In 1849, Bishop Ullathorne invited Mother M. Francis Bridgeman, Superior of the Kinsale Convent, cork, to undertake the work of Catholic education in Derby, where the Community of the Holy Child Order, founded by Mother Cornelia Connelly, had, for various reasons, failed to take root. The Parish Priest of St Mary’s, Fr Sing, and the Honourable Lady Beaumont (Lord Scarsdale’s daughter) offered to help in any way possible to ensure the well-being of the Foundation.
So, it was that, on October 15th, 1849, Mother M Evangelist Benson, with five other Sisters and three orphans (to assist in the start of an Orphanage) left Kinsdale, arriving in Derby two days later. They took up residence in the spacious Convent in Nottingham Road which had recently been vacated by the Holy Child sisters, and surveying the area of the Lord’s vineyard, where there was grinding poverty and every kind of deprivation, agreed that it was decidedly ‘Mother McAuley territory’. Children as young as seven years worked a fourteen hour day in the mills, earning a shilling a week; and within the next decade social deprivation was further compounded by the arrival of 300 families fleeing the famine in their native Ireland.
In 1862, he demands of health and limited resources, necessitated a transfer from Nottingham Road to a smaller, less elaborate and healthier residence in Bridge Gate, put at their disposal by Lady Beaumont, who reserved a small part of the house for herself until she left Derby. In the meantime, the Sisters had embarked on a varied and very challenging apostolates, having opened an Orphanage and House of Mercy for training girls who were then placed in suitable employment, and having undertaken the organisation of the Day and Night Schools.
Also in 1862, the school in Edward Street was put under the care of the Sisters, and small house attached to the school became the new Orphanage. The Sisters, in 1979, took charge of St Joseph’s School, but these positive signs of growth were more than balanced by a certain amount of prejudice, extreme poverty, loss of young Sisters through tuberculosis and a surrounding atmosphere of deprivation caused by widespread unemployment. Gradually, however, through witnessing the obvious concern of the Sisters for poor children, girls in the House of Mercy, and the sick poor, fears were allayed, prejudice evaporated and bonds of friendship grew.
Early attempts to establish Branch Houses were not very successful, that in Belper lasting only three years, in Carlton seven years and in Atherstone eight years. A Branch in Mount Carmel Street, used a Boarding extension of the Convent School in Bridge Gate, was more successful – established in 1899, it operated until 1923.
The Convent School in Bridge Gate was extended in 1925 and again in 1939. Reorganisation in the Post War II years led to the division of this school, the Preparatory section of which remained in Bridge Gate, with the Senior section moving to the newly acquired Highfields Estate (1949). Part of the Highfields House accommodated a Community of seven Sisters, and the remainder was modified to form St Philomena’s School. When the building was no longer needed for educational purposes, it was completed renovated and, at the request of Bishop McGuinness (Nottingham), a part of Highfields was adapted as the Diocesan Catechetical Centre. Later (1986) Mercia Provincialate was established there.
Responding to the request for the provision of care for sick and retired Priests of the Diocese, Ednaston Lodge, Brailsford, was purchased by the Community in 1948, and converted to St Mary’s Nursing Home. Compassionate dare of sick or retired Priests, as well as other residents, continues to be the hallmark of St Mary’s.
Four years later, the Parish Priest of English martyrs, Alvaston, anxious to start a Private School, pending the building of a parish school, approached the Bridge Gate Community. The response was positive, and the Sisters took their classes, for a few years, in some of the rooms of their little Convent, thus forming the nucleus of St John fisher’s Primary School which opened in the early sixties. In 1955 responsibility for yet another school, St Edward’s in Swadlincote, was accepted by the Community.
Although Beechwood House formed a part of the Highfields Estate, purchased in 1949, circumstances prevented its being established as a Branch House until 1968. To mark the the Bicentenary of the birth of Mother Catherine McAuley, a new apostolate was undertaken in Beechwood – a building, containing twenty-one Warden Flats, was erected in the grounds and given the title Catherine McAuley House. A Sister is Warden, and the residents enjoy peace and security in lovely surroundings. Care of the elderly continues to be of special concern for the Derby Sisters, as was evident again in 1985, when Mount Carmel Home for the Elderly was opened next to Highfields Convent.
In 1984, the Derby Congregation of thirty-nine sisters in six Houses joined the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy, established a year earlier. Each Convent then became a separate unit and, since 1985, all are members of Mercia Province. In addition to special concern for the elderly, members of the Houses are involved in a great variety of apostolates – Parish Schools, nursing in State Hospitals, parish Visiting, diocesan Catechetical Programmes, Retreats, care of the Homeless and Travelling People throughout the Diocese and, for several years, a Sister was Co-ordinator of Padley Centre (Bridge House), an ecumenical pioneer project for homeless people.
Changes in Institute educational policies led to the gradual phasing out of the Private School in Bridge Gate (1992). The Sisters, in conjunction with the Major Superiors, are in a process of discernment regarding the future of the Convent, now far too large for the Community. The dream, shared by a Housing Association, is that permission may be obtained to use the site to provide small houses for single homeless people. Part of the dream is that a small Community will continue the Mercy presence in this historic place.