In response to a request from the Parish Priest, Fr E de Theury, and with the sanction of Bishop Cornthwaite of Leeds and Bishop Danell of Southwark, the Bermondsey community sent Sr M Benedict Meyer and three companions to make a Foundation in St Joseph’s Parish, Hunslet on 23rd April 1879.
The three Sisters were immediately appointed to St Joseph’s School which, just a month later, received a very satisfactory report following an inspection. But the shadow of the Cross fell when Sr M Agnes Ryan, a qualified teacher, became ill and had to return to Bermondsey where she died soon afterwards. Abingdon Community sent another Sister with teaching qualifications, Sr M Stanislaus McHugh, but she too became ill and died on Palm Sunday 1880; she was buried in Clifford since there was still no Catholic Cemetery in Leeds. In that same year, two Postulants entered and were clothed at Sisters of Mercy, but neither persevered.
In 1881, the Bishop made a gift to the Sisters of land adjacent to St Joseph’s church where they might build a permanent Convent. To achieve this, £800 was borrowed from Leeds Building Society, and the convent was blessed and ready for occupation in January 1883.
In no place more than in Hunslet did the Sisters of Mercy deserve the title Walking Nuns, since visitation of the poor and the sick has always had pride of place amongst their varied apostolates. After school hours and at weekends, the Sisters were invariably out, two by two, on their districts bringing solace and assistance to all those in need. In a very deprived area, they walked with the people, especially during in the harrowing days of two World Wars and afterwards.
In 1936, most of the small garden at the back of the Convent was sacrificed to allow for the building of a Chapel, with a Community Room and Visitor’s Flat overhead. The extra accommodation thus afforded proved very useful when an all-out recruitment effort brought six Postulants in the course of 1936 and 1937. The unexpected death of the Novice Mistress, who was also Headmistress of St Joseph’s School, was a double cross (August 1937).
The outbreak of the war in 1939 brought serious disruption to families and the Sisters alike. Two Sisters were amongst the staff evacuated with the pupils to Upton which is a few miles from Doncaster; at the same time, sections of the Convent were reinforced to protect against possible bombing. After several months of relative quiet, the evacuees began to risk returning to the city, and as normal a programme as possible was resumed.
During the war years and in the fifties, many of the younger members of the Community completed their Teacher Training Course, and were thus prepared for the reorganisation programmes introduced into the school system.
In 1962, in response to a request from Fr C Murray, Parish Priest of St Peter and St Paul’s in Yeadon, plans were made to establish a Branch House there. A site was procured on Cemetery Road through the purchase of Haw Cottage (in extensive grounds) and its demolition. The new convent was blessed and opened in April 1965 and the Mercy apostolates, including teaching in the local schools and the provision of a Play School, commenced. The Convent, dedicated to Maria Regina, is now the Generalate of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy.
St Joseph’s Community provided one of the pioneers for the Leeds Mercy Mission to Peru, in 1969, and another Sister for several years in the same Mission. More recently, one member served on the Ecumenical Chaplaincy Team to Wakefield Prison, while two others did some voluntary service in the Crypt (for the homeless of Leeds).
In 2009 the community moved out from the property going to Harrogate and Middleton in Leeds to continue being Mercy in these areas after 130 years of ministry in Hunslet.
Catherine McAuley saw the original site where the third Convent of Mercy was to be built at Mount Vernon in Liverpool. Sadly she was not to see its opening on 28th August 1843 but she had already prepared Sister M Ligouri Gibson to be amongst its early leaders. It was Dr Thomas Youens, a friend of the Gibson family who had begged Catherine to send him Sisters. Once in Liverpool the Sisters opened a House of Mercy and the girls were taught the skills of laundry work, needlework and cookery.
The Sisters ministered throughout the city of Liverpool, taking charge of St Elizabeth’s Industrial School in 1871 until 1920. They had also built schools in the convent grounds by 1850 and an almonry provided food to the poor. The Sisters ran night classes for both men and women and gave religious instruction to those in the Blind Asylum. Every Christmas a meal was provided for all those in need and this was continued well into the 20th century.
