Catherine McAuley and the Ministry of Mercy

I would like to start by a recalling the main brushstrokes of Catherine’s life.

She was born in Dublin in 1778. Her father, though a Catholic, was a wealthy tradesman and Catherine learned from his example to respect and help the poor and the oppressed. She experienced poverty and deprivation herself when both parents died and she and her younger brother and sister were left without means of support. They were cared for by the Armstrong family, kindly Protestant relatives. At about the age of twenty Catherine went to live as a companion to an elderly, wealthy lady and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan. Although suspicious of all things ‘Catholic' they were very supportive of Catherine's ministry to the poor of the neighborhood of Coolock where they lived.

When Mr. Callaghan died, shortly after his wife, he left his entire fortune to Catherine. Its value in today’s money was probably around €5 million. We are told in the London Manuscript that having received this inheritance, she wanted “to make some lasting efforts for the relief of the suffering and the instruction of the ignorant” To the consternation of her family and indeed to many of the residents of the very fashionable Baggot Street area of Dublin , she choose to build a House of Mercy to further her work with the poor.

To understand more profoundly what Catherine did, it is worth placing her in the context of her time.

Ireland of Catherine’s Day


For centuries Ireland had been occupied by English forces and its lands had been seized by English and Scottish settlers. From 1690 onwards Ireland had suffered the Penal laws aimed at paralysing the development and influence of Catholicism and Irish Catholics. These laws were there basically to safeguard the English government and Protestant minority from any interference on their social, economic and political life by the Irish Catholic majority
Among the prohibitions were

  •  Exclusion of Catholics from most public offices
  •  Catholics serving in the armed forces
  •  Bar from membership in either the Parliament of Ireland or the Parliament of England .
  •  Prohibition on Catholics owning a horse valued at over £5
  • When allowed, new Catholic churches were to be built from wood, not stone, and away from main roads.

These laws were selectively enforced and often at the whim of the authorities. In1831, the Act of Catholic Emancipation was passed lifting penal restrictions on office holding

Until 1800 the Dublin housed an increasingly independent (though still exclusively Anglican) Irish Parliament, and it was during this period that many of the great Georgian buildings and street scape schemes of Dublin were built. in 1801 under the Irish Act of Union, which merged the Kingdom of Ireland with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland the Irish Parliament voted itself out of existence and Dublin lost its political status as a capital. Though the city's growth continued, it suffered financially from the loss of parliament and more directly from the loss of the income that would come with the arrival of hundreds of peers and MPs and thousands of servants to the capital for sessions of parliament and the social season of the viceregal court in Dublin Castle. Within a short few years, many of the finest mansions, including Leinster House, Powerscourt House and Aldborough House, once owned by peers who spent much of their year in the capital, were for sale. Many of the city's once elegant Georgian neighbourhoods rapidly became slums.

This political background gave rise to many societal elements that shaped the environment in which Catherine lived.

1. Antagonism among the upper classes to Catholicism and Catholics

  • The Act of Union and the Act of Catholic Emancipation made Protestants nervous that their priviliges might be diminished or eroded. This led to tensions and prejudices and to a mutual distrust between Catholics and Protestants, very often experienced by the Catholics as bigotry and arrogance. Catherine herself experienced a fair level of this antagonism


  • Because of the penal laws prohibition on education, the majority of Catholics were illiterate and thus renegated to the most exploitative employment or in many cases unemployment. This was the background against which Catherine put such emphasis on education and skills training
  • Faith formation was poor . Protestants, anxious to swell their numbers preyed on this and were very active in proselytising. You will see that Catherine had a huge concern for faith formation and that she made several efforyts to counter proselytising

Note that the vow of service which Catherine made as the care of the poor, sick and ignorant. Ignorance was a political weapon used to control Catholics and render them dependendent on the British political and religious powers


In Catherine’e day, there were broadly 2 Irelands. A smaller ruling or ascendancy class were wealthy and comfortable while the majority lived in poverty and destitution.

