Great Britain's Story - Setting the Context

The Catholic faith had been kept alive in these lands during the Reformation period by the faithfulness of the few and the courage and loyalty of the Catholic nobility and gentry.

Many of their sons were educated for the priesthood in seminaries specially set up in France, Italy and Spain.

Pictured right: Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England and martyr

Facing almost certain death, these brave young men returned from the continent in secret and travelled around the country to offer Mass, to instruct, to baptise, to marry and bury those whose faith survived the violent persecution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

This hidden network of Mass centres gradually emerged, as strict adherence to the penal laws slowly relaxed, during the seond half of the 18th century. Chapels, serving as places of worship and schools were operating quietly in the back streets of many towns and cities by the time that Catherine McAuley was born in Ireland in 1778.

Pictured left: St. Edmund Campion - Priest and Martyr

A new social order was developing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution with all the creative energy and wealth that this period engendered.

Many altruistic men and women such as Catherine, appalled by the social conditions and the exploitation of the poor, were working for social and religious reform.

Their demands were reluctantly heeded as news of the French Revolutions of 1789 struck fear in the hearts of the king and the ruling classes.

Pictured right: Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire after the dissolution of the Monasteries

The powerful leadership of Daniel O’ Connell in Ireland and the political astuteness of the Duke of Wellington, resulted in the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 and Catholic Emancipation in 1829. This, was followed in 1850 by the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy of England, Scotland and Wales.  

It was against this background that the active but low profile Catholic Church in England, Scotland and Wales threw caution to the winds and set itself to a strong, visible programme of evangelisation. During this period the famine in Ireland drove many people to seek work in the new industrial areas of this country. This swelled the population of the emerging parishes and created links between the Churches of both countries.

Two other factors powerfully influenced this renewal and revival of the Catholic faith in these lands and they were to become intimately connected.


The first of these was the advent of a talented young Catholic architect, Augustus Welby Pugin. He built a series of great Gothic churches on public highways in those places where the Mass Centres were strongest. Significant in our story would be Bermondsey, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Derby, places where Mercy Convents built by Pugin would very soon follow.

Pictured right: A.W. Pugin (1812 - 1852)

These fine Churches were daring, courageous challenges to the status quo.

Sadly, Bermondsey’s Church was destroyed during the second world war and Liverpool’s Church and Convent were demolished for urban redevelopment in the sixties.

St. Mary’s Church Derby was consecrated in 1839. Ten years later a foundation was made from Kinsale. Pugin’s convent building did not survive but a generous convert gave the Sister her home which was adjacent to the Church.

A much quieter but perhaps more profound influence was the advent of ‘the walking nuns’ of Catherine McAuley. News of this new Congregation, the Sisters of Mercy, founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, was spreading rapidly.

The term walking nuns was a derisive term at first. Real nuns did not leave their convents and walk the streets as Catherine’s sisters did.

However, it was soon realised that this new form of Religious life was God’s gift to His Church for this new and complex period in western society.

Catherine’s Sisters visited the sick and poor in their own homes and in the hospitals.

They ran day and night schools for the poor, and, where possible, found shelter for the homeless and orphans.

They sought in every way possible to improve the lot of women. It was exactly the support that the clergy of the newly re-established parishes needed.

Invitations to Catherine McAuley and her successors to set up Convents in Britain soon came thick and fast. In the ten short years of her religious life she personally made two foundations in England, Bermondsey, London in 1839 and Handsworth, Birmingham in 1841.


Catherine had visited the site for a third foundation in Liverpool in 1841 and received prospective candidates from Liverpool for their novitiate in Baggot Street.

Sadly, Catherine died in November 1841 before the Liverpool foundation was actually made.

The Sisters finally moved into the Pugin designed Convent in Mount Vernon Liverpool in August 1843.