Branch houses abounded from Mount Vernon covering areas like Falkner Street (1845), St Oswald’s, Old Swan (1851), St Walburga’s, Lancaster (1853), St Vincent’s, Hardy Street (1859), St Joseph’s, Douglas, Isle of Man (1867), St Anthony’s, Green Lane, Wavertree (1899) and St Mary’s, Blackbrook (1869). Some foundations went a little further afield such as Newcastle upon Tyne in 1855, Skipton (1861) and perhaps the most daring and challenging, Brisbane in Queensland, Australia in 1861 as well as Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1865.
In 1925 Broughton Hall in the West Derby area of Liverpool was purchased as a Branch House. The plan was to develop a great school here as there was plenty of land and when the sad news came in 1966 that Mount Vernon had been compulsorily purchased and was due to be demolished for road widening, the Sisters decided that a new Mother House would be built in the grounds of Broughton Hall. The Sisters moved into their new convent in 1969. The expansion of the Liverpool community continued with newer foundations to Maghull in 1940 and in April 1969 the Lightbound family bequeathed a house to the community in Birkdale.
In the 21st century things have changed a great deal, many of the branch houses have now closed. The Mother House opened in 1969 now forms part of the Life Hospital for children and the present community live in part of the old Broughton Hall building. Still the spirit of Mercy continues to enthuse and inspire the members of community and they still take as active a part as they can in the community around them.
In 1885 an approach was made to the Mother House in Anlaby Road, Hull, for Sisters to take charge of St Alphonsus’ Schools in North Ormesby and in view of the positive response to the request, two houses were purchased in King’s Road. These accommodated the Community for fifty years, until a new purpose-built Convent was opened in 1935.
The people were poor but most co-operative, and they loved having the Sisters to help build up the schools and parish life generally. News of the influence of the sisters spread and, in 1889, in response to a request from Fr McCabe, two Sisters walked daily from North Ormesby to each in St Peter’s School, South Bank, which had 243 pupils on Roll.
With the enormous growth in population in Teesside and slum clearances in the Cathedral Parish and that of St Patrick, big housing estates grew up in areas surround the Convent. The Sisters responded generously to the new calls on their resources, going into Parish Schools and helping to rebuild Catholic communities amongst people who had been uprooted from their familiar surroundings. In this way, they assisted the Priests responsible for the development new Parishes. They taught in, or organised, numerous Primary Schools – St Joseph’s, St Francis’, Corpus Christi, St Pius X’s, St Gabriel’s and St Bernadette’s, as well as in St Anthony’s Secondary Modern School, and they even crossed the river (and Diocesan boundaries!) to teach in Billingham. Those in greatest need were not forgotten; one Sister taught in school for severely subnormal and handicapped children and also worked as a member of a team of Diocesan Helpers.
When in 1971, the Nursing Home run by the sisters in Whitby closed, some of those who had been on its staff worked in state hospitals in Middlesbrough, and now more than ever the North Ormseby Convent was a hive of activity, its members being involved in a great variety of apostolates – teaching, catechetics, youth work, Samaritans, Industrial Mission, Marriage Tribunal, editorial team of The Voice (the Diocesan newspaper), Days of recollection, Mercy Guild etc. In summary, wherever there was a need they could meet, Sisters were to be found.
A fall in numbers combined with problems in the building, led to a decision to close the Convent in 1987, and from then until 1991 and it was on lease to Middlesbrough Polytechnic as a Students’ Hostel. After carefully exploring, the aims of the organisations which expressed an interest in the property, the Institute Trustees finally decided to negotiate its sale to the Endeavour Housing Association for the Homeless. Thirteen small self-contained homes were created from the existing building to house homeless families in the Middlesbrough area. The new title – McAuley Court – indicates that the charism of our Foundress, which is shared by her Sisters today, has been instrumental in making some provision for one of the modern society’s great needs.
Mother Mary Bernard Garden founded St. Bernard’s Convent of Mercy in Staffordshire, on 4th.October, 1892, where she had been invited by the Parish Priest, Rev. Martin Maguire. She had travelled from Scotland, where she had founded Convents in Dornie, Keith, Tomintoul and Elgin. She was accompanied by Sisters Joseph Mary and Veronica.
For some time they were not self-supporting – their Mother House in Elgin had financial difficulties, - and they were dependent on the generosity of the people of Newcastle. They began work straight away by setting up evening classes for young people who had had little schooling and on Saturday afternoons they taught young women to sew; they also visited the poor and sick in their own homes and in the hospital and did sacristy work. In a short time the Sisters had helped to establish St. Patrick’s all-age School in the parish and they began teaching there. Sr. Joseph Mary became Head of the Infants’ School and later, Mother Agnes became Head of the Senior School.