Wealthy Ireland

Poor Ireland

Here is a description given by a visitor to Henry D. Inglis to Dublin in 1834

'… In walking through the streets of Dublin, strange and striking contrasts are presented between grandeur and poverty. In Merrion Square, St Stephen’s Green, and elsewhere, the ragged wretches that are sitting on the steps contrast strongly with the splendour of the houses and the wealth of the equipages that wait without. Pass from Merrion Squre or Grafton Street, about three o’clock, into what is called the Liberty, and you might easily find yourself in another, and distant, part of Europe…..
… rags and apparent indolence, and a low state of moral feeling …. houses and cottages in a half-ruined state, with paneless windows or no windows at all. [few provision shops]. .. what would be the use of opening a bacon shop, where the lower orders, who are elsewhere the chief purchasers of bacon, caonnot afford to eat bacon, and live upon potatoes?

Another description describing the poverty he witnessed:

'The poverty of the day was utterly incredible, so wretched and miserable was the lot of many. Extreme poverty with its attendant afflictions of hunger and disease had left the people destitute. To the latest hour of my existence I can never forget the scene of utter hopeless wretchedness that presented themselves that day.'
As always women and children suffer most in situations of poverty

Women & Children
It is a universal fact that in situations of poverty, women and children suffer most.. Census returns at that time show that many households were headed by women. With the movement of the parliament to London and the closure of many of the big houses, unemployment opportunities for women decrease. There was less openings for domestic staff and because of little influence of the Industrial revolution on Dublin, jobs in factories were few and far between. Begging was common and significant numbers turned to prostitution on the streets or in brothels as a last resort. (over 400 brothels in Dublin)
( Note Catherine’s concern for women of good character)

Many families were forced to put their children selling wares on the streets. A report dealing with the problem of the thousands of children street-selling, noted that in one in six cases, one or both parents were dead. Others were from homes riven with illness, drunkenness or unemployment.
The state responded to public begging in 2 ways.

1. Relief / assistance:

Those unfit for work by way of sickness or misfortune were to be accommodated in workhouses. (indoor relief). The poor Law relief bill arranged that the costs would be collected from all Catholics owning property The essence of ‘indoor relief’ system was classification, separation - by age, sex, health - regimentation, minimal comfort, to repel those who might seek shelter rather than to attract, so that only it becomes the last recourse of the poor.

2. Beggers, capable of work were to be imprisoned and conditioned to work by hard labour ( Refer to Kilmainham jail record)
What the Government wanted to do was to rid the city of poverty and crime (e.g. begging) by imprisonment or the degrading, disrespectful workhouse system)Catherine’s response was very counter cultural: Education for the children, skills training and self development as well as faith formation for the women at risk, shelter for the homeless – all performed with such respect as if ministering to Jesus.

The terrible housing conditions of the poor gave rise to largescale sickness and disease.
Dublin had the worst housing conditions of any city in the United Kingdom.. Tenements in inner-city Dublin were filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden, teeming with malnourished children and very much at odds with the elite world of colonial and middle-class Dublin.
An astonishing 835 people lived in 15 houses. For example, there were members of nineteen different families living in one house alone.
Life in the slums was raw and desperate. Nearly 26,000 families lived in inner-city tenements, and 20,000 of these families lived in just one room.

With nutrition so poor in the city and with so many living in poverty and poor housing, there was great ill-health in Dublin.

