Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, is often pictured as she might have appeared during the last decade of her life: a Roman Catholic sister, dressed in full traditional habit, with a gentle smile on her serene face. She looks warm and welcoming, and seems to radiate caring, compassion, and a love for God. According to her biographers, she was all of that, and more. What one might not suspect, judging from her formal portraits, is that she was a passionate advocate for social justice and a radical reformer.
Catherine McAuley was born on September 29, 1778 in Dublin, Ireland, to devoutly Roman Catholic parents. Orphaned at a young age, Catherine and her siblings were raised by Protestant relatives who did not approve of Catherine’s Catholic faith. When Catherine turned 25, she came to live with the wealthy Callahan family. She grew close to the couple, who generously supported her charitable work. When Mr. Callahan died, Catherine was his sole heir.
Noting that “the poor need help today, not next week,” Catherine purchased a house on Baggot Street and set up an active ministry to the poor, sick, and uneducated women and children of Dublin. Twelve women who shared her faith and her passion eventually joined her at the newly named House of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy were officially established as a religious order on December 12, 1831. Catherine was 53 years old.
Catherine understood living the Gospel as a call to “contemplation in action.” For her, the way to love and serve God was by joyfully loving and serving the poor. Catherine’s vision for ministry was for “our charity to be cordial… something that renews, invigorates, and warms. Such should be the effect of our love for each other.”
Unlike the cloistered orders of her day, where nuns spent the majority of their time in prayer, study and meditation, the Sisters of Mercy under Catherine’s guidance, soon became known as “The Walking Nuns.” Catherine was already being challenged by the lay and clerical establishment for her decidedly unorthodox approach to ministry by women in the Church. “Who is this upstart, Miss McAuley? Why is the ‘unlearned sex’ doing the work of the clergy?” were only a few of the criticisms leveled at Catherine.
In the House of Mercy, the Sisters lived side by side with homeless servant girls and women. A school for poor girls was open there during the day. Not only was Catherine literally bringing the poor to the genteel doorsteps of the rich in Dublin’s Baggot Street neighborhood, but it soon became a startling, though common, sight to see the Sisters, dressed in simple habits and worn shoes, going about their work of nursing and teaching, as well as providing food, care and comfort to those in need.
As a woman of independent means, Catherine did have certain advantages which she did not hesitate to use if it meant that she could help those she served. Even while living with the Callahan’s, Catherine would often dress up in fashionable clothes, and gain entrance to the hospital wards to visit the sick and the dying – a practice which local clergy were denied.
She maintained a network of wealthy, well-connected friends throughout her years of ministry, from whom she sought donations and volunteers to fund and further her work. Well-to-do society households were a steady source of employment for the formerly destitute girls and women now trained and educated by the Sisters. In the end, the Archbishop of Dublin and several noted politicians were among Catherine’s most loyal supporters.
Throughout her life, Catherine demonstrated a profound respect for the dignity of every person, based on her fundamental belief that in serving the poor she was serving Christ. “To serve the poor was a privilege,” she told the Sisters. “We must do ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
She set a high standard for professionalism, taking care that before setting up a school, she was familiar with the most current teaching techniques. Eventually, she established the first teaching assistant training college in Ireland.
In the area of nursing, the Sisters of Mercy, led by Catherine, maintained such high standards that during a cholera epidemic, there were less than half the deaths recorded in the areas covered by the Sisters, than in any other area in Dublin. Sisters who entered the homes of the sick and the elderly routinely attended to the comfort and cleanliness of the home as well as the spiritual care of the patients.
“Oh, what would we do, if in 70 or 80 years, God had appointed three or four hundred for our journey,” Catherine wondered a year before her death from tuberculosis in 1840. Almost two centuries later, there are more than 11,000 Sisters of Mercy engaged in ministries of healing, teaching, and social action around the world. Closer to home, we see Catherine’s devout faith, her passionate commitment to the poor and vulnerable, and her central belief in the dignity of every person reflected in the mission and core values of Mercy Health.
Why do we celebrate Mercy Day?
We celebrate to honor and remember Catherine McAuley, the radical reformer of Baggot Street, who brought a new vision and model for ministry to the streets of Dublin. We celebrate to honor and remember the Sisters of Mercy and our colleagues in ministry throughout the world. And, inspired by our storied identity, we celebrate to honor and remember our remarkable legacy and how it lives on today in our remarkable health ministry.