Vocations were not slow in coming. In 1893 seven novices were Professed in Holy Trinity Parish Church, by Dr. Ilsley, Bishop of Birmingham – a wonderful day for the parish. But this was Mother Bernard’s last public appearance. Three months later on 31st July, 1893, she died at the age of 69 when the foundation was still in its infancy. A bitter blow for the young Community but, inspired by the legacy they had inherited from Mother Bernard, they courageously carried on the work she had begun. Three years later, the Community, which had been governed from Elgin, became an independent foundation, continuing to carry out all the works of Mercy.
The first post-Reformation Religious House to be opened in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a Convent of Mercy. Reverend Mother M. Liguori Gibson of Mount Vernon, Liverpool, responded in1855, to a plea from Dr. Hogarth, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, by conducting four Sisters to their new home provided by Mr. W. Dunn and Miss Dunn, in Westgate Road. These two generous benefactors also promised £300p.a. for the Sisters’ needs and gave much financial help in projects undertaken by the Community in later years.
During its first year, the Convent remained as a Branch House of Liverpool, but in October 1856 it ceased to depend on Mount Vernon and was given the status of a Foundation, Sr. M. Baptist Geraghty being appointed its first Superior and Sr. Mary of the Cross Dunn, a native of Northumberland, as her Assistant.
The Sisters had been sent to Newcastle for “the purposes of instruction and visitation of the sick” and there was no lack of opportunity and no time lost in living out their brief. Immediately visitation of the sick and poor began in the Cathedral Parish of St. Mary’s; a Poor School was opened in two rooms and a loft in the Convent and a Private School was started in the Sisters’ Refectory with five pupils. By 1859, the new St. Mary’s School, the building of which was financed by Mr and Miss Dunn, was opened in Rutherford Street beside the Convent.
The Sisters were very much in demand in the field of education and in caring for the sick and they were attracting several vocations. Within five years of their arrival in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, the Community was in a position to open their first Branch House in North Shields.
The small group of Sisters, under the leadership of Mother M. Angela Borini, who had been missioned from Nottingham in 1859, to make a Foundation in Burnley, found the clergy lacking in co-operation. This, coupled with unhealthy, inadequate accommodation which led to the untimely death of one of the Sisters, resulted in the decision to accept an invitation from Canon Wrenall of St. Mary’s Parish, Oldham, to take entire responsibility for the schools – including the provision of furniture!.
So it was that, in June 1863, Mother Angela and her four companions moved into the vacated Mistress’ House in Cardinal Street, which was totally inadequate both in size and furnishing for the basic needs of the Community. The Sisters later annexed the School Master’s House and by 1867 were able to build a small Convent.
The extreme poverty of the families in the area prevented them from making financial contributions to the schools, so everything from cleaning to the provision of staff, became the responsibility of the Sisters. Government grants to the schools were very slim, but gradually improved. The Sisters also established a Nursery School to help young parents and introduced a system of Free Dinners for which the Municipal Authorities assumed responsibility after the 1902 Education Act.
In 1907, Werneth Grange, the former home of a mill owner, was purchased by the Sisters. It was almost immediately extended to accommodate increasing numbers of Sisters and Boarders. The Sisters were not only teaching in the Boarding School, they were teaching in Primary and Secondary Schools in several parishes as well and they were involved in all Mercy apostolates, including the provision of requisites for liturgical celebrations in poor Churches at home and overseas.
The Sisters of Mercy first went to Blackbrook St. Helens in 1869 as a branch house of Mount Vernon Liverpool. They were asked to take charge of an orphanage in an established building called Blackbrook House. In the early 1890s the orphanage became an Industrial School and was run by the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. The Sisters then returned to Mount Vernon. However the sisters had been involved in much more than caring for the orphans and were sorely missed by the parish priest and his people. A plea for their return and the promise of a purpose built Convent could not be resisted and the Sisters returned to Blackbrook in 1893 and took up residence in their new convent and restarted visitation, instruction, work in the schools and the myriad other tasks that were the business of the life of a Sister of Mercy at this time.
