The First 'Sister of Mercy': Catherine McAuley could have given her wealth to the poor. Instead she gave her life.

By Joseph E. Gannon

In Drumcondra, County Dublin, on September 29, 1778, a daughter was born to the McAuley family. The McAuleys were one of the handful of Catholic families that had attained upper-middle class status during the years of the Penal Laws. They named their daughter Catherine. Before Catherine's days were done, she would help thousands of poor people and orphans and would found an order of Catholic sisters that would become the most numerous order on earth. 

(Right: The Mercy International Centre in Dublin, global headquarters of the Sisters of Mercy, and Catherine McAuley's first home for the care of the poor.)

Catherine may have come by her great humanitarianism by observing her father, who was a great benefactor of the poor and even opened his home in Drumcondra to the poor for religious instruction. Unfortunately, her father died young and her mother, who had disapproved of her husband's philanthropy, then encouraged the children to convert to Protestantism. Although her brother and sister did convert, Catherine did not. 

Catherine's mother died of tuberculosis in 1798 and Catherine eventually went to live with relatives named Callaghan, becoming a companion for Mrs. Callaghan, who was in ill health. 

Mrs. Callaghan soon died, and when Mr. Callaghan passed away in November 1822, he left Catherine their home, Coolock House, and a large sum of money plus a yearly stipend of six hundred pounds. 

With an estate worth $1 million by today's standards, she was now set for life and could have enjoyed a life of leisure if she chose. But Catherine had begun to work helping the poor in her area even before the Callaghans left her their fortune; now she chose to dedicate her life to helping those less fortunate than she. 

Sisters of Mercy
Catherine McAuley

Catherine traveled to France and studied Catholic methods of education. She also studied the methods of the Kildare Place Society, which educated poor children in Ireland and claimed to be non-denominational. However, many Irish suspected the Kildare Place Society of proselytizing for the Church of England. 

In 1824, with the blessing of Dublin's Archbishop Daniel Murray, Catherine bought land on Lower Baggot St., in Dublin, and built a home for unemployed girls, homeless children and the sick and dying. She named it "House of our Blessed Lady of Mercy." 

It was not until 1831, however, that Catherine, at the urging of the Archbishop, entered the novitiate at Presentation Convent and became a nun. She was appointed superior of the "Sisters of Mercy" at the Baggot Street home she had built. 

The order was given formal papal approval in 1835. In her application for approval of her new order, Mother Catherine said, "... the principal purpose of this Congregation is to educate poor little girls, to lodge and maintain poor young ladies ... and to visit the sick poor." 

Sisters of Mercy
A Sister of Mercy nursing a wounded soldier during America's Civil War.

Mother Catherine later opened an orphanage at her Baggot Street house and a school near Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin. She would be invited to London and opened a school in Birmingham. 

In the 10 years between the founding of the order and her death, Catherine founded nine Convents of Mercy. 

Although Mother Catherine would die in 1841, the order she started soon spread over much of the world. It would eventually be considered the largest order of Sisters in the world. 

The Sisters of Mercy established many congregations in the United States. During the American Civil War, numerous Sisters of Mercy, such as Sister Mary Grant, served as nurses on battlefields and in hospitals. Through the order she started, Mother Catherine has reached out across the miles and through the years to touch the lives of millions of lonely and destitute children and adults. 

The process of canonization of Mother Catherine is said to be well-advanced. A woman of wealth, who could very easily have simply given her money to the causes she believed in, Mother Catherine instead gave her life to those causes. Mother Catherine was, truly, a Sister of Mercy. 

You can learn more about Mother Catherine at the Mercy International Centre Web page. 


Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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Tags: Catherine, McAuley, Mercy, Religion, Sister, of

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on November 29, 2013 at 6:21am

September 29, 1778, Sr Catherine McAuley was born

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on September 29, 2015 at 9:19am

Mother McAuley High School is just blocks from my house in Chicago.


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