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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > M > Sisters of Mercy

Sisters of Mercy

A congregation of women founded in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827, by Catherine Elizabeth McAuley, born 29 September, 1787, at Stormanstown House, County Dublin. Descended from an ancient and distinguished Catholic family, she was the eldest of three children. At a time when Catholicism was crushed, Mr. McAuley strove as much as was possible to keep the faith alive in those who had so many inducements to relinquish it, and engaged in many charitable works. In these he was little assisted by Mrs. McAuley, whose charm and accomplishments made her a favourite in society. After Mr. McAuley's death (1794) the pecuniary affairs of the family became so involved that the widow sold Stormanstown House and removed to Dublin. Here the family came so completely under the influence of Protestant fashionable society that all, with the exception of Catherine, became Protestants. She revered the memory of her father too greatly to embrace a religion he abhorred. Mrs. McAuley did not long survive her husband, and after her death the orphans passed into the family of a relative who invested their patrimony for their benefit. From one relative to another the orphans passed, each guardian doing all in his power to strengthen the children in the Protestant religion. Catherine, however, could not be induced by threats or promises to join in Protestant worship, for she clung with strange pertinacity to the very name Catholic; but having no one to consult in her doubts, she finally became unsettled in her religious ideas. Precocious and serious beyond her years, she grew daily more alive to the insecurity of her spiritual position, and finally acceded to the desires of her friends to examine the religion she saw practised among her truly virtuous relatives. The more she read, the more she thought and studied, the stronger her doubts in regard to Protestantism became. Its dissensions and contradictions, the coldness and the barrenness of its spiritual life, repelled her and all thought of becoming a Protestant died away. Catherine is described as being beautiful, her complexion was very fair, her eyes blue, and her hair golden; her nature was singularly unselfish, amiable, and affectionate. Though several advantageous alliances were proposed, nothing could induce her to marry.

More and more attracted to the faith of her father, Catherine became acquainted with Dean Lubé of St. James' Church, Dublin, and Dr. Betagh, whose friendship greatly aided her. About this time a distant relative of her mother's, returning from India, purchased Coolock House, a few miles from Dublin, and being attracted by Catherine's appearance, desired to adopt her; consequently, in the year 1803 Catherine removed to her new and beautiful home. Catherine's interior disquietude now became such that she determined to follow the dictates of her conscience. She sought an interview with Rev. Dr. Murray, afterwards Archbishop of Dublin, and shortly after was received into the Church. Her kind guardians allowed her to practise the charitable works to which she felt inclined and even provided her with the necessary means; but they were so opposed to everything having an appearance of Catholicism that they would not allow a crucifix, religious picture, or any pious article in the house, nor did they make any provision for fast days. Her sacrifices and prayers were rewarded by the conversion of Mrs. Callahan, on her death bed; and in 1822 Mr. Callahan also, when dying, was duly reconciled. To Catherine he left his entire fortune. She immediately devised a system of distributing food and clothing to the poor who flocked to Coolock House, and her time was fully devoted to these works of charity, to visiting the sick and to instructing the poor. When Catherine came into full possession of her property, she felt that God required her to do something permanent for the poor, and she was now able to carry out her early visions of founding an institution in which women might, when out of work, find a temporary home. In this undertaking Rev. Dr. Blake and Rev. Dr. Armstrong were her advisors.

