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Catherine's Charism
  1. Miss McAuley and the Baggot Street Ladies
  2. Mother Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy
  3. Sayings of Mother Catherine McAuley
  4. The Foundation of All Hallows' School
  5. The Sisters of Mercy today
  6. Sources

1. Miss McAuley and the Baggot Street Ladies

Following the death of William Callaghan in 1822, Catherine McAuley inherited a large fortune, including his home, Coolock House. She sold the Estate and began her life's dream of building a House of Mercy for the poor. The foundations of the house now the International Headquarters of the Sisters of Mercy, in Baggot Street Dublin, were begun in 1824; orphans were accommodated there and lodgings were offered to young working women. As well, the ladies provided daily meals for the poor. In 1828 Catherine moved to Baggot Street herself with her godchild and nieces. She and her companions were known as "The Ladies of Mercy" or "The Baggot Street Ladies".

In the Dublin of Catherine's time it was considered highly irregular for a single woman to direct an institution of this kind, and despite the fact that Catherine herself said that she "never intended to found a religious congregation; all I wanted was to serve the poor", pressure was put on her by the religious authorities to either become a religious sister or give up her work.

Finally with the reassurance that she and her companions would be free to work outside the convent amongst the poor, Catherine agreed to begin training as a Sister in September 1830, taking her vows as a Sister of Mercy in December 1831.  Catherine appreciated women and the unique contribution they were capable of making on behalf of society. She, therefore, wanted to empower women so that they could effect a shift towards a more just society.

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2. Mother Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy

Following the formation of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, new convents were opened in the poorest areas of Ireland and England. Mother Catherine herself spent at least one month with each new convent, appointing local Sisters to run their own affairs in the spirit of her Order. By January 1839, there were eight convents in existence and by 1850 the Sisters of Mercy had spread to England (1839), Canada (1842), the USA (1843), Australia (1845) and New Zealand (1849).

Sister Carmel Bourke in her book on Catherine McAuley (1987) lists the following dates and events in the early life of the congregation, indicating how readily Catherine's Sisters adapted to the changing needs of their time.

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During the life of the Foundress (1831-41)

1832

Asiatic cholera reaches plague proportions in Dublin; the
Sisters take over emergency hospital for the poor.

1838

The Foundress offers herself for the Newfoundland mission,
to help families of Irish fishermen in the migrant colony.

1840

The foundation in Galway is established, to meet needs in
newly set-up workhouses and particularly to protect and
educate young girls in workhouses.

1840

The foundation in Birr is established, to minister to the
"Crottyites" - a local schism, and to offer mercy and
reconciliation through visitation and education.

1841

The foundation in Birmingham is established, for adult
education and instruction of converts, responding to the
Renewal of Faith in the Birmingham diocese, and the work of
Bishop Wiseman (later Cardinal), Father Faber, Father
Dominic Barberi, C.P. and Father J.H. Newman (later
Cardinal). cf Oxford Movement.
(Bourke 1987, p90)

In 1864 at a meeting of major Mercy Superiors in Limerick, the following statement was issued by the Sisters, indicating the scope of their mission.

The objects of the Institute are of vast extent: they embrace the endless miseries which poverty, sickness, ignorance and sin entail on the poor of Christ.

Mercy to the poor

the homeless,

the captive,

the erring,

the afflicted,

to suffering humanity

in every phase of its manifold miseries, in which it is possible for aid or sympathy to reach it: Such is the spirit of our Institute.

(Bourke 1987, p92)

Thus 23 years after Catherine's death, her Sisters were to be found in numerous fields of work in countries as far afield as Australia, USA and Argentina, seeking to alleviate and prevent suffering and injustice.

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3. Sayings of Mother Catherine McAuley

Our centre is God, from whom all our activities should spring.

The only return God requires of us for all his favours is a return of love.

Try to act so at all times, and in all places, that if our Divine Lord were to appear on earth again He might not be ashamed to point you out.

