In response to a request from the Parish Priest, Fr E de Theury, and with the sanction of bishop Cornthwaite of Leeds and Bishop Danell of Southwark, the Bermondsey community sent to Sr M Benedict Meyer and three companions to make a Foundation in St Joseph’s parish, Hunslet. On the Feast of St George 1879, the Little Community took up temporary residence in a small back-to-back house which had been prepared for them by some ladies of the Parish in Epworth Place. In the following year, the adjoining house was rented to allow for an Oratory and better sleeping accommodation.
Three Sisters were immediately appointed to St Joseph’s School which, just a month later, received a very satisfactory report following an inspection. But the shadow of the Cross fell when Sr M Agnes Ryan, a qualified teacher, became ill and had to return to Bermondsey where she died soon afterwards. Abingdon Community sent another Sister with teaching qualifications, Sr M Stanislaus McHugh, but she too became ill and died on Palm Sunday 1880; she was buried in Clifford since there was still no Catholic Cemetery in Leeds. In that same year, two Postulants entered and were clothed at Sisters of Mercy, but nether persevered. However, the seed sown in tears was later to provide a rich harvest.
In 1881, the Bishop made a gift to the Sisters of land adjacent to St Joseph’s church were they might build a permanent Convent. To achieve this, £800 was borrowed from Leeds Building Society, and the convent was blessed and ready for occupation in January 1883. soon, the Community was blessed and ready for occupation in January 1883. Soon, the Community was inundated with requests from Parish Priests in surrounding areas for Sisters, but the time was not ripe for positive responses. The first Foundation to be made was in Shanklin, Isle of Wight, where five Sisters were sent in 1898, and the first Branch House to be established was in Wath-on-Dearne, Yorkshire, to which four sisters were missioned in 1904. Ten years later, because of shortage of personnel, responsibility for the Convent in Wath-on-Dearne was accepted by the Sheffield Community.
In no place more than in Hunslet did (and do) the Sisters of Mercy deserve the title Walking Nuns, since visitation of the poor and the sick has always had pride of place amongst their varied apostolates. After school hours and at weekends, the Sisters were invariably out, two by two, on their districts bringing solace and assistance to all those in need. In a very deprived area, they walked with the people, especially in the harrowing days of two World Wars and their aftermaths.
In 1936, most of the small garden at the back of the Convent was sacrificed to allow for the building of a Chapel, with a Community Room and Visitor’s Flat overhead. The extra accommodation thus afforded proved very useful when an all-out recruitment effort brought six Postulants in the course of 1936 and 1937. the unexpected death of the Novice Mistress, who was also Headmistress of St Joseph’s School, was a double cross (August 1937). As there was no Sister qualified to take the post of Headmistress, a member of the Clifford Community was lent for several years, until a Sister in Hunslet was ready to assume the responsibility.
The outbreak of the war in 1939 brought serious disruption to families and the Sisters alike. Two Sisters were amongst the staff evacuated with the pupils to Upton which is a few miles from Doncaster; at the same time, sections of the Convent were reinforced to protect against possible bombing. After several months of relative quiet, the evacuees began to risk returning to the city, and as normal a programme as possible was resumed.
During the war years and in the fifties, many of the younger members of the Community completed their Teacher Training Course, and were thus prepared for the reorganisation programmes introduced into the school system. Additionally, individual Sisters received training as Leaders in Youth Groups, Brownies and Guides, in catering, typing, etc. These extra skills were very valuable in the extension of the apostolates to meet new needs especially when the heart seemed to be taken out of the area by the demolition of the old familiar terraces of houses and their replacement by badly designed high-rise flats. The latter have now, fortunately, disappeared and been replaced by much more acceptable family dwellings.
In 1962, in response to a request from Fr C Murray, Parish Priest of St Peter and St Paul’s in Yeadon, plans were made to establish a Branch House there. A site was procured on Cemetery Road through the purchase of Haw Cottage (in extensive grounds) and its demolition. The new convent was blessed and opened in April 1965 and the Mercy apostolates, including teaching in the local schools and the provision of a Play School, commenced. The Convent, dedicated to Maria Regina, is now the Generalate of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy.
The Hunslet Congregation, always active in the English Federation from its establishment in 1969, was one of the sixteen which, in 1983, united to form the Institute. At that point, the Communities in Hunslet and Yeadon became separate units within the Institute and, in 1986, of the Emmaus Province. While some of the needs present in society in 1879 continue to the present day, new ones arise and as far as resources permit, are met with generosity and courage. St Joseph’s Community provided one of the pioneers for the Leeds Mercy Mission to Peru, in 1969, and another Sister for several years in the same Mission. More recently, one member serves on the Ecumenical Chaplaincy Team to Wakefield Prison, while two others do some voluntary service in the Crypt (for the homeless of Leeds). At different times, sisters from St Joseph’s have been (are) elected members of Councils at Provincial and General level, so for a truly Mercy Community, there are all sorts of services to be given.