A century and more later in a vastly different culture Sisters continued to make mercy the business of their lives as parish Sisters. They undertook home visiting, instructing adults in their faith journey, preparing children for the Sacraments, organised clubs for the elderly, outings and retreat days. They also raised funds for our missions in Kenya and Peru.
A thriving group of Mercy Associates are at work in the neighbouring parish of St Catherine of Siena, Lowton. Bill, one of the Associates was called to the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Liverpool.
Finally the remaining Sisters moved to Derby and Old Swan, Liverpool and the house was closed in 2011.
On 2nd May 1883, Sisters M. Scholastica Macdonald and M. Vincent Flanagan moved to Sheffield from Commercial Road, East London, to teach in St. Catherine’s Parish, at the request of Fr. L. Burke, Parish Priest. They moved house three times in the first few years, finally settling in Burngreave Road, which was to be the Mother House for nearly a century. It was from this Mother House that many outreaches were made, firstly in the teaching profession to areas of the city such as Handsworth (1912) and Wath-upon-Dearne (1914) then later on they opened a Nursing Home in Claremont (1921).
Sheffield being a very poor area, the Sisters, with no regular income, opened a fee-paying School to provide for their own basic needs and to enable them to help the poor they had come to serve. Visitation of the sick and poor, at home and in the Workhouses took place in the evenings and at week-ends, when groceries and clothing were quietly distributed.
Things improved as the Private School flourished. The teaching profession continued to gather momentum with St Patrick’s School at Sheffield Lane Top in 1927 and in 1933 Mylnhurst Boarding and Day School at the other side of the city. In the 1960's it was felt the Private School was no longer fulfilling a need and it was phased out. Father Burke was constantly concerned for the Sisters’ welfare and they also received generous help from several benefactors, impressed by their efforts to help the poor. It was with considerable foresight that several Sisters went to train as nurses prior to the establishment of a Nursing Home in Claremont Place in 1921, which proved so popular that, in 1953 it was necessary to move to larger premises in Sandygate Road. This building formed the nucleus of an up-to-date flourishing hospital.
With the fall in vocations, the Community agreed the Convent was now too large for their needs, - it was sold to provide a Home for the Elderly and two smaller premises were bought one in St. Patrick’s and one in St. Vincent de Paul’s parishes so that the Works of Mercy begun in Sheffield over a Century before, could continue.
Convent of Mercy, Burgreave Road
The Parish Priest of Tilbury, Canon van Meenan, asked the Superior of the Convent in Macklin Street, London, for Sisters to teach in the schools and undertake visitation of Catholic families – negotiations with Mother M. Catherine Halpin were completed in 1904 and part of the property known as Trevor Villas was rented to accommodate the Community.
In January 1905, Sisters M. Teresa O’Connor, M. Camillus Ryan and M. Ethelburga Dwyer arrived in Tilbury and soon took on responsibility for the schools, replacing La Sainte Union Sisters who had moved out of the area. As numbers of Sisters increased, the Canon offered a site for a Convent on Church ground in Malta Road, into which the Community moved in 1909.
From the school log book at this time, we learn that many dockers moved from Tilbury to London; this coupled with the severe weather and malnutrition all contributed to falling school rolls. Despite this, in the following years, sterling work was done by the Sisters in the schools and Parish.
By 1964, recognising the need for revitalisation, the Sisters courageously made choices which took some of them to Communities in London and the Convent itself became a Branch House of Wanstead. But the small Community in Tilbury are still engaged in works of Mercy in the area.
In 1917, towards the end of World War I, Fr. W. O’Grady, Parish Priest of St. George’s in Walthamstow, recognised that one of the great needs of Wanstead, was the education of Catholic children. He acquired a house in Cambridge Park, intended as the Bishop’s residence and which seemed ideally suited as a Convent. So began his search for a Community of Religious women.
He was fortunate: through the decline of its once flourishing Industrial School in East London, the Commercial Road Community had Sisters available for Wanstead. The Community purchased the property for £2,000 and the new Convent was blessed by Bishop Ward of Brentwood on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1917 when the small Community took up residence. The Superior was Mother M. Catherine Fitzgerald.
Soon St. Joseph’s Convent School was opened for 19 pupils in one room in the Convent. Numbers increased rapidly and new classrooms were built with the help of money lent by a kind friend. In the meantime, as St. Joseph’s was in a different diocese to the Mother House in East London, Bishop Doubleday, Bishop Ward’s successor, expressed the view that the Convent should become autonomous.
