Reflection on the anniversary of the death of Catherine McAuley

The 11th November, Remembrance Day is celebrated throughout the world. We wear red poppies and remember with pride and sadness the thousands of young men and women who have died and are still dying in fighting to uphold the values we cherish. We pray for all of them and for their grieving families.

For Sisters of Mercy, Mercy Associates and friends of Mercy the 11th November has further significance. Catherine McAuley our foundress died on this date in 1841. We pray to her and for her in love, gratitude, and immense admiration.




We have no photograph of Catherine. The many images of her are based on the following description left to us by one of Catherine’s very early companions Sister Clare Augustine Moore. Clare was a gifted artist and in this verbal portrait she brings Catherine vividly before us.

Let us spend a few moments reflecting on her words as we think of Catherine with God, beyond time and into eternity.

A very few days after [her brother-in-law's] death [in January 1829] I saw our foundress for the first time. My brother took me to introduce me. She was sitting in the little parlor on the right side of hall as you enter. She was then upwards of 40 but looked at least 10 years younger. She was very fair with a brilliant color on her cheeks, still not too red. Her face was a short oval but the contour was perfect. Her lips were thin and her mouth rather wide, yet there was so much play and expression about it that I remarked it as the next agreeable feature in [her] face. Her eyes were light blue and remarkably round with the brows and lashes colorless but they spoke. In repose they had a melancholy beseeching look; then it would light up expressive of really hearty fun, or if she disapproved of anything they could tell that too. Sometimes they had that strange expression of reading your thoughts, which made you feel that even your mind was in her power, and that you could not hide anything from her. Her nose was straight but thick. She wore bands made from her own back hair which were so well managed as to be quite free from the disagreeable look bands of the kind usually give. The colour was was pale golden not in the least sandy, very fine and silky. She dressed in black British merino which according to the fashion of the time fitted tight to her shape. She was remarkably well made, round but not in the least heavy. She had a good carriage; her hands were remarkably white but very clumsy, very large with broad tips to the fingers and short square nails.
Mary Clare Augustine Moore (1808-1880)

Clare is much taken with the expressiveness of Catherine’s countenance, her sense that ‘even your mind was in her power.’ I gain a sense of the magnetic attractiveness of Catherine. This was a woman with power to lead, to inspire, to enable and encourage but without any need to control. During her ten short years as leader of this new Congregation she formed a team of creative enterprising young women who caused it to spread like wild fire across the globe.

Yet it is the description of Catherine’s hands that gives me most food for thought. For Clare, they were possibly the least attractive aspect of Catherine. But what a gift they were for us! She used them so well to keep in touch with her sisters as they made new foundations. It is through her writings, whether business, newsy, light hearted, instructive, playful, affectionate sad or anguished that we know so much about Catherine herself, those great early women of the congregation. Those large clumsy hands gave us a wonderful legacy.

On this Remembrance Day let us pray to Catherine in the light of God’s presence for wisdom, enterprise and courage in these complex and challenging times. May the spirit of mercy and compassion that inspired her continue to empower us today.

Let us praise and thank God for those early companions of Catherine who carried forward what she had commenced: Clare More, Clare Augustine Moore, Mary Ann Doyle, Frances Warde, Ursula Frayne, Vincent Harnett and many others. May what they began continue to meet the needs of our world today.

Let us prayerfully remember all who have lost their lives in wars across the centuries and around the world.

As we conclude this reflection let us touch back into world Remembrance Day and the symbol of the poppy which we wear, along with our mercy cross, at this time.
We read the poignant poem of John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
that mark our place; and in the sky
the larks still bravely sing,
scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe
to you, from failing hands we throw
the Torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.