The foundress of the Sisters of Mercy was an Irish woman of great faith and compassion for anyone in need. Catherine McAuley was born into a well-to-do family in Dublin, Ireland, on 29th December, 1778.
The first Sister of Mercy – the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy – was an Irish woman of great faith and compassion for anyone in need. Catherine McAuley was born into a well-to-do family in Dublin, Ireland, on 29th December, 1778. At that time there were laws which made life hard for the poor and Catholics in particular. Catherine’s father was a devout man who taught his daughter to be conscious of the needs of the many homeless, sick and uneducated people around her, particularly young women. Catherine also inherited from him a practical wisdom and strength of character.
When Catherine was five, her father died and for the next 20 years, she lived on charity in the homes of relations. Finally, she became companion to a Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan, both of whom were so touched by her charity and Christian witness that they were baptised on their death-beds. Catherine was then the “Heiress of Coolock House”, inheriting the Callaghan house and fortune. She set about to fulfil her dream of giving care and shelter to the many homeless people of Dublin. This, the “House of Mercy” was opened on 24th September 1827 (the feast of Our Lady of Mercy) and her work for the poor knew no bounds. Many eager helpers gathered around her to teach, to train girls in practical skills of caring for a home, and to prepare them for a variety of employment. Instruction in the Catholic faith and the visiting of the sick and poor in their homes, were works very near to her heart.
As time went on and despite Catherine’s original desire, her group of women became a new religious congregation in the Church. On 12th December 1831, the first Sisters of Mercy pronounced their religious vows with Sister Catherine as their leader. The works of Mercy grew as the Sisters extending loving compassion to all in need – they cared for the sick; took charge of hospitals in time of epidemics; gave shelter to orphans; and were always ready to assist anyone in distress. Catherine was a great Christ-centred woman who tried to fill the needs of people crying out for spiritual and material assistance, for love, justice and knowledge.
The Sisters of Mercy soon spread to England, the United Stated of America and the Colonies. No hardship was too great for these women as they followed Catherine’s example “to implant Jesus Christ into the heart of the poor”.
Sister Catherine McAuley died in Dublin on 11th November, 1841. Her life had been one of great generosity, spent in serving others. She had given her wealth to provide for their welfare, to lessen their sufferings, while herself enduring much misunderstanding, many trials and hardships.
Sisters of Mercy have been in Australia for 140 years and have been at Ballarat East since 1881. In addition to education, they are committed to social justice, working in areas such as: Aboriginal Missions in Northern Australia, supporting HIV and AIDS sufferers, refugees and asylum seekers, women, youth and homeless people.
On 9th April, 1990 after much research into Catherine’s life and work, and lengthy discussion on all aspects of them, a Commission of Cardinals and Bishops in Rome agreed that she had led a life of heroic Christian virtue. This being so, they bestowed upon her the title of Venerable Catherine McAuley… and indication that one day she may be declared a saint of the Church. Catherine was thus acknowledged a woman of God – one who simply followed the voice of Christ in relieving the suffering and injustices around her.
Sr. Rosemary Kelly. RSM.