Introducing Catherine McAuley
Catherine McAuley was born in Dublin, Ireland, in September 1778. She founded the Sisters of Mercy in December 1831.
The birth of a human person is both an extraordinary and a very ordinary event - holding great, God-given promise in the humble simplicity of human form. Catherine Elizabeth McAuley was born probably on September 29, 1778. Although there is an irresolvable uncertainty about the year, some writers thinking it was 1787 (which is not possible) or 1781, many biographers generally accept 1778 as the year of her birth in Dublin to Jame and Elinor Conway McGauley. Catherine had a sister Mary, and a brother James who was born a few months before their father’s death in 1783.
Catherine’s early childhood was characterized by family love, the inspiring example of her father, and filial happiness. Then her father died, leaving Elinor McGauley to raise the three small children. When Catherine was almost twenty, her mother died an uneasy death, conscious perhaps of her own casualness in the Catholic formation of her children.
Life at Coolock House
Having lived for a time with her uncle Owen Conway, and then with Protestant families named Armstrong and Callaghan, Catherine moved in 1809 to Coolock House, the twenty-two acre estate of William and Catherine Callaghan, an elderly and wealthy Protestant and Quaker couple, where she served as household manager and companion to Mrs. Callaghan. The estate was a few miles northeast of Dublin, and Catherine remained there for the next twenty years, until she sold Coolock and moved permanently into the House of Mercy she had built on Baggot Street, Dublin - probably by February 1829.
The years at Coolock were a kind of desert retreat. Here Catherine developed her merciful spirit and grew in her personal grasp of Catholic faith and practice, her love for those who were poor and neglected, and her determination to serve them in the manner of Jesus Christ. Though she retained her love of singing and dancing to the end of her life, these were years of growing detachment from the preoccupations, pleasures, and values of the social world around her. She is known to have meditated often on the words of the “Universal Prayer”.
Discover to me, O my God, the nothingness of this world, the greatness of heaven, the shortness of time, and the length of eternity.
An Insistent Vocation
Slowly the example of Jesus Christ assumed more compelling force in Catherine’s life: she began to feel an insistent vocation to devote her life to the service of the poor, the sick, and the uneducated, especially those suffering debilitating ignorance of God’s consoling love.
She soon realized the much social, economic, and political oppression under which they struggled, and she had bitter experiences trying to find shelter for abused servant women and homeless girls who were turned down by bureaucratic institutions with little sense of the urgency of their situations. These experiences left indelible sorrow and determination in her mind and heart.
An Extraordinary Gift
The Coolock years concluded in an extraordinary gift. After a long illness, and aided by Catherine McAuley’s presence and prayer, Catherine Callaghan died in October 1819. Three years later William Callaghan asked to be received into the Catholic Church before his death on November 10, 1822. The influence of Catherine on him was fully complemented by his influence on her.
While he lived he shared his wealth generously with the poor whom she served. After he died, he revealed his full admiration for her and her work: by codicil to his will, after other designated bequests, he named Catherine the sole residuary legatee of his estate and his life’s savings valued then about £25,000.
Though she continued to reside at Coolock for the next six years, she radically increased her social work among the poor, teaching them religious doctrine, reading, industrial crafts, and other useful skills, and formulating her long-range plans.
She consulted priest friends about how best to meet the needs of the destitute. She also consulted the Irish Sisters of Charity, though she was convinced that the work she was projecting could not be affiliated with any religious congregation for she had an aversion to certain aspects of convent life and to the restrictions she thought religious life would impose on the works of mercy to which she felt called.
House for the Poor
Finally, with the advice and encouragement of three priests - Joseph Nugent, Edward Armstrong, and Michael Blake - Catherine decided to use her inheritance to build a house for poor servants girls and homeless women on Baggot Street, in a fashionable section of southeast Dublin. The foundation stone was laid in July 1824.
On September 24, 1827, the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy, Catherine’s adopted cousin Catherine Byrn and Anna Maria Doyle, who had offered to assist the new work, moved into the partly finished House of Mercy. Yet Joesph Nugent’s death in 1825 and the death of Edward Armstrong in May 1828, cast Catherine more and more on the help of God alone, as Armstrong had counseled:
Do not put your trust in any human being, but place all your confidence in God. Derry Manuscript, in Sullivan, Catherine McAuley, 49
Legal Guardian of Nine
Meanwhile Catherine’s sister Mary had died of consumption in August 1827, leaving five children: Mary, James, Robert, Catherine, and William (Willie), ages sixteen to six. Mary’s husband Dr. William Macauley was a surgeon at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
To help the family Catherine often stayed at their home on Military Road, but went daily to work at Baggot Street, taking with her the two girls, occasionally young Willie, as well as her young adopted cousin Teresa Byrn, age six. Hair-raising stories tell of Willie’s unsupervised escapades with Catherine’s horse and carriage.
Then, suddenly in January 1829, Dr. William Macauley died of fever and an ulcerated throat. Catherine was now the legal guardian of nine children, including the Byrn children and two orphans she had earlier welcomed to Coolock House.
