Movements towards Greater Unity

Catherine was an amazingly free spirit and enabled and empowered all those who joined her in the great mercy adventure. This is very clearly shown in her approach to new foundations. ‘Need is our cloister’ was her motto and whenever requests for help came she responded enthusiastically.

There was nothing of the control freak about Catherine. Each house she opened became an autonomous foundation. Catherine travelled with the founding group and stayed with them for the first month or longer if they seemed to need it. After that she trusted them to carry on and kept in touch with them through letters of encouragement and advice when they asked for it. These early sisters were very young women, yet having personally initiated and formed them she entrusted to them the training of new sisters. Invariably each new foundation would include a novice or postulant in its membership. She encouraged each new house to respond to calls for help, to divide and make their own foundations.

Trust in the providence of God, fidelity to the Rule and flexibility in differing situations were the fundamentals of her life and work and even in those short ten years of her religious life she saw the order grow and flourish.

Trust in the providence of God

Here in England her spirit endured and the congregation grew and spread rapidly. Just looking at the branches from the two convents, Catherine opened in England gives a good indication of this.

Many of these new Convents once established responded to needs in other areas and new foundations were made.

This rapid growth continued until the mid nineteen fifties. Inevitably something of the freshness, freedom and vigour of the congregation was lost along the way as life became more institutionalised.

The autonomy which Catherine so valued in the early years became an isolating factor one hundred years along the way. Upwards of two thousand

Sisters of Mercy in Great Britain alone, belonged to the same Congregation, lived by the same Rule yet were scarcely aware of the existence of any group other than their own.

Movements towards greater unity began in this country early in the twentieth century. As we follow this story we notice a process of small unions leading to larger groupings.

In 1922 eight autonomous groups in the Diocese of Westminster merged to form one Congregation which was later joined by other groups.

In 1932 a similar process started in the Birmingham Diocese.

The amalgamation of these two large Congregations took place in 1976 and The Sisters of Mercy of the Union of Great Britain was born.

The Federation Story

In 1969 twenty five autonomous Mercy Congregations throughout England came together to form The English Federation of the Sisters of Mercy. This model allowed for local autonomy with a central administration to coordinate close co-operation.

From this closer union came the updating of our Constitutions in line with the insights and norms of the second Vatican Council. There were many other fruits. We developed a clearer sense of a common identity and the comforting revelation of how close to the spirit of Catherine McAuley the disparate congregations had

A powerful growth experience was the opening of the Annual General Meeting of the Major Superiors of the Federation to other members of their communities. There were great reunions of old friends.

Better World Retreats and other joint activites strengthened the identity of the Federation.

About ten years into the life of the Federation a strong impetus towards national unity re-emerged. The Federation Executive and the General Council of the Union began working together on the process of amalgamation.

Large, sometimes, stormy meetings of sisters were held at different venues in the country. The pros and cons of such a merger were thrashed out. We were nearing the moment of taking a straw vote on the issue of amalgamation and Rome was consulted on the implications of such a union.

The Birth of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy

The response from Rome stopped the process in its tracks. A merger at this stage would require twenty-five separate Acts of Union. In other words each Congregation separately would have to join the Union of the Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain.

Rome was not prepared to undertake that amount of legislation and paperwork. Their advice was that the Federated Communities should merge to become one Congregation and then there could be one Act of Union.

The Federation Communities worked towards this and in 1983 each group voted to form The Institute of Our Lady of Mercy. Sixteen Congregations had the 75% yes vote required by Rome. Two more groups joined in quick succession and two others at later stages.

To create an Institute identity was to embark on a long process which was at once painful and liberating - a death and resurrection experience.

Shortly into the life of the Institute it became obvious that a Province structure would best serve the growth in identity. This proved to be a wise decision and after ten fruitful years the membership felt ready to dispense with the province system and continue the growth in unity under one Leadership Team.

Now twenty-three years on the sense of identity is strong and there is a deepening commitment to discernment and participative leadership.

During most of this period the notion of national unity has not been high priority for most of the membership but important joint ventures at grass roots have been quietly developing.

Some sisters have been part of joint formation programmes and there are several collaborative communities inoperation. A consultative vote held in 2004 found the Institute with an almost fifty-fifty percent divide about the wisdom of working towards national unity. There is a sense now that unity needs to grow at grass roots level through collaboration in ministry, prayer experiences and other forms of joint venture.


“The supreme authority of the Institute is vested by God through the Church in the General Chapter” Rule.44

The Chapter, consisting of elected delegates and ex-officio members, meets every five years. It elects a Leadership Team and sets directions for the next five years. There are seven members in the Leadership Team. They are the Trustees of the Institute. Team Members act as links to Clusters of Communities and have a pastoral and administrative role with the communities of that Cluster.

The directions set by the Chapter for the current term calls for a review of our ministries and resources in the light of Gospel values, our Mercy charism and the needs of our time.