The major illnesses included typhoid, cholera and typhus
(Catherine’s home visitation and nursing in the cholera epidemic of 1833 were responses to this terrible situation)
Death emphasised the precariousness of life for the poor: tenement dwellers died younger, died more often from tuberculosis, died more often in childhood; see very high child mortality.
Dublin consistently had the highest city death rate in the British Isles
(Catherine’s huge concern for the dying)


  •  The Church was extremely hierarchical and clerical – thus the extraordinary intermeddling by church personnel in Catherine’s affairs – bishops were credited with founding Congregations – not the persons involved
  •  Post penal times was marked by popular religious devotions . Church authorities were trying to give greater emphasis to Catechesis and Sacremental observance
  •  Prosllytizing was coducted e.g. Kildare St. Schools. Catherine made reference to this. , distressed women (letter 19, p.55) children in Kingston (Letter from Fr. William Walsh curate at Kingston to Rev. John Hamilton (Bishop’s Sec.)
  • Protestants held control of hospitals and insisted on a Protestant ethos
  • Roman ecclesiastical authorities were unsure how to treat the emerging apostolic congregations of women in Ireland, whose spirituality, as distinc from that of cloistered contemplative orders, was unfamiliar to them

Catholic Middle Class

  • There was a small Catholic middle class – Catherine McAuleys mother and father would have fitted into this category . However many among the Catholic middle classes were keen not to draw attention to injustices such as proselytism, and to distance themselves (physically and socially) from the poorer (predominantly RC) layers of society. (Contrast Catherin’e mother and father in this regard).

As well as enjoying the middle class life style and the social circles to which it granted them entrance Catholic middle class had a vested interest in limiting the poor relief the government might offer because of the burden it would place on the on the propertied classes (ratepayers)

What Catherine Did
Through visiting the lanes and slums of the city and through meeting some of the unemployed friends of the servants in Coolock, Catherine acquired an intimate knowledge of the poor and thus she developed extraordinary love for them and admiration for their fortitude. Her attitude was so different to other benefactors who, while ‘giving alms’, still considered the poor as belonging to the lowest stratum of society and as menial, dishonest, untruthful.

What distinguished Catherine from other philanthropists of her day was her ability to imagine life differently. Many of her contemporaries were prepared to provide hand outs but could not imagine or even desire a society where those who were oppressed, marginalised or excluded would find a central role and a sense of belonging in that very society. Catherine’s genius was that she could stand as a bridge between the rich and the poor, employing whatever advantage her own background and her connection with people of influence afforded her in the relief and advancement of poor people. She had a particular ability to address immediate need in a practical and loving way while at the same time addressing the systemic issues that underpinned those needs.

Catherine was not a ‘Lady bountiful’ bestowing her favours on the waifs and strays but rather an instigator of professional services that would empower those who were now powerless because of the oppressive structures imposed on them. She saw no virtue in poverty. Anything that advanced human dignity was worthy of her attention and so the scope of her ministry and the span of those to whom she ministered was amazingly wide and varied.

Three extraordinary elements came together in Catherine – her innate love and concern for people, her faith belief and conviction that she encountered Christ in every person in need and her fertile imagination that envisioned an alternative society. As Joanna Regan rsm expresses it: 'By courageous, contagious concern for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the poor, the sick and the ignorant, she broke through the impossibilities of her time. She animated many to walk with her. She animated others at centres of wealth, power and influence to share in her heroic efforts. She connected the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, the educated and skilled to the uninstructed, the influential to those of no consequence, the powerful to the weak – to do the work of God on earth'.1

Catherine became a reformer of remarkable energy and compassion and her ‘programme of Mercy’ broke through contemporary and, until then, impregnable barriers of indifference and discrimination. Catherine envisioned a society where those who were on the margins would be empowered to take their place within that society, enjoy the rights of citizens and become active participants rather than passive victims of exclusion. Through education and skills training she empowered people, particularly women, to become agents of their own advancement and liberation. Through the Works of Mercy, she aimed to set people free from oppressive structures and to protect their dignity and human rights..

Catherine could be described in today’s language as a luminal woman. Liminality is about risk and has been described as a counter-cultural movement on the frontier, opening up new horizons, indicating new possibilities, fuelled by a new vision of the future. Many agree that Catherine’s unambiguous response to the needs of the poor and the disadvantaged, places her in a strikingly liminal context as a woman who targeted those virtually unexplored areas of human need and exclusion which constituted the dark spots of the Ireland and England of her day.

