Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John W. DonohueNovember 07, 2005

On Nov. 11, 1841, a 63-year-old woman named Catherine McAuley was dying of tuberculosis in a commodious house on Baggot Street in southeast Dublin. Some years earlier, after she had come into a considerable fortune, she had had this building constructed for what she called “works of mercy.”

She described this enterprise in a letter to the Archbishop of Dublin in 1828 that enclosed her will, leaving him the disposal of most of her property. A gold snuff box, however, was to be returned to its donor, Mrs. Sweetnam of Mountjoy Square.

In that letter she said the Baggot Street house was to be a place where the glory of Almighty God would be promoted and “the mental and corporal distresses of the poor in a great degree alleviated.” The house was opened in 1827, and within a few years it was providing a school for poor children, a shelter for homeless women and a soup kitchen that served a hundred people a day.

In England and the United States 50 years later, a center of this sort would have been called a settlement house, like the famous Hull House established in Chicago in 1889 by the social worker and reformer Jane Addams (1860-1935). Catherine McAuley, however, was more than a social worker. In 1831, she founded the Sisters of Mercy, who within a few decades were following Irish immigrants around the English-speaking world. In Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and particularly the United States, they promptly began establishing parish schools, hospitals, homes for the aged, orphanages and a variety of other “works of mercy.”

Catherine McAuley had herself been born into an upper-class Dublin family in 1778, the oldest of her parents’ three children. By the time she reached her early 20’s, both her parents had died, and the family’s resources in real estate holdings had shrunk in value, as properties often do. So Catherine had to make her own way in a world in which opportunities for women were limited.

Beginning in 1803, she lived with a rich, and presumably childless, Protestant couple, William and Catherine Callaghan, on their estate outside Dublin. At today’s distance, she looks to have been somewhat like a Charlotte Brontë heroine—an unmarried young woman who was upright, kind and efficient. Her character and gifts must also have been appreciated. When William Callaghan died in 1822, a few years after his wife, he left his entire estate to Catherine McAuley.

Catherine disposed of these monies in a manner not common among heroines of romances. She used much of her inheritance to build and maintain the house on Baggot Street and put the rest into a trust that the archbishop of Dublin was empowered to administer if the house ever ceased its philanthropic activities—which it never did. By June 1830, Catherine McAuley was living there and managing its activities with the help of a dozen young women who shared her dedication. She was now 52 years old, and the affairs of Baggot Street were not the only ones she looked after. She was also the legal guardian of nine children, including the three sons and two daughters of her deceased sister and brother-in-law.

The Baggot Street house had a chapel, but it was not intended to be a convent. The women who made up its little community did not think of themselves as a religious congregation of nuns with solemn vows or sisters with simple vows. They had no wish to be such. Catherine McAuley was distinctly displeased when the builder took it upon himself to insert a grate in one of the chapel walls, as though it were to serve a semi-cloistered community.

At that time, however, most Catholics, to say nothing of most bishops, thought much as the contractor did. They assumed that women employed in what Vatican officials called “pious works” would naturally group themselves into a religious institute.

In September 1830, therefore, Catherine and two of her companions moved into a convent of the Presentation Sisters in Dublin to acquaint themselves with the conventual style of life by making a one-year novitiate. It was not a style that Catherine initially found attractive. She said later that she would have returned to Baggot Street that first night in the Presentation convent if she hadn’t been determined to keep her charitable works going by establishing the Sisters of Mercy.

She persevered, and on Dec. 12, 1831, the three women took the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and thereby founded “the Congregation called the Sisters of Mercy for the Visitation of the Sick Poor, and charitable instruction of poor females.” On July 5, 1841, Pope Gregory XVI issued a decree confirming the rule and constitutions of these Sisters of Mercy. By the time she died, a few months after that papal confirmation, Mother McAuley, as she was to become known to generations of Catholics, had been a Sister of Mercy for 10 years. She had also founded 13 Mercy Houses in Ireland and two in England, and these were only the first sowings.

In 1843, Mary Frances Warde (1810-84), one of Catherine McAuley’s first and most valued associates, led a group of six young Mercy sisters from a convent in Carlow, Ireland, to Pittsburgh, where they set up schools, a shelter for women, an orphanage and the first hospital in Western Pennsylvania. Before her death in Manchester, N.H., the legendary Mother Warde had started some 100 Mercy enterprises and a string of Mercy houses stretched from New York to San Francisco.

Frances Warde had, however, recommended that some form of centralized government be introduced. This came about after the Second Vatican Council. In the United States in 1991, nine provinces that had created a union in 1929, along with 16 other Mercy congregations, formed the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. According to the Official Catholic Directory for 2005, this institute currently has 4,888 members organized into 25 regional communities working in 46 states and some 26 other countries.

Although Mother McAuley did not directly govern the houses she founded, she was on hand when they were being launched, and she stayed in touch with them by letters.

All those letters whose whereabouts are known have recently been tracked down, examined, verified and scrupulously edited by an American Sister of Mercy, Mary C. Sullivan. The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, 1818-1841, is a work of impeccable and exhaustive scholarhip that was published last autumn simultaneously by the Four Courts Press in Dublin and the Catholic University of America Press in Washington, D. C.

