Mother Cecilia Maher

A biography written by Marcienne Kirk rsm

Ellen Maher was born in Freshford, Kilkenny, on September, 1799. Her father, John Maher, was a prosperous farmer of the district. Her mother, Alicia or Adelaide, died young and there is little information about her. Early in life, Ellen felt God’s call to be a religious Sister, but she remained with her father after her mother’s death. When John Maher remarried, Ellen sacrificed any longings in order to help bring up the five children of this marriage, so that she was 39 years old by the time she felt free to enter Religion.

Her family loved her deeply, especially as their mother was extremely strict with them. Later, her sister Jane, who became Sister M Pauline, described Ellen as a mother to them. (Four of her step sisters later became Sisters of Mercy; Fanny and Jane, went to America.) Ellen and her half-sister, Eliza, entered St Leo’s Convent of Mercy, Carlow, on September 8, 1838. The Superior and Novice Mistress there was Mother Frances Xavier Warde, their cousin; she was to have a strong influence on Cecilia especially in her spiritual formation. Mother Frances was probably the person closest to Mother Catherine McAuley, Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, and is clearly the link between Mother Catherine and Ellen Maher.

Ellen Maher, now Sister Mary Cecilia, took her religious vows on January 8 1840 and such was her maturity – she was 41 years old – that Mother Frances appointed her Novice Mistress in 1842 and in the following year, Cecilia succeeded Frances as Superior of the Carlow Community. While in this office, Mother Cecilia led a foundation to Cheadle, a small town in Staffordshire, but she did not stay there long. She and her community already had been approached by Bishop Pompallier, who was looking for Sisters to work in the New Zealand mission, and Cecilia had felt a call to go on this mission.

After much prayer and consideration, she volunteered. At first she encountered the opposition of both Bishop Haly, and her community; but both were overcome, and Cecilia with six others formed the group to leave Carlow on August 8, 1849. They were joined by a postulant in Dublin and another in Sydney, so that nine Sisters of Mercy eventually arrived in Auckland in April 1850. Their epic voyage on the ship ‘Oceania’ is described in the Diary kept by Sister Philomena Dwyer.

Pompallier’s appeal to the Sisters of Mercy had been very much on behalf of the Maori people of his diocese, and from the first, Mother Cecilia and her Sisters related well to them, especially as most of the Sisters could speak Maori. But the needs of the European settlers were also great and the Sisters entered immediately into teaching, religious instruction, caring for orphans and visitation of the sick and prisoners. In the years that followed, Mother Cecilia took a full part in all of these, as well as holding offices of Superior and Novice Mistress for much of the time. She was kind, compassionate and firm, leading the way herself and never asking of others what she had not herself undertaken. In terms of the times, she was an elderly woman when she came to Auckland, but she laboured consistently as the younger members until her health started to decline. She had the ability to inspire others to carry out enterprises of great difficulty and personal challenge: she was a good business woman and enjoyed good relationships with the officials of the colony, as well as most of the clerics. She was responsible, as time went on, for the building of St Mary’s Convent in Ponsonby, to be the Mother House of the Sisters of Mercy in Auckland: she founded the school on the same site, St Mary’s College: sent out new branches, convents and schools to Parnell, Onehunga, Otahuhu and Thames, and began a tradition of cultural excellence in these schools which had some influence in the development of the colony.

She established a refuge where Maori women could stay when they came to the city, and accepted Maori girls and orphans to live in the Convent. She frequently expressed her admiration for their intelligence, prayerfulness and courage and was full of hope that they would become fervent and dedicated to their faith. The outbreak of war, drove most of the Maori away from the centres of European settlement, and the Sisters consequently had much less contact with them. At the same time, their commitment to the European settlers steadily increased.

Mother Cecilia’s relationships with the Sisters were characterised by great warmth and affection. Her heart was wrung by the early deaths of so many of them and by the frailty of others. She nursed them herself and stayed at their bedside until death claimed them. She could be firm and demanding of her young companions, but never harsh or condemnatory. She helped them make the most of the poor little Convents they lived in, of the hard relenting works they undertook; and never ceased to raise their spirits by her own example and by the reminder of why they were Sisters of Mercy. Often there were few resources, either of personnel or finance, but she maintained an extraordinary level of faith in God, a cheerfulness and optimism that are remarkable.

Her relationships with Bishop Pompallier and Croke were professional yet warm. Both appreciated her talents and respected her as a leader, who could yet be guided by the expertise of others. She missed Pompallier deeply after his resignation in 1869, but she accepted Croke with sincere good will, and his letters to her, like Pomallier’s, reveal bonds of true and mutual respect.

As a superior, Mother Cecilia was the chief decision-maker for the Auckland Congregation. She was in office from 1850 to 1867, and again from 1870 to 1877, until her successor Mother Joseph Grey took over in 1877. This long stretch of office was not her choice but was virtually forced upon her by the paucity of experienced professed Sisters and by the chronic illness of Philomena Dwyer, who had been designated as Cecilia’s assistant and eventual successor. Two others who could have taken the Superiorship successfully were Sisters Gertrude Casey and Mother Bernard Dickson. Gertrude was highly efficient as a Bursar but suffered from excruciating headaches, so was not under consideration as a Superior. Bernard Dickson who came to Auckland in 1857, was sent three years later to begin a Mercy Foundation in Wellington and did not return to Auckland until 1876.

Under the circumstances, Mother Cecilia Maher remained the constant, formative element in the Congregation; but her letters reveal that she would have most willingly relinquished her position.

Mother Cecilia’s health declined noticeably during her last term of office. She became very stooped and her eyesight began to fail. Her final illness was aggravated by her determination not to disappoint the Sisters and children by failing to appear at an end of school year pageant. She enjoyed the production but caught a severe chill which led to her death. She died in St Mary’s Convent community room surrounded by her Sisters, most of them her spiritual ‘children’. ‘Each of us’ writes Borgia Tyrell, ‘had the happiness of receiving a parting word of advice for her children’. In the letter Cecilia wrote to her community at Carlow before she left for New Zealand, she had said,

Though separated entirely, our hearts will be united, and after this dream of life, we shall, please God, meet – from Pittsburgh, Ireland, New Zealand – we shall be together, Please God, in Heaven.

Mother Cecilia’s ‘dream of life’ ended far from her Irish home, but yet she fulfilled a greater dream; in her life and works in Auckland, she had made a major contribution to the development of her adopted country, to the universal Church, and to her beloved Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy.


Kirk, Marcienne D, Remembering Your Mercy: Mother Mary Cecilia Maher & the First Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand 1850 – 1880. Auckland, Sisters of Mercy, 1998.