What Catherine envisaged was utterly prophetic. At a time when social work as we know it today was in the womb of the future, in an age when women were severely discriminated against, she organised and led others in a liminal crusade for human betterment through the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. She became a reformer of remarkable energy and compassion and her ‘programme of Mercy’ broke through contemporary and, until then, impregnable barriers of indifference and discrimination.



A touching example of Catherine’s counter-cultural way of dealing with the poor is to compare her system of support with the Poor Law system of 1838 which set up the workhouses or poorhouses.3 This depraved and unjust system which insisted that only those who came to reside in a designated poorhouse could get help, served to make paupers of those, who more often than not, sought nothing more than temporary relief to tide them over difficult periods.

Initially, Catherine and her companions were treated with contempt by those in charge of the workhouse hospitals and, while the South Dublin Union did not grant permission for the sisters to visit or “to attend upon the sick and the infirm of their own persuasion”, they had gained access earlier in the other foundations outside Dublin. They also went to assist people in their homes, bringing them food and comfort, as well as serving the needs of those who called to Baggot Street. In six years alone, 772 homeless and unemployed women were welcomed into the House of Mercy where they experienced friendship, prayer, love, peace, compassion and hope. Young women of good character who had employment, yet not sufficient means to provide safe lodging, were invited into it at night, as their home.


Catherine’s special love for the sick and dying was born, no doubt, out of many years accompanying sick members of her family and friends. Her personal gift of loving care of the sick flowed from her direct experience of nursing her own mother, and then her adoptive mother, Mrs Callaghan. She also gained experience from her visits to the sick poor, struggling to live in wretched hovels around the back streets of Dublin and Coolock. The most searing experience of her earlier years was being at her mother’s death. But out of these experiences there was distilled the most tender love for the sick and dying expressed in devoted and skilled care for them, whether it was for the poor in their homes or in the temporary depots set up during the cholera epidemic. She included in her original rule:

An invitation to attend the victims of the disastrous cholera plague came just as the young congregation was forming in 1832. The attentiveness of the sisters to the care of the sick must have been already well recognised because it was to them that the Board of Health appealed for help when the plague struck. The Archbishop had no difficulty in giving his approval for them to minister to the cholera victims.

Catherine and her companions worked endless hours at the makeshift hospital set up in Townsend Street. Their presence at the hospital gave great comfort and reassurance and helped to overcome the fears of many who had actually been too frightened to go into hospitals before the sisters took over nursing. It was Catherine’s concern for the sick and especially the dying, whom she felt needed support and counsel in a particular way, that impelled her to visit Catholic patients in Dublin’s hospitals, which at that time were all under Protestant patronage. The good standing she had in those hospitals because of her medical connections through her brother and brother in law who were both doctors, and the assumption, which she did not dissuade, that she was Protestant as they were, gave her a ready entry, notably to Sir Patrick Dun’s, Mercer’s, Madame Spencer’s, the Coombe, and the Hospital for the Incurables in Donnybrook. Catherine did have a desire to found a Catholic hospital but her dream was not realised until 20 years after her death when the Dublin Mater was founded in 1861.


Catherine’s ministry to the poor and ignorant propelled her into education at primary, secondary and vocational or technical level. In all of those areas she crossed new frontiers. Her foundational enterprise was directly aimed at enabling poor people and affirming them through education, safeguarding their faith and alleviating their hardships through her concern and immediacy.

Catherine’s approach to education was an offshoot of her ideals to empower the poor by providing them with necessary opportunities and to assist the emancipation of women through the medium of education. While the penal embargo on education of Catholics still prevailed, in 1825 Catherine travelled to France with Fanny Tighe (who later entered the Presentations in Galway) to acquaint herself with how the De la Salle Brothers and the French Sisters of Charity were engaging with the education of children in the slums. She was determined that her system of education would suit the needs of the poor, would respect their cultural and political aspirations and would form them in their faith.

