The Sisters of Mercy

At this time in Dublin women were divided into two categories. There were the wives and daughters in the big houses who were educated to be ladies of leisure. They amused themselves by singing, playing the piano, arranging flowers, embroidering, following the hunt and entertaining their friends to afternoon tea. On the other hand there were the poor girls with no education who, if they were lucky, were employed as maids in the big houses. The poor girls were untrained, they received very small wages and if they were annoyed by the gentlemen of the house there was no one to whom they could turn and no place to go. If they were unfortunate enough to become pregnant they were dismissed immediately. Catherine McAuley was very aware of the troubles the poor women were faced with and felt she had to do something about it. This was Georgian Dublin with its beautiful buildings and gracious life-style and where the poor and uneducated had no rights at all. Catherine was destined to initiate change. The generosity of the Callaghans made her dream possible.

During the 20 years Catherine McAuley lived with the Callaghans she became aware of the plight of poor women and young girls in Dublin.

Catherine's Dream
After Catherine O'Callaghan died in 1821? Catherine McAuley, her friend for 20 years, remained on at Coolock House to help the widower William who was now also ill.

Some time after his wife's death William asked Catherine what she would do with her life if she were a lady of means. Catherine told him simply and honestly that she would devote her time, energy and wealth to the education and protection of poor women.

William O'Callaghan was apparently pleased with Catherine's ideas and on 27th January 1822 made his will leaving his entire fortune and his estate to Catherine. Ten months later William O' Callaghan died and Catherine McAuley at the age of 40 was a wealthy woman. Early in 1823 Catherine consulted a Father Blake from the parish of St. Michael and John and asked him to find a suitable site where she could build a large house which would be used both as an educational establishment and as a refuge for girls needing accommodation. The site which her friend Father Blake recommended was at the corner of Baggot Street and Herbert Street. The site was purchased and the building of what was to become the first Convent of Mercy started in July of 1824.

Baggot Street

During the three years that the building was being constructed Catherine studied teaching methods and the management of schools in Ireland and in France. At the same time she and some of her part-time helpers visited the poor in their homes and helped in whatever way they could.

The first part of her dream was realised when in September 1827 when Baggot street opened as a poor school and as a residence for working girls there was no question of Baggot street being a convent or of Catherine and her voluntary companions ever forming a religious order. In 1828, with the permission of Archbishop Murray Catherine and her companions began visiting some of the hospitals in Dublin.

Catherine had an aversion to becoming a religious but very soon this was to change. Although she was now 40 years of age she was approaching a new beginning.

Catherine the Nun
More young ladies come to help Catherine with her work and the work being done by the group become known and appreciated. The Archbishop of Dublin realised that the present set-up could not continue, if the work was to last, so he urged Catherine to consider forming the group into a religious order. She resisted the suggestion for a while but her only other choice would be to hand the work and building the Presentation of Charity Orders.. Since it was very important to Catherine that the group would be free to visit homes and hospitals she decided the better choice was to train as a sister and found her own order. In the early days they were known as 'the walking nuns' as they became a familiar sight on the streets of Dublin.

Catherine with two companions went to the Presentation sisters in Georges Hill Dublin from September 1830 to December 1831, to be trained as Sisters. When she returned to Baggot Street on 12th December 1831 she and her companions were now the first Sisters of Mercy.

The Newly Established Mercy Convent
From the beginning young ladies were attracted to the work being done by Catherine and her companions and there was a steady stream of candidates joining the Sisters of Mercy.

The work being done by the sisters in Dublin became known in other parts of Ireland also. As new needs arose the sisters were being called on by bishops and priests to serve the need. For example when the Cholera epidemic broke out in Dublin the sisters were asked to nurse the victims which they generously did. By 1835 requests were coming to Baggot Street asking her to set up convents in other parts of the country and in that year a foundation was made in Tullamore, followed some after by foundations in Charleville, Co. Cork in 1837 and in Limerick 1838.

Catherine McAuley and her companions were social workers before the term was invented. In the early 19th century the work of the sisters was so new and so necessary that it attracted a lot of attention.

In 1839 group went from Cork to found a convent in Bermondsey, London. Sr. Clare Moore was in charge of the small group that travelled to Bermondsey and during the 35 years that she lived and worked in Bermondsey she founded 8 other convents in England. Between 1854 and 1856 Sr. Clare Moore and four companions nursed in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale.

In 1841 Catherine died
Catherine died just 10 short years after founding the Sisters of Mercy in Baggot Street. During those 10 years she travelled the length and breadth of Ireland making foundations. Travel was very difficult in those days. She travelled mostly by Canal Barge of by Stage Coach. The journeys were slow and very tiring and it is not surprising that in 10 years of hardship she was worn out. Because of the difficulty of travel Catherine made each of her foundations autonomous and this explains why Convents of Mercy not only throughout the world but throughout Ireland were totally independent one from the other and this situation only came to an end in 1993 when there was a refounding of the Order with the establishment of Mercy Ireland and Mercy International. Baggot Street the first ever Convent of Mercy is now the headquarters of Mercy International and in funded , managed and maintained by the Sisters from America, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.