After some deliberation, these clergymen selected a site for the new building at the junction of lower Baggot and Herbert Streets, Dublin, and in June, 1824, the corner-stone was laid by the Rev. Dr. Blake. As Dr. Blake was called to Rome soon after, the Rev. Edward Armstrong undertook to assist her, but died before the work was completed. On the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, 24 September, 1827, the new institution for destitute women, orphans, and poor schools was opened and Catherine, with two companions, undertook its management. There was no idea then of founding a religious institution; on the contrary, the foundress's plan was to establish a society of secular ladies who would spend a few hours daily in instructing the poor. Gradually the interior life of these associates and their external occupations and relations became too much like the monastic life to be allowed to remain under secular rule. The ladies had already assumed a sombre dress and playfully called each other "Sister"; moreover, they occasionally took a meal on the premises and even at times remained over night. In 1828 the archbishop permitted the staff of the institute to assume a distinctive dress and to publicly visit the sick. The uniform adopted was a black dress and cape of the same material reaching to the belt, a white collar and a lace cap and veil — such a costume as is now worn by the postulants of the congregation. In the same year the archbishop desired Miss McAuley to choose some name by which the little community might be known, and she chose that of "Sisters of Mercy", having the design of making the works of mercy the distinctive feature of the institute. She was, moreover, desirous that the members should combine with the silence and prayer of the Carmelite, the active labours of a Sister of Charity. The position of the institute was anomalous, its members were not bound by vows nor were they restrained by rules and Dr. Blake held a consultation with the archbishop in which it was decided that the Sisters of Mercy must declare their intentions as to the future of their institute, whether it was to be classed as a religious congregation or to become secularized. The associates unanimously decided to become religious. It was deemed better to have this congregation unconnected with any already existing community.

The Sisters of Mercy were now bound to the laborious duties of instructing the ignorant, visiting the sick and imprisoned, managing hospitals, orphanages, and homes for distressed women; in fact to every work of mercy. They were to make perpetual vows, observe choir, and spend some six or seven hours daily in spiritual exercises and about three weeks altogether in strict retreat; the midsummer retreat proper covering eight full days, a triduum occupying the last three days of each year, and the first Sunday of every month except two being devoted in silence to a preparation for death. On the Octave of the Ascension 1829 the archbishop blessed the chapel of the institution and dedicated it to Our Lady of Mercy. This combination of the contemplative and the active life necessary for the duties of the congregation called forth so much opposition that it seemed as though the community, now numbering twelve, must disband; but it was settled that several of the sisters should make their novitiates in some approved religious house and after their profession return to the institute to train the others to religious life. In June, 1830, the institute received from Pope Pius VIII a Rescript of Indulgences dated 23 May, 1830. The Presentation Order, whose rules are based upon those of St. Austin, seemed the one best adapted for the training of the first novices of the new congregation and Miss Catherine McAuley, Miss Elizabeth Harley, and Miss Anna Maria Doyle began their novitiate at George's Hill, Dublin, on 8 Sept., 1830. On the second day of the Octave of the Immaculate Conception 1830 the three postulants received the habit and on 12 December, 1831, they pronounced the usual three vows to which they added a fourth, that of persevering in the congregation until death. Miss McAuley, now known as Sister Mary Catherine, was appointed first superior of the congregation, an office which she held for the remainder of her life. The office of superior of each mother-house of the congregation is held for three years except in the case of a foundress when it may be held for six years.

The costume adopted by the sisters consists of a habit of black material falling in folds from the throat to the feet and lengthened into a train behind, which is worn looped up except in the chapel, the community-room, and the parlour. The habit is confined to the waist by a leather girdle, or cincture, from which depends a black rosary with the ebony cross of the congregation. The sleeves are long and wide with close-fitting undersleeves of the same material as the habit. The veil is black, long, and flowing. The novices wear shorter veils of white cambric, otherwise their dress is the same as that of the professed sisters. Church cloaks of white woollen material are worn on great feasts in the chapel and for certain ceremonies. The gimp is a white linen collar, very deep in front. The coif is of white linen. The rule and constitutions of the congregation were not completed until 1834, nor approved until 1835, yet they contained in substance only that which had been observed from the year 1827. The basis of the rule was that of St. Austin although circumstances required many alterations before its approval. Kingstown was the first place outside the capital in which a house of the congregation was opened, and outside of the archdiocese Tullamore was the first town to welcome the sisters. In 1838, at the suggestion of Rev. Peter Butler of Bermondsey, some English ladies came to Ireland to serve a novitiate for the purpose of introducing the congregation into England. Upon their return, Mother M. Clare Moore was appointed the superior of the Bermondsey Convent. Lady Barbara Eyre, daughter of the Catholic Earl of Newburgh, was the first one to be received into the new congregation. As Sister Mary de Sales, she made her vows in 1841 and after a very edifying life died in 1849.