Before the National Schools system was founded, Catherine had opened Baggot Street to 200 poor children. Again this was a daring thing to do. It was government policy, enforceable by penal legislation, to hold Catholic children in ignorance. Such enforced ignorance was nothing short of a cancer in Irish society and eliminated Catholics from advancement in virtually every worthwhile area of life. At first, she continued what she had pioneered in Abbey Street, the promotion of self-help through blending the academic with the technical in her school curriculum. However when the government established the National Schools system, she was the first foundress to place her poor schools within it (July 13, 1834).

Before 1839, Catherine had embarked on secondary education, principally in Carlow, Cork and Naas.. She saw the need for pension schools to educate children of better-off, middle class parents for whom the fees demanded in the pay schools were prohibitive. The pension or fee was nominal, and for those whose parents could not afford it, Catherine cancelled the debt. She believed that education for the middle classes could alert them to the needs of the poor and would possibly be a seed-bed for vocations.

By the time of Catherine’s death in 1841, the overall network of Mercy schools in Ireland was providing the type of education for the deprived which helped to liberate thousands of young Catholics from the darkness and disadvantages of illiteracy and discrimination.

Through the Works of Mercy, Catherine always aimed to set people free. Her whole thrust in education was to liberate the poor from ignorance and economic dependence. Likewise, the House of Mercy was a place where the young women who came for shelter were provided with instruction in their faith and with practical skills that would equip them to work for a living. Catherine’s ministry was directly aimed at enabling poor people and affirming them through education, healing, safeguarding their faith and alleviating their hardships through her concern and immediacy

What we can learn from Catherine for our work of Mercy today

It is tempting now to look at our world today, to enumerate its problems, to draw parallels to Catherine’s day and to suggest ways in which we could emulate her in responding to the needs around us. I would like to take a step further back and look at what made Catherine the Mercy woman she was.

I recently read a book ‘Start with Why’ by Simon Sinex on how great leaders inspire action. He says that most people can tell you what they do and how they do it but very very few can tell you why they do what they do, what belief inspires them, what is it inside them that urges them to do what they do, what is the driving force that guides everything they do... But he says the inspired leaders and the inspired organizations -- regardless of their size, regardless of their industry -- all think, act and communicate from the inside out.

The Why
So  what was Catherine’s WHY and, what was it that she communicated from the inside out that made her the inspirational leader she was and then perhaps we can make her WHY ours as well.

Catherine saw Jesus as the light. She saw that light in every person she met and she believed that she also brought that light to every person she met..This was what Catherine communicated from the inside out. This was her WHY . She radically believed the words of Jesus firstly about herself – You are the Light of the world. She understood that she was God’s light to everyone she met but she equally belied that in each one she met Jesus, the Light. And that in relating with them she was relating with Jesus – ‘As long as you did it to one of these the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’.

If the story of WHO for Catherine was the conviction that she carried the light of Christ to a world in need and that she encountered that light in the lives of all she touched, then the story of HOW must be the path she choose to do it. That path was Mercy. Another great Mercy artist gives us an insight into how Catherine and her followers understood Mercy. In her artistic expression of the word she embellishes the letter M. Looking closely at it you will see that she depicts the story of the Good Samaritan. When I think about that story, the word that always comes to mind is ‘Compassion’ and it is I think a doing word for Mercy or as Pope Francis calls it = Mercying – making Mercy a verb, a doing word. A definition of compassion that I particularly like is this: ’The sensitivity to another’s suffering and the corresponding will to free the other from that suffering’. Could we find a better description of Catherine herself?

Catherine has much to teach us in this regard.
Listen to how one of Catherine’s:companions, Teresa White described her: gift of being wholly present to others, of making them feel accepted by and important to her, 'There was something about her so kind yet so discerning that you would fancy she read your heart. If you came to speak to her of the most trifling matter, although occupied with the most important affairs, she would instantly lay all aside and give you any satisfaction in her power.” . Empathy, the foundation stone to compassion, is our tuning in to another. When we focus on ourselves , we tune ourselves out of the other’s world. Compassion can express itself in the simple act of presence – just being there, just showing up when another is in need.'

