Reverend Mother Agnes O’Connor
A biography written by Mary Agatha Smith rsm
Born in Kilkenny, Ireland on January 6, 1815, Mary was the youngest of ten children of Patrick and Mary O’Connor. A prophecy of the Parish Priest, Father Fielding, when Mary was nine years old stated that “she will be doing good work for the Church in this and other countries” proved to be true and she would become “the brilliant scholar of the family.”
At the age of twenty-two, a well known socialite, Mary sought more meaning in her life than spending her nights in empty and worthless pleasure. While exploring various religious orders, she was told “But let me give you one piece of advice: don’t go near the Convent of Mercy; for if you meet Mother McAuley, and if you once speak with her, you will go nowhere else.” Catherine bonded instantly with Mary and gave her the name of her recently deceased niece, Sister Mary Agnes. This enduring relationship continued throughout Catherine’s life. On Catherine’s death bed, Mary Agnes received Mother McAuley’s last blessing predicting that “God will allow her to do great things for His honour and glory.”
“For the first time too, the sisters found themselves, even though mildly the subjects of persecution. Some people, would shout, ‘Sisters of Misery’ or ‘Black devils’ after them as they went along the street, and sometimes live coals were thrown at them.”In 1844, at the age of twenty-eight, Mother Agnes was asked to go to London with Sister Teresa Breen, a lay Sister to help establish the first convent of Mercy in London, in the actual city district. This became the fifth house of Mercy in England. These Sisters were probably the first who began a charitable ministration among destitute Catholics. These Mercy Sisters were constantly at the beds of the sick and the dying poor. Katherine Burton stated about this mission: “For the first time too, the sisters found themselves, even though mildly the subjects of persecution. Some people, would shout, ‘Sisters of Misery’ or ‘Black devils’ after them as they went along the street, and sometimes live coals were thrown at them.” Fortunately, no actual physical damage was done.
Two years later, on April 16, 1846, Mother M. Agnes left London in response to the pleas of Archbishop John Hughes of New York who one year earlier had visited Baggot Street, Dublin searching for Missionary Sisters to establish a Convent of Mercy in America. Mother Mary Agnes consented and prepared to leave her family and friends to depart to be the head of the infant community in the “New World.” Mother Evangelista Fitzpatrick wrote later: “I remember perfectly when the New York foundation was getting ready. At recreation it was the topic of conversation, and I have seen Mother M. Agnes take a sheet of music and, fashioning it like a trumpet, call out through it: ‘Who’s for New York?’” The final selection included: Sister M. Angela Maher, Austin Horan, Monica O’Doherty, Camillus Byrne, Teresa Breen; a nice, M. Vincent Haire and a postulant, Miss Burns.
After having a pleasant voyage of twenty-eight days from Liverpool to New York, Mother Agnes and the Sisters were disappointed to learn that the Bishop Hughes was unable to meet them because he was attending a Council Meeting in Baltimore. However, he had arranged for two Sisters of Charity to greet them and conduct them to their residence on East Broadway. Because the furniture was scant, the New York Sisters made their plight known to the bishop’s representative in this verse:
Please, Rev. Father, send to Sutton and Ware’s
And order us home a dozen of chairs.
Of sisters we’re seven, of chairs we have six.
So one is often left in a very great fix.
On May 26, the New York Sisters moved into their temporary home on Washington Place. Bishop Hughes said the Mass in their chapel and placed the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.
Although a gifted conversationalist and lively, Mother M. Agnes had a real attraction for prayer and silence. She was also described as a “warm-hearted, benign creature.” Having been well trained by Catherine, she would follow in her footsteps by taking immigrant girls directly from a ship and train them in some means of making a living, then placing them in good situations. Mother Agnes established a circulating library which attracted many ignorant girls of the neighbourhood and found in it a weapon against bigotry and prejudice. In September of 1846, the Sisters of Mercy had their first postulant, Elizabeth Seton, daughter of the foundress of the sisters of Charity–Elizabeth Seton. In March 1847, they began to visit the Tombs prison, the state prison at Sing Sing, Blackwell’s Island penitentiary and the work house.