This was almost inevitable, following the amalgamation of Convents of Mercy in the diocese of Westminster.
As the number of pupils and Sisters increased, more building took place, including accommodation for Boarders. By the early 1930’s and on into the 1960’s, in response to pleas from neighbouring parishes, the Community opened Branch Houses in Stanford-le-Hope, Canvey Island and Chadwell Heath which was the last Branch House founded. Later it was given to the diocese as a House of Prayer and other Houses were closed due to the fall in vocations.
But fewer Sisters didn’t stop the Wanstead Community. They moved into the Mission fields in Koru, Kenya where they helped to establish a Secondary School for Girls (1971) – laying the foundations in education and medicine so well, that by 1985, the whole complex was handed over to a native Congregation and the Sisters then helped to establish similar missions in Kakuma (Turkana Desert) and Barkorwa, (Kisumu), spreading Mercy far and wide from Wanstead.
In 1899, on the advice of the Bishop of Southwark, Canon St John asked for some Sisters from Bermondsey to take charge of an Industrial School for Junior boys needing care and protection. Whitstable was suggested as a suitable location, and from there boys at the age of 10 years who still needed care, could transfer to St Vincent’s in Dartford which was under the jurisdiction of the Presentation Brothers.
Reverend Mother M Camillus Dempsey assented on behalf of the Community and appointed Sr M Clare J. O’Brien as Superior of the group of Sisters who established the school (for 40 boys) in a rented house on the sea front, and dedicated it to Sr Joseph.
A new school, dedicated to St Vincent, was opened in 1902, in Castle Road and provided accommodation for sixty boys and, for the next three years, for the Sisters. In 1905, the Community moved to the newly built St Mary’s Convent and Private School, on land adjoining St Vincent’s. At the same time, the Foundation Stone of a new Church was laid on land donated by the Community, the site being between St Mary’s and St Vincent’s. The Architect, who also helped with finances, was Mr Charles Dempsey, a brother of Mother M. Camillus.
From 1935, male teachers were employed under the superintendence of the Sisters, as the boys no longer transferred to Dartford at the age of 10. Ten years later, the school which was now an Approved School for boys sent by the courts, was handed over to the Southwark Rescue Society (later to become the Children’s Society), the Home Office bearing financial responsibility. Home Office policy relating to Approved Schools changed, so a gradual phasing out of St Vincent’s began in 1973; from 1978-1986, it was run as a Boarding School for boys with special needs, but drastic cutbacks on the part of the LEA forced its closure. Since 1986, it has been used as the Southwark Youth Centre.
St Mary’s has been used as a Holiday House over the years – for Sisters in the Bermondsey group of convents and the children from Croydon – and has provided a pleasant Retreat Centre for Bermondsey Sisters. In 1931, an extension was added to St Mary’s and post-war years brought a complete reorganisation in that the original buildings became a Primary School under Kent Education Authority, while a new Convent was built between the School and the Church.
Finally Whitstable Convent was used for Retreat work until its closure in 2010.
In the mid 1850’s the Bishop of Hexham added his support to a plea by Canon Brown, parish priest of Wigton, for Sisters from Bermondsey to make a foundation in Wigton. Anxious to break down the strong anti-Catholic prejudice in the area, he suggested that Sisters who had been so successful in that respect in the Crimea, would be ideal for the foundation.
News travelled fast even then, as the Sisters were still in the Crimea; even Mother Clare Moore who, for reasons of health, returned before the rest of her group, had not yet reached Bermondsey from the scene of war. No wonder there was a delay in replying, especially as Cardinal Wiseman was looking to the Bermondsey Community for Sisters to staff the Hospital for the Poor he had caused to be built in Great Ormond Street, London.
However, in Wigton, the First Lady of the town, Miss Elizabeth Aglionby, a convert and sister of a Protestant Minister, persevered with her plan to build and endow a Convent for five Sisters. Her faith and that of Canon Brown was rewarded when, in September 1857, Mother Clare accompanied four Sisters, two of whom had been in the Crimea, (Sister M. de Chantal Hudden and Sister M. Martha Digby-Beste) to inaugurate the first house of Religious women to be established in that part of the country since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A short time later they were joined by a fifth Sister.