Try to meet all with peace and love
It is for God we serve the poor and not for thanks.
(Burns & Carney, Praying with Catherine McAuley, p. 51)
Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, was born near Dublin, Ireland, in September, 1778 to a wealthy Catholic family. Her family's wealth was unusual at the time as Catholics were not allowed to own property or hold good jobs. Though her father, James McGauley, died in 1783 when Catherine was just five years old, his compassion for the poor, especially children and families who lived nearby and worked for the family, was a lifelong example for his eldest daughter. (Sisters of Mercy. "Catherine McAuley",September 14, 2007.
Fifteen years after her father's death, Catherine was orphaned in 1798 and sent to live in the home of William Armstrong who were non-Catholic and sought to convert her to the Anglican faith. In 1803, Catherine was invited to live in the home of William and Catherine Callaghan as a companion to Mrs. Callaghan. Mrs. Callaghan was chronically ill, and this work gave Catherine an opportunity to run the household and independence. The Callaghans were childless and upon Mr. Callaghan's death in 1822, Catherine inherited their fortune: about £25,000, their estate.
On September 24, 1827, Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, first opened the doors of her home to the public on Baggot Street in Dublin, Ireland. By coincidence or act of providence, September 24th, is also the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, who would lend both her identity and spirit to the building and its works, when it was named the 'House of Mercy.'
Catherine's lifelong dream came true when she receive an inheritance from the Callaghan's. She used the inheritance to build a home where women and children in dire need would be provided with housing, education, religious and social services enabling them to find a far brighter future than was generally available to the Irish, particularly Irish women, of the time. Catherine's innovative approach to housing and educating young women and children from the slums was considered shocking, especially since it brought the poor, the sick and the uneducated into an affluent neighborhood. Within three years over 200 girls were enrolled in the school at House of Mercy and volunteers, inspired by Catherine's spirit and compassion, were numerous.
Catherine and two of her associates entered the Convent of the Presentation Sisters in Dublin on Sept. 8, 1830, to begin formal preparation for founding the Sisters of Mercy. Fifteen months later the trio pronounced vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and to persevere until death in "the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy." On Dec. 12, 1831, upon founding the Sisters of Mercy, the 'House of Mercy,' also became the first convent of the Sisters of Mercy. As Catherine's passion for the poor took root in the hearts of her companions, the charism of Mercy spread rapidly across Ireland and England. By 1839, a mere eight years after being founded, the Sisters of Mercy numbered over 100 religious women and in the ten years between the founding of the order and her death, Catherine had founded nine Convents of Mercy.
Catherine McAuley was known for warmth and sense of humor. Catherine loved to laugh and bring joy to others. She believed in welcoming each person who crossed one's path. She always encouraged her Sisters to welcome another with a comfortable cup of tea. On her deathbed, Catherine asked be prepared for her Sisters praying with her.
"Be sure you have a comfortable cup of tea for them when I am gone"
This loving gesture has served, for generations of Sisters of Mercy, as an illustration of the generous and hospitable manner in which she opened herself to God, her Sisters, and the suffering poor who were so dear to her heart. (Burns & Carney, Praying with Catherine McAuley, p. 33).
Today, the special charism and spirit of Venerable Catherine McAuley remains alive and well within the Sisters of Mercy and Mercy Associates. She continues to draw women to minister to the poor, the sick, the uneducated and the underserved. Almost 5,000 Sisters of Mercy of the Americas currently serve in 11 countries and one territory, while other Mercy foundations and institutes can be found in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Philippines, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland and Newfoundland.
In 1994, the original House of Mercy was fully restored and opened to the public as Mercy International Centre, an important historical link for Sisters of Mercy and Mercy Associates from all over the globe. Although she died November 11, 1841, at her Baggot Street convent, her spirit of hospitality and her legacy continues today embodied within each Sister of Mercy. Mercy International Center allows all to reflect on Catherine's passion for helping the poor, which continues to inspire women as they carry forth the contemporary ministry of Mercy worldwide.
Catherine and two of her associates entered the Convent of the Presentation Sisters in Dublin on Sept. 8, 1830, to begin formal preparation for founding the Sisters of Mercy. Fifteen months later the trio pronounced vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and to persevere until death in "the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy." Thus the new community was founded on Dec. 12, 1831.
Catherine lived only ten years as a Sister of Mercy but in that time she established nine additional autonomous foundations in Ireland and England, and two branch houses in Dublin. When she died in 1841 there were 150 Sisters of Mercy. Shortly thereafter, small groups of sisters left Ireland at the invitation of bishops in Newfoundland, New Zealand, the United States, Argentina and Australia.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas now serve in North, Central and South America; the Caribbean; Guam and the Philippines, with more than 4,500 sisters responding faithfully to the needs of the poor in these countries.
The first Sisters of Mercy arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1843 at the invitation of the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their energy in ministering to the sick and economically poor attracted many new members. By 1854, sisters had come from Ireland to settle in New York and San Francisco, California, and continued to spread throughout the country, establishing schools and hospitals.
In 1929, 39 of the 60 independent motherhouses in the United States formed the Sisters of Mercy of the Union. This group united more than 5,000 sisters into six provinces. The Vatican II Council called upon the Sisters of Mercy to read "the signs of the times" and reconnect with the charism of their foundress, Catherine McAuley. In the 1960s and 1970s, the members revisited the caring, creative and practical spirit of Catherine McAuley. Sisters were encouraged to respond to the diverse needs of contemporary society and, as a result, many began working in ministries beyond healthcare and education, including housing and social services.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Union formally dissolved in 1991 when 17 Mercy congregations united to form the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Between now and 2009, the Institute will undergo a reorganization process, consolidating 25 regional communities into six larger geographic Communities to better focus the lives and mission of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas are located in North, Central and South America; the Caribbean; Guam and the Philippines, with more than 4,500 sisters responding faithfully to the needs of the economically poor in these countries.
Catherine's greatest contribution to the church, however, is not the congregation itself as much as the spirituality that enlivened it-a fresh and fertile blending of the contemplative spirit and the compassionate heart. (Burns & Carney, Praying with Catherine McAuley, p. 29). Catherine McAuley understood that an authentic life with a deep relationship with God which in turn will open our hearts to the world's needs.
Sweet Mercy!—soothing, patient, kind
softens the high and rears the fallen mind;
knows with just rein and even hand to guide
between falst fear and arbitrary pride.
Not easily provoked, she soon forgives:
feels love for all, and by a look, relieves.
soft peace she brings wherever she arrives,
removes our anguish and reforms our lives;
makes the rough paths of peevish nature even,
and opens in each heart a little heaven.
(Burns & Carney, Praying with Catherine McAuley, p. 36)