The book is a very model of what such collections should be, and it could hardly have had a better editor than Mary C. Sullivan, herself a Sister of Mercy since 1950 and a distinguished academic for decades. In 1969 she joined the faculty of the Rochester Institute of Technology as a professor of language and literature in the Institute’s college of liberal arts and also served as dean of that college from 1977 to 1987. She is currently both professor and dean emeritus.

This is not the first collection of Mother McAuley’s letters, but it is surely the most complete and meticulously edited. Of the 325 documents collected here, 269 were written by Catherine McAuley; 56 others were written to or about her. To see these letters for herself, Sister Sullivan traveled to more than a dozen Mercy archives in Ireland, England, Australia and the United States as well as to the Vatican archives. She located either the autographs or photocopies of the autographs of 293 of the original letters. The volume indicates just where each is to be found and whether or not it is an autograph. The letters are accompanied by scholarly outriders, including a very useful chronology of Catherine McAuley’s life and an index to delight even the most exacting librarian.

In a sense, this volume is two books. There are the letters themselves and there are the editor’s footnotes, which amount to a summary of much of 19th-century Irish Catholic history. These notes teem with identifications of the persons, places and events mentioned in the letters. Readers will be gratified that the notes are where they belong—at the foot of the page to which they refer, not bundled up at the ends of chapters.

The letters reflect, at least implicitly, the central themes that have energized all the great religious founders: faith in God, total devotion to Jesus and a tireless concern for the welfare of others, particularly the miserable. What the letters show explicitly are the hundreds of details that typically occupy a founder. Mother McAuley had to attend to the setting up of new houses, the admission of novices, dealings with authoritarian priests (like the tyrannical vicar general of Dublin, within whose area the Baggot Street house was located) and the problems posed by young sisters whose health was frail or who became “peevish” if they received too little attention. Finally, there were her anxieties for her nieces and nephews.

The letters are a mass of the particular items that absorbed her almost until her death. In August 1841, for example, she writes about the new chapel designed for the Mercy convent in Birmingham by the celebrated Catholic architect Augustus Welby Pugin. It is very nice, she says, and Mr. Pugin is a general favorite in this little part of England. All the same, “I do not admire his gilded figures of the saints; they are very coarse representations and by no means calculated to inspire devotion.” Her last letters are notes sent in October 1841 to a Dublin lawyer to ask help in securing 20 pounds that had been bequeathed to Catherine McAuley—and therefore to the Sisters of Mercy—by a certain Widow Ryan.

Amid a flood of daily details, the presence of death can often be sensed in these pages. Particularly striking are the deaths of the young. A number of women who entered the Sisters of Mercy died early of consumption, as did four of those five of her sister’s children for whom Catherine McAuley was the legal guardian. No wonder that in a letter of October 17, 1837, she wrote that she had become so familiarized with the trial that “death occasions that the tomb seems never closed in my regard.”

Although Catherine McAuley herself suffered for years from what was then called “disease of the lungs,” she was active up to the last month of her life. She was still alert and giving directives the day she died.

On the morning of Nov. 11, she received visitors including her brother, James. Their relationship was agreeable, but it had a touch of unease. Somewhere along the way, James, a distinguished physician, had become an Anglican. Among leading Dubliners this might not then have seemed unusual. In the days when Catholics in some parts of Ireland still had to pay taxes for support of the Anglican Church of Ireland, lines could be blurred within families.

Whatever may have been the case with the McAuleys, when James visited the infirmary that day he asked Catherine if she had any special message for him. “Nothing, James,” she is reported to have replied, “only what I have so often said before: Return to the faith of your fathers.”

As daylight faded, Mother McAuley also had bits of advice for the sisters gathered around her bed. When the prayers for the dying were being read emphatically by one zealous sister, she said: “No occasion to speak so loud my darling. I hear distinctly.’’

She had noticed that it was teatime, and now she said: “Tell the sisters to get a good cup of tea—I think the community room would be a good place—when I am gone, and to comfort one another, but God will comfort them.”

At ten minutes to eight that evening she died without any struggle. If the recollections are accurate, God had already comforted her. To a priest in attendance that morning she was reported to have said, “Oh, if this be death, it is easy indeed.” 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
17 years ago
Your magazine is always appreciated and enjoyed, but I took special pride in the lovely article on my Mercy founder, Catherine McAuley, by John W. Donohue, S.J., “Correspondence of a Foundress” (11/7).

A relatively recent issue of Chicago magazine did excellent work presenting a profile on Catholics in Chicago. My concern was that the only woman religious featured consisted of a full-page photograph and story about a girl who left her community. It’s the truth, so no real problem, but it is refreshing to read about someone who remained and significantly contributed so much to our church.

The latest from america

Pope Francis meets relatives of hostages taken from Israel by Hamas militants in his residence at the Vatican on Nov. 22, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
One might criticize Pope Francis' statements about the war in Gaza, but they should not be confused with the question of the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jewish people.
David Neuhaus, S.J.February 21, 2024
Despite the irreverent “homecoming” funeral for actor and author Cecilia Gentili not going as planned, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said he believes the “cathedral acted extraordinarily well.”
Julie Asher - OSV NewsFebruary 21, 2024
Graham Greene crafted some of English-language literature's finest works, part of a fascinating life marked by bouts of uncertainty and the certainty of doubt.
James T. KeaneFebruary 20, 2024
It is an extraordinary testament to a person’s pastoral care when they are remembered as someone who was a steady presence in the most difficult times.