I bet it would surprise you if I said that Albert Einstein has something to teach us about compassion.. Einstein foresaw that as we grow more modern and technologically advanced, we need the virtues like concern for others more not less. He liked to talk about the spiritual geniuses of the ages – Jesus, Frances of Assisi, Gandi. Had he known Catherine McAuley, I am sure she would have made his list. This is what he said of such people : These kinds of peoples are geniuses in the art of living, more necessary to the dignity, security , and joy of humanity than the discoveries of objective knowledge. What Einstein is saying is that for all the wonderful contribution that scientific discoveries make to our world, the contribution of the geniuses in the art of living that is those who contribute virtues like love, compassion, hospitality are even more necessary.

Catherine learned compassion by using the experiences of her own life to understand and empatize with the sufferings of others. Compassion is a paradoxical mixture of strength and gentleness It takes tremendous strength to uphold yourself in the midst of difficult experiences. . But it also takes a gentle spirit and undefended heart to respond lovingly to need.

The What
We have looked at the Story of Who in Cathereine’s life– who she was from the inside out. We have looked at the story of HOW – the Human Moment person who in spite of her own concerns could transcend herself to emphatize with others in their needs and now we want to address the WHAT of her leadership.

All of us can answer that in one sentence. She cared for the poor, sick and neglected. If you were to ask Catherine what in her experience were the things these people valued most about what she did– what do think she might say? Perhaps you might expect she would say things like education for their children, shelter for the homeless, health care for their sick .But strangely that is not what she said but rather ‘ What the poor prize MOST is the kind word, the compassionate look and the patient hearing of their sorrows’.

I highlight this because sometimes we may think that Mercy Ministry is only about big projects that address the enormous world issues and that we need to engage some big project to address these issues. Catherine didn’t start with a grand plan. She started with what presented itself in her immediate surrounds – the needs in her own family and in her own locality.

Catherine knew how extraordinarily powerful we can be in each other’s lives by the kind word, the compassionate look, the patient listening to each other. We need to value the impact these simple gestures can have - more than money and power and titles and influence.

All of us are invited to see, with the clear vision of Catherine, the situation in our world, in our society, our own community, our own family. Where are the needs that cry out for our attention? What are the needs we overlook because they are almost too close and too ordinary for us to observe? It always comes back to the simplicity and the complexity of the question: Are we doing Mercy, and serving the ‘poor, sick and ignorant’ in accordance with the needs of our times and in a world very different from hers?

We are surrounded on all sides by those who still crave for “the kind word, the gentle look, the patient hearing of sorrows”. We know too the ‘spiritual hunger’ of so many of our time and their need too calls us, to respond. Catherine’s words about the privilege we have of being among those whom Jesus has “graciously permitted to serve him in the person of His suffering poor”is a daily call to generosity in our service of healing love and practical care for the sick, for the refugee, asylum seeker or new immigrant, for the homeless, the unemployed, the depressed, the ‘drop-out’.

It is important for us to listen to the promptings of Catherine, the woman who risked all for the sake of the poor. She was ready to undertake new and revolutionary things in her time and she did them with a simple practicality, with a passion for the poor that energised her and with a huge trust in the Providence of God.
Catherine’s words of encouragement are as true for us today as they were for her early followers: 'We ought to have great confidence in God in the discharge of all these offices of Mercy, Spiritual and Corporal, which constitute the business of our lives'.

And so God’s Mercy continues – Mercy powerfully present in Catherine who founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, Mercy at work in the Sisters who took the Congregation to Australia and in all those who have been involved in the ministry of Mercy since then to the present day and Mercy calling all of us in this age to be people whose lives are centered in the God of Mercy and who are channel’s of God’s mercy to those whose lives we touch.

It is as true today as it was in Catherine’s day that the qualities necessary to be a person of Mercy is ‘an ardent desire to be united to God and to serve the poor’.