Even before the famine which began in 1845, Ireland had its share of poverty. Orphans and waifs did not find the kind of governmental support which is now common everywhere in the western world. Although antipathy between Protestants and Catholics existed then as now, it did not prevent one Catholic orphan girl of Dublin from finding Protestant foster parents.
Catherine McAuley was taken into the home of Surgeon Conway. Although he was a rigid Protestant, Catherine refused to attend his Protestant church. When Catherine was 18, another couple, the Callahans, adopted her. She converted both of them to Roman Catholicism. When Mr. Callahan died in 1822, he left her a great fortune. She was then about 35.
Perhaps because she had lost her own parents, Catherine wanted to do work among the poor. She had already engaged in relief efforts for the needy and by 1824 contemplated plans for a center for the charitable works she planned. On this day, September 24, 1827 she opened her House of Mercy. It consisted of a school and a home for working mothers. Because the need for jobs was great, she soon tacked on an employment agency and before long an orphanage.
Catherine had no interest in becoming a nun. Many of her helpers were inclined to religious vocations, but, except for a daily routine which included spiritual exercises and a uniform adopted for convenience sake, her House of Mercy made no effort to become a religious order. All the same, her inclusion of religious elements led to carping by jealous Roman Catholic orders. Her work was heretical, they griped. Catherine was trying to compete with the Sisters of Charity. An ugly prejudice developed against her.
The archbishop of Dublin, under whose care Catherine had placed her funds, spoke with her. Either she must drop the religious elements from her work or else bring it officially into the Catholic church.
Rather than give up the work which had come to mean a good deal to her, Catherine agreed to receive religious instruction and develop her work into a charitable order. She adopted the Augustinian rule commonly used by the Sisters of Presentation, adding chapters on the care of distressed women and visitation of the sick. On December 12, 1831, she took her own vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Thus came into being the Sisters of Mercy.
Even in her lifetime the order grew and spread. She established a second house in London "to educate poor little girls, to lodge and maintain poor young ladies who are in danger and to visit the sick poor." After she died in November 1841, the Sisters of Mercy grew to be the largest order ever founded in an English speaking country.
- "McCauley" and "Mercy, Sisters of." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- "McAuley, Catherine." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
- Various internet and encyclopedia articles.
Last updated April, 2007.