In l848, the Sisters agreed on the need of a new house and bought a former fashionable academy for young ladies on the corner of Houston and Mulberry Streets. In 1853, the New York community numbered thirty-five with the works of mercy being firmly established. The first death in the Houston Street Convent was that of Sister M. Xavier Stewart, daughter of Dr. Stewart of Baltimore, who was an exemplary religious only twenty years old. At this time the cross was publicly carried in procession for her funeral.
“In his [Bishop Hughes] Pastoral of 1854 there is the statement that during the years 1849–l854 the sisters of Mercy of New York City had accomplished a work of charity without parallel in the United States.”The leaves from the annals of the Sisters of Mercy state that in l854, Archbishop Hughes claimed in a Pastoral, “in which he eloquently recommended to the charity of his flock the House of Mercy for poor women of good character, that up to that date the number of distressed families visited and relieved by the sisters amounted to nearly 2,000; the poor but respectable girls placed in situations, 8,650; the number received and trained to work in the House of Mercy, 2,323.” The last work that Mother Agnes undertook was a boarding-school on a large scale which she intended as a kind of normal school to prepare teachers for their profession. This was later abandoned because of expense. Sister Mary Josephine Gately comments: “In his [Bishop Hughes] Pastoral of 1854 there is the statement that during the years 1849–l854 the sisters of Mercy of New York City had accomplished a work of charity without parallel in the United States.”
The New York Community of the Sisters of Mercy would be the source of the Sodality movement, not only in their own city and diocese, but the first one of the kind ever established in the United States beginning in 1853. In 1854, this was promulgated the Decree of the Immaculate Conception which made that a glorious dogma a matter of faith.
Mother Agnes would soon extend the Mercy mission to other dioceses in response to various appeals. The first of these was the establishment of the Brooklyn community in 1855. Later, Father Damen learned about the successful apostolate of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy in the United States and requested to secure Sisters of Mercy in St. Louis to teach in St. Francis Xavier’s Parish in 1856. Archbishop Kenrick approved Father Damen’s plan and personally made formal application to Mother Agnes O’Connor, superior of St. Catherine’s Convent, New York.
Other missions soon followed from the New York Community, beginning with the establishment of the Brooklyn community in 1855. Later, Father Damen learned about the successful apostolate of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy in the United Stated and requested to secure Sisters of Mercy in St. Louis to teach in St. Francis Xavier’s Parish in 1856. Archbishop Kenrick approved Father Damen’s plan and personally made formal application to Mother Agnes O’Connor, superior of St. Catherine’s Convent, New York.
On the eve of September 27, 1863, four Sisters left St. Catherine’s Convent of Our Lady of Mercy, New York to establish the Convent of the Immaculate Conception at Saint John’s Greenbush (Rensselaer, New York.) This would become the original Motherhouse of the Albany Sisters of Mercy. From this small seed, the Albany Community would reach its zenith with over 400 Sisters in the 1960's touching the people of God in twenty-three elementary schools, five high schools, health care pastoral ministry, and social outreach.
Unfortunately, Mother Agnes developed eye problems. In 1852, she was sent to Ireland by Archbishop Hughes to consult the celebrated oculist, Sir William Wilde. Returning without any lasting benefit, she continued to struggle daily with pain for five years until her death. Pope Pius IX received a petition from her New York Sisters “to obtain a dispensation from the portion of the constitution which prohibits the re-election of the same Sister as Mother superior three times in succession.” Although the petition was granted, she died December 20, 1859 leaving a large flourishing community. She was only forty-three and had governed the New York thirteen years. Her gifts of natural wit and good humour were deeply missed when she died. The Christmas of 1959 was a sad one for the New York Community, especially for the six sisters who had accompanied Mother Agnes from Ireland and for all the sisters who had taken vows in the New York Community.
From this small seed which Mother Mary Agnes O’Connor planted in New York, a mighty oak spread and continues to grow to bring mercy to our world. Indeed, we are grateful to Mother Mary Agnes O’Connor, who has influenced and inspired thousands by her life of mercy beginning at Baggot Street.