From Treasures of Irish Christianity: People and Places, Images and Texts
Catherine Elizabeth McAuley was born on 29 September 1778 in Drumcondra, Dublin, to James and Elinor McAuley. As a young woman she would begin a mission of mercy that grew and spread over the years and is still relevant today. Catherine had a sister, Mary, and a brother, James. Her father died in 1783 and, as a result, life for the children changed dramatically, both economically and socially. During her late teenage years her mother became seriously ill, necessitating Catherine to nurse her until she died in 1798. Catherine, together wither her brother and sister, were cared for by their relatives.
In 1799, Catherine met William Callaghan, a wealthy Protestant, and his wife Catherine, a Quaker who had recently returned from India. They took an immediate liking to Catherine and adopted her. She went to live with them at Coolock House, north Dublin, as household manager, companion and nurse to Mrs. Callaghan until her death in 1819. She also nursed William Callaghan until his death in 1822. Both William and Catherine Callaghan were received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church before they died. Catherine was named the sole beneficiary of the Callaghan estate.
Catherine first began her mission of mercy from Coolock House. Living out her gospel values, she worked among the poor, the sick, and the dying, but she knew that this work required schools, hostels, orphanages and opportunities for employment to provide the underprivileged with the skills to help themselves, a sense of dignity and a belief in their own self-worth.
Catherine set about realizing her great dream of establishing a center in Dublin by purchasing a piece of land in the city’s fashionable and residential Baggot Street. Along with her two assistants, Anna Maria Doyle and Catherine Byrne, she had classrooms built, as well as a dormitory for unemployed and homeless girls. It also had a chapel where she and those who might wish to work with her could pray. On 24 September 1827, the House of Mercy was blessed and opened.
Though she enjoyed the support of Archbishop Daniel Murray, her new ministry was looked on with suspicion by many. At first, seeing restrictions that would be placed on her work, Catherine did not intend to found a religious congregation, but she then decided that a new congregation could be founded while remaining faithful to her purposes. On 8 September 1830, Catherine and two coworkers, Anna Maria Doyle and Elizabeth Harley, entered the Presentation Convent, George’s Hill, Dublin, to begin their training in religious life.
On 12 December 1831, the first three Sisters of Mercy took their vows and the congregation was born. Over the next ten years the Sisters of Mercy spread throughout Ireland and England: Tullamore (1836); Charlevile (1836); Carlow (1837); Cork (1837); Limerick (1838); Bermondsey, London (1839); Galway (1840); Birr (1840); and Birmingham (1841); together with two houses near Dublin – Dún Laoghaire (1835) and Booterstown (1838). The congregation became one of the largest of women, both in Ireland and throughout the world. Today some 2, 324 members in nine countries, belonging to the Irish congregation, follow in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley.
Catherine McAuley was a woman of great vision. The care of the sick, the homeless, and the care of women were close to her heart. In her own time she was regarded as “holy, eminently holy,” in a way that had not been seen “in Ireland since the days of Saint Brigid.” In 1990, she was declared “Venerable” by Pope John Paul II. She died in 1841, just ten years a Sister of Mercy, yet her life and vision still contribute, not only to Irish society today, but throughout the world.
Today, Sisters of Mercy continue her legacy by teaching, nursing, visiting the sick, and helping those in need. The mission of mercy from Irish sisters continues across the world in England, Brazil, Nigeria, the United States of America, Zambia, Peru, Kenya, and South Africa. In Nigeria, for example, that work includes education, catechesis, and home, hospital, and prison visitation – highlighting still Catherine’s passion for reaching out to the poor. In Kenya, two-thirds of the congregation’s sisters are Kenyan-born. In Peru, they promote human rights and peace-making. In Ireland, where once Sisters of Mercy were involved in schools and education, hospitals and care of the sick, now they are engaged in a diversity of ministries, but still reaching out to the needy and marginalized in our time.