr. Briggs, Bishop of Beverley, Rev. Dean Michael Trappes, parish priest of the only Catholic parish in Hull, begged for the services of the Sisters of Mercy from Baggot Street in Dublin, their Mother House. The Order had been founded by Mother Catherine McAuley in 1831, to follow a life devoted to social service, including teaching, visitation of the sick in hospital and home, child care, shelter and training for unemployed girls. So great had been the demand for Sisters, that he was referred to the recently established Convent of Mercy in Clifford, West Yorkshire, to which the Sisters had come in 1855. Five of these came to Hull in January 1857, reinforced by a novice and a postulant from Baggot Street, to a small house attached to a recently built school chapel in Dansom Lane/Wilton Street. Thus was opened the first Religious House in the town since the Dissolution. When the postulant was clothed in St. Charles’ Church, she was the first woman ever to receive the habit in Hull.
The Sisters took charge of the new school in Wilton Street – 90 boys, girls and infants - and the Girls’ school in Canning Street. Alongside this went their characteristic work of visiting the poor and the sick in their homes. Before long, they were allowed to visit the prison.
In the 1890’s when the Isle of Wight was a popular and fashionable holiday resort, not only for British people, but also for Catholic royal visitors from Europe, a request was made for a resident Catholic priest and church. It was on their behalf that a small tin Chapel was opened in Shanklin and the parish was served between 1888 and 1894 by a few priests who only stayed a short while.
Then in 1894 a Belgian priest, Father Emile de Bom came to Shanklin. He found a resident Catholic population of about twenty people and he set about building a permanent church which was opened in 1907. He was not satisfied until the parish had a school as well. He advertised for Sisters and his request was answered by Sisters of Mercy from Hunslet, two of whom, Gertrude and Stanislaus, arrived on 10th February 1898; they were joined later by two more Sisters one of whom was Sr. Magdalene. Sr. Gertrude worked in Shanklin until her death in 1954. The Sisters received a very warm welcome from the Catholic families, but they found great bigotry among other people.
A small school was opened in the Convent, starting with six pupils. When a new church was built, the old tin church was converted into a school and pupils from Sandown were also admitted. At that time, there was great poverty on the Island, so the Sisters carried out the usual Works of Mercy, visiting the sick and elderly, as well as teaching and doing sacristy work. Sr. Gertrude made many of the vestments, altar cloths and albs and washed the linen for many years.
The Second World war years were particularly hard – in 1943 the School and Church in Shanklin were destroyed by a German bomb. One Sister was killed and several injured. After this, the Education authority offered the children places at Ventnor School and paid their fares. This arrangement still exists.
The older people in Shanklin speak with great affection of all the Sisters. We are not sure how long there will be a Mercy presence here as the future is in God’s Hands, but we are grateful to God for allowing us to keep the Spirit of Catherine McAuley alive on this lovely Island for more than a Century.