Through love of God, we should refrain from saying, doing, or thinking anything which we know to be displeasing to him.

Be ever ready to praise, to encourage, to stimulate, but slow to censure, and still more slow to condemn.

Let us fit young women for earth without unfitting them for heaven.

While we place all our confidence in God, we must always act as if success depended on our own exertions.

It is better to help a hundred impostors, if there  be any such, than to suffer one really distressed person to be sent away empty.

Mercy receives the ungrateful again and again, and is never weary in pardoning them.

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4. The Foundation of All Hallows' School

On May 10, 1861 the first sisters of Mercy arrived in Brisbane. Six Sisters, with their Bishop James Quinn stepped off a small boat in the Brisbane River to begin a new life in a strange land on the other side of the world.

They were led by Mother Vincent Whitty who left Ireland in 1860, with only 4 days notice in which to pack and prepare for a journey half way round the world. In Liverpool she joined a party of five other Sisters, who were to accompany Bishop James Quinn to Queensland.

Mother Vincent Whitty herself was 41, a teacher who had been prepared for her life as a Sister of Mercy by Catherine McAuley herself. The Sisters who came with her were only a few years older than our Year 12 students. Sister Mary Benedict and Sister Mary Cecelia were both in their early twenties; Sister Catherine Morgan joined them in Liverpool with just 3 hours notice, and there were 2 young postulates, one of whom became Sister Mary Bridget and the other Jane Towsend who left before taking vows.

They sailed on the Donald McKay, a dangerous and uncomfortable journey of 5 months, with no electricity, no refrigeration, poor sanitary conditions and cramped quarters. They called into Melbourne where they met other Sisters of Mercy who had established a mission at Geelong, and at Sydney where they were welcomed by the Benedictine Sisters and the Sisters of Charity.

In Sydney they transferred to a much smaller boat and set off for Brisbane. They steamed up the Brisbane River just outside Loretto Hall on the evening of the 10th May 1861, landing about 10 o'clock at night, to find that no preparations had been made for their arrival. Using lanterns to find their way, the 6 Sisters stumbled from the River up to Spring Hill, to an empty, unfurnished house where they slept the night. The next morning, the Bishop exchanged houses with them and the Sisters lived  for a short time in Boundary Street, close to where St James' School is now.

Eventually they moved to a small wooden convent near the old church beside the present Cathedral and installed their convent bell which the Sisters called "Charles Borromeo", and which today hangs at the top of The Walk at All Hallows'. Every day at 12 o'clock, "Charles Borromeo" continues to peal out the Angelus, a traditional prayer in honour of Mary. On 1st November 1861 the feast of All Saints, the Sisters moved into Adderton House on Duncan's Hill, which they renamed All Hallows', in honour of both the day and All Hallows' College, Dublin, as well as All Hallows' by the Tower in London. This remains the site of the oldest girls' school in Queensland.

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5. The Sisters of Mercy today

Until Vatican II (1961-1965), the main work of the Sisters of Mercy continued to be in education and health care. Following renewal in the Church and the Order, more opportunities for Sisters to work in fields such as Social Work, Counselling, Ethics and policy making have meant that Sisters are now involved in a wide area of service to others. In all these areas, their focus remains true to the vision of Mother Catherine, to bring the love and mercy of God to all people and to work to eliminate the cause of oppression and injustice in our world.

Today, they are assisted in their work by many single and married people, who share Catherine's vision of God's love working in the world for justice and equality, a development which must surely delight the heart of the Lady of Baggot Street who only wanted "to serve the poor because that seemed to be what God was asking of me".

6. Sources

Material adapted by Margery Jackman (1996) from Bolster, A. 1990. Catherine McAuley: Venerable for Mercy Dominican Pub, Dublin
Bourke, C. 1987 A Woman Sings of Mercy E.J. Dwyer, Aust.

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