Catherine’s choice in the 1820s to build her House of Mercy in a fashionable area of Dublin was a conscious decision to make the poor visible.
This is still at the heart of Mercy: standing in solidarity with the needy, empowering people in order to restore their dignity rather than simply giving charity and creating dependency. For Catherine, as for Sisters of Mercy today, this meant being in relationship with others, ‘enfleshing’ mercy, as well as recognising our own poverty. ‘Give a person a fish and you feed him for a day; give him a rod and he will feed himself for life’ is a modern saying that captures Catherine’s approach. She herself had known both wealth and poverty. She was a pragmatist and knew that “the poor need help today, not next week.” But as well as practical schemes, she was interested in the whole person, listening patiently to their stories, “ever ready to praise, to encourage, to stimulate, slow to censure and still more slow to condemn.” In some ways she was ahead of her time in showing such empathy and non-judgemental acceptance, for this was a time when charity could sometimes emphasise the social divide rather than bring people closer together.
Working alongside families was at the heart of this interest of Catherine in the whole person. Mercy Sisters continue to recognise the importance of the family and how crucial the foundation years are to a child’s early development. Parents need and deserve support in providing a nurturing environment. Mercy has tried to help in various ways over the years with hospitality, holiday opportunities, respite care, education and training, as well as Catherine’s ‘listening ear’.
St Anne’s Convent in Newcastle has for many years run a respite unit for children and young adults with severe disabilities in order to give a much-needed break to pressurised parents and they also offer a weekly social club for the youngsters.
It was a Newcastle couple, Tommy and Monica, who also pioneered the first group of Young Mercy Associates. There are now other groups of young people who meet together for fun and prayer, learning ways of making ‘Mercy the business of our lives’. It has been another way in which Mercy has endeavoured to support families in developing their children as whole people, with spiritual and moral as well as physical and intellectual needs.
In 1997 Sisters of Mercy were invited by St Theresa’s charity to open a Family Centre in Peterborough with funding from the Single Regeneration budget. The centre has extended a welcome to young families, often single teenage parents, where they and their pre-school children can find companionship, play opportunities, practical help and a warm lunch. They can access parenting and relationship courses, skills programmes such as computer training, financial guidance and counselling support. The centre also offers affordable baby and children’s clothing, equipment and furniture to client families.
The emphasis is always on identifying and drawing out people’s own strengths, building confidence and self-belief and, in particular, offering second chances. Management at the centre has recently been handed over to an experienced lay administrator who is a Mercy Associate. Sisters continue to support the work and to take an active interest. One Sister provides weekly music play therapy for toddlers and their mums.
The Bridlington Mercy Sisters offered holiday accommodation for several years to groups from the Family Centre in Peterborough. Their hostel has now been made available to Surestart so that local families can access the support they need. The Mercy Community in Hornsea continues to offer breaks at reduced rates to families who could not otherwise afford the experience of a seaside holiday.
The Convent of Mercy in Alnwick has also been creative in the use of its resources in furthering the work of Mercy. Finding its premises too large for the present needs of its Sisters, it has leased a substantial part of its buildings for a special National Health Service project. The premises have been carefully renovated and adapted for a mental health team to work with children with challenging behaviour. The Community continues to be a praying presence in this important work of supporting local families.
These are just a few examples of ways in which Mercy has in recent years tried to continue Catherine’s ‘no-frills’ practical response to need.
We remember always that this work of helping people to build and re-build their lives is God’s work, not ours, for his glory, not ours, and that the success of anything we do depends on his grace, not on any effort of our own, however well motivated. As St Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, ‘This, then, is what I pray, kneeling before the Father from whom every fatherhood in heaven or earth takes its name. In the abundance of his glory may he, through his Spirit, enable you to grow firm in power with regard to your inner self, so that Christ may live in your hearts … Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation…’