From England the congregation rapidly spread, beginning with Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands (1868). Through the efforts of Bishop Murdock, the sisters from Limerick opened a house in Glasgow (1849). Under the patronage of Dr. Brady, Bishop of Perth, the sisters were introduced into Australia (1846). Three years later, Bishop Pompallier, of New Zealand, brought a band from Carlow, Ireland. In May, 1842, at the request of Bishop Flemming, a small colony of Sisters of Mercy crossed the Atlantic to found the congregation at St. John's, New Foundland. In September, 1843, Bishop O'Connor, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, U. S. A., applied to Carlow for a colony of Sisters of Mercy for his diocese. Seven religious were appointed for this mission of whom Mother Francis Warde, was the first superior. On the 22 December, 1843, the sisters opened the first house of the congregation in the United States. In 1844 they opened the parochial school attached to the cathedral. In 1845 St. Xavier's Academy and Boarding-school was begun. In 1846 the sisters took charge of the orphans, and on the first day of the year 1847 the first hospital in Western Pennsylvania was opened under their management. In 1846 Oittsburg sent out its first foundation to Chicago under Mother M. Agatha O'Brien. This was in reality the second house of the congregation asked for in the United States although it could not be opened until several months after the New York community had crossed the ocean. In 1850 at the request of Bishop O'Reilly of Pittsburg, the sisters opened a school in Providence, Rhode Island. This state was considered the most bitter opponent of Catholicism in the Union, and the most bitter people in the state were thought to be concentrated in its capital; accordingly this foundation called for heroic souls, and one of the foremost of these was Rev. Mother Warde, who had just resigned the office of superior in the Pittsburg community. In 1855 Pittsburg sent out its third foundation to Baltimore at the solicitation of the Rev. Edward McColgan. Towards the close of 1845 Bishop Hughes of New York applied to Baggot Street, the mother-house of the entire congregation, for sisters for his diocese. This was a difficult request to grant, as that house had been greatly diminished by the many calls made upon it. The bishop was referred to Mother M. Agnes O'Connor, who had gone to England for the purpose of opening a new convent there and then returning to Dublin. Upon her consent to return with the bishop, five sisters, a novice, and a postulant from different houses formed her band. Arriving in New York City, 14 May, 1846, the sisters found a temporary home in Washington Place; but two years later secured a larger house at the corner of Houston and Mulberry Streets. In 1869 St. Joseph's Industrial Home for girls was opened on Madison Avenue, corner of Eighty-first Street. They have also opened a Home for Boys in Tarrytown-on-the-Hudson and a Home for Business Women in West One Hundred and Sixth Street, New York City. Later the community moved to a new building adjoining their Industrial Home for Girls on Madison Avenue. From New York, houses have been established in St. Louis, Brooklyn, Worcester, Greenbush (now Rensselaer), and in Eureka, California. The first American postulant to enter the New York house was Josephine, second daughter of Mother Seton, foundress of the Sisters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland. In 1854 the Rev. Hugh Gallagher visited Kinsale Convent, Ireland, on the part of Bishop Allemany to procure the Sisters of Mercy for his diocese of San Francisco, California. Among those selected for this mission was Sister Mary Baptist Russell, a sister of Lord Chief Justice Russell of Killowen. From these beginnings, the Sisters of Mercy have spread throughout the world. In Ireland, England, the United States, in Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South America, Mexico, and the West Indies their name is well known.

Statistics

Number of Sisters of Mercy in the United States of America, 4732; pupils in parochial schools, 104,726; orphans and children in institutions, 3834; pupils in academies and high schools, 9967; hospitals conducted by Sisters of Mercy, 53; orphanages, 67.

Sources

Annals of the Sisters of Mercy; MURPHY, Sketches of Irish Nunneries (London, 1866); CARROLL, Life of Catherine McAuley (London, s. d.); MEMBER OF THE ORDER OF MERCY, Life of Catherine McAuley.

About this page

APA citation. Austin, M.S. (1911). Sisters of Mercy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10199a.htm

MLA citation. Austin, Mary Stanislas. "Sisters of Mercy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10199a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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