Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy was a courageous, holy and public-spirited woman. She was born to make a difference. To understand Catherine we need to understand the times and context in which she lived.
The industrial revolution was gathering momentum. It was a period of tremendous energy, creativity, and discovery, with exciting innovations in machinery, in science and medicine and new farming methods. It was a period of great expansion in building - the era of the great Georgian houses, tarmac roads, canals, steam engines and railways; it heralded the beginning of mass production and great wealth for the new industrialists and the upper classes.
Image on right is: bronze sculpture by Michael Burke (1994), of Catherine McAuley with woman and child outside Mercy International Centre
But there was a darker side. History records: massive development of slum towns and the movement of people from country to town. There was widespread exploitation of workers, women and children, particularly, for they were cheaper to employ. Children as young as six had to endure long hours in factories, mills and in chimney sweeping. A spirit of laissez faire ruled - no restraints on money making enterprises; misery and degradation with no means of redress for the mass of the population. All this was compounded by famine and the long- standing, oppressive penal code.
Yet amidst the darkness there was hope. The period produced some great humanitarian and altruistic movements; movements for reform and the betterment of people fired by compassionate, courageous men and women.
Such a woman was Catherine McAuley. She was born in Dublin in 1778 just as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way and the penal laws were starting to relax under pressure from the powerful leadership of men like Wolfe Tone and later
Daniel O' Connell.
Like many nineteenth century reformers, Catherine was appalled at the exploitation of workers and the terrible conditions which they and their families endured. Her father, though a Catholic, was a wealthy tradesman and Catherine learned from his example to respect and succour the poor and the oppressed. She experienced poverty and deprivation herself when both parents died and she and her younger brother and sister were left without means of support. They were cared for by the Armstrong family, kindly Protestant relatives. At about the age of twenty Catherine went to live as a companion to an elderly, wealthy lady and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan. They were Quakers and though very suspicious of all things ‘Catholic' were very supportive of Catherine's ministry to the poor of the neighborhood of Coolock where they lived.
Catherine learned from them a great love and knowledge of the Scriptures. When Mr. Callaghan died, shortly after his wife, he left his entire fortune to Catherine knowing it would be well used.
Catherine was forty-four years of age when she inherited this large fortune and to the consternation of her rather worldly family she used it to build a House of Mercy in Baggot Street - a very fashionable part of Dublin.
Image on right: bronze Bust of Catherine by Michael Burke created from a description of Catherine written by a contemporary, Sister Clare Augustine Moore.
This was a daring action. The year was 1827. The ‘Catholic Emancipation Act' was still being mooted in Parliament. Her plan was to bring the poor to the doorsteps of the rich. The building was ready for occupancy on the 24th September, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. This was a providential coincidence which gave the House and later the Congregation its name. The large building comprised a school for the poor, an orphanage and, a hostel and training centre for vulnerable young women who worked, or sought work in the houses of the rich.
The house was designed to provide living accommodation for Catherine and the ladies, who would, hopefully, volunteer their services. Many likeminded women did in fact join her. They soon became involved in nursing the sick and the dying in their homes during the cholera epidemic. At first all the ladies worked as volunteers. Later it became clear that God was calling them to devote their whole lives to these works of mercy and to form a new congregation. This would be un-cloistered but give their work stability and permanence.
Consequently, Catherine and two companions Anna Maria Doyle and Elizabeth Harley entered the Novitiate in the Presentation Convent, Dublin and on the 12th December 1831 professed the Vows Poverty, Chastity and Obedience which the Catholic Church required for members of a Religious Congregation. Very soon a fourth vow: was added ‘to serve the poor, sick, and the ignorant.’ Thus expressing the nature and purpose of the Institute or as we Sisters say ‘our charism’
Catherine was fifty-three years of age when she professed her vows. Her Religious life was to be very short - ten prodigiously fruitful years. Under her Spirit-filled guidance the Congregation spread very rapidly.
In those ten years she opened ten new Convents in Ireland and two in England. Others including Liverpool, Newfoundland and Pittsburgh, America, were already planned when she died in 1841.
She inspired her followers with her own love and zeal. The moving words of her closest companion and confidante Francis Warde gives an insight into the power of Catherine’s example. Francis is writing from America to another Sister:
Visit the Mercy World Website for more information on Catherine McAuley and Sisters of Mercy around the world.