Moving to Baggot Street
Having sold Coolock House in September 1828, Catherine moved permanently into Baggot Street in early 1829, taking the girls with her, and placing her nephews as boarders in carlow College. In September 1828, she had written to a Carmelite priest, indicating that the House of Mercy was not a convent, nor the group of lay helpers living there a religious order, even though they shared life, work, and prayer in common, and dressed simply:
Ladies who prefer a conventual life, and are prevented embracing it from the nature of property or connections, many retire to this House. It is expected a gratuity will be given to create a fund for the school, and an annual pension paid sufficient to meet the expence a lady must incur. The objects which the Charity at present embraces are daily education of hundreds of poor female children and instruction of young women who sleep in the House. Objects in view - superintendence of young women employed in the house, instruction and assisting the sick poor... (Sullivan, ed., Correspondence, Letter 6)
Misunderstanding and Criticism
Despite the full approbation of Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, Catherine and the House of Mercy suffered the public misunderstanding, criticism, suspicion, and even jealousy that sometimes afflict new ventures in the mission of the Church. Catherine was called an upstart; her work among the poor was judged unfit for proper women to perform, or worse, a meddling of the “unlearned sex” in the work of the clergy.
She was accused of indirectly deflecting support from the work of established religious orders and of imitating them without abiding by their rules. Neighbours of the House were chagrined at the begging letters left at their doors, seeking blankets and clothing for the women sheltered in the House. All this created uncertainty among present and prospective co-workers.
A Difficult Decision
In 1829-1830, Catherine faced a hard decision, one that seemed at first to override her previous inclinations and hopes for her intended work. The long-term future of the works of mercy she had had begun and her continued attraction of co-workers seemed to depend on her willingness to found a new religious congregation whose nature and purposes would be unambiguous. However, some clergy did not favor the creation of another religious order for women in Dublin, presumably out of loyalty to the existing orders.
Catherine now sought the advice of Michael Blake, a dear friend who supported her the rest of her life. As parish priest os Saints Michael’s and John’s, he was known throughout Dublin for his vigorous, personal service of the poor. Later, as bishop of Dromore, he would serve porridge every morning to the poor children of the neighbourhood. Blake assured Catherine that a new religious congregation could be founded and approved which would be faithful to her purposes. It did not have to be like existing congregations; it could be unenclosed and uninhibited in its work on the streets of Dublin.
The First Sisters of Mercy
Slowly Catherine and the community at Baggot Street assented. On September 8, 1830, she and two co-workers, Anna Maria Doyle and Elizabeth Harley, entered the Presentation Convent on George’s Hill, Dublin, to make a canonical novitiate prior to profession of vows. Fifteen months later, on December 12, 1831, she and her two companions professed their vows as the first Sisters of Mercy. The vows Catherine professed that day expressed the deep confidence in God’s merciful providence that had brought her to this moment. That very day Catherine returned to Baggot Street. The next day Daniel Murray formally installed her as mother superior of the Sisters of Mercy, a title she refused to use of herself, agreeing only, and reluctantly, to be addressed as Mother.
I, Sister Catherine McAuley, called in religion Mary Catherine, do vow and promise to God perpetual Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and to persevere until the end of my life in the congregation called of the Sisters of Mercy, established for the visitation of the sick poor, and protection and instruction of poor females... (Sullivan, ed., Correspondence, Letter 12)
Over the next ten years Convents of Mercy spread throughout Ireland and England, Catherine herself personally founding autonomous communities in Tullamore (1836), Charleville (1836), Carlow (1837), Cork (1837), Limerick (1838), Bermondsey, London (1839), Galway (1840), Birr (1840), and Birmingham (1841), and branch houses of the Dublin community in Kingstown (1835) and Booterstown (1838).
Her ready response to human need, her willingness to be separated from beloved co-workers, and her determined, effort to “begin well” led her to undertake difficult travels from Dublin, by stage coach, canal boat, steam packet, and railway, and to remain with each new founding community for at least a month, often much longer.
The Rule of the Sisters of Mercy was formally confirmed by Pope Gregory XVI on June 6, 1841. On November 11, 1841, Catherine McAuley died at Baggot Street of tuberculosis. Just six weeks before, she had returned, greatly, fatigued and wracked by coughing, from establishing the foundation in Birmingham.
Now as she lay dying, Catherine had two requests: the Sisters of Mercy were always to (QUOTE HERE) and grieving sisters gathered around her bed were to
Preserve union and peace amongst each other - that if they did they would enjoy great happiness such that they would wonder where it came from (Elizabeth Moore to Mary Ann Doyle, November 21, 1841) Get a good cup of tea... when I am gone & to comfort one another - but God will comfort them (Mary Vincent Whitty to Cecilia Marmion, November 12, 1841)
Servant of God
In 1990, John Paul II recognized the profound charity of Catherine McAuley - clothed here in selfless affection and solicitude - and declared her Venerable:
The Servant of God Catherine McAuley... practiced to a heroic degree the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity toward God and neighbour, and along with them the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude (Decree, April 9, 1990, Congregation for the Causes of Saints)