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Catherine McAuley - Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy: 1778-1841

Catherine McAuley was born into a prosperous Catholic family but the death of her father in 1783, began the family's slide into financial crisis. Mrs. McAuley, much younger than her husband, was left to raise three small children alone. On her death in 1798, the family was insolvent, and the children were left dependent on the charity of relatives. The first person to care for the three McAuley children was a cousin, William Armstrong. A committed Protestant, he actively discouraged the children from practicing the Catholic faith in which they were raised. Of the three, Catherine was the only one who successfully resisted this pressure to convert to Protestantism.

When Catherine was twenty-five, a retired Quaker couple, William and Catherine Callaghan, invited her to live with them at Coolock, an estate not too distant from the centre of Dublin. She was employed as a companion for Mrs Callaghan. Although the Callaghans forbade any religious images in their house, Catherine was allowed to instruct the Catholic servants, and also to teach at the nearby poor school. Her example of steadfast piety encouraged first Mrs Callaghan to convert to Catholicism, then her husband, just before he died. Catherine proved to be a loving companion, and when Mr. Callaghan died in 1822, he bequeathed his entire fortune to her.

In 1824, Catherine used her inheritance to lease property on Baggot Street, a fashionable neighborhood in Dublin, for the purpose of building a large house for religious, educational and social services for women and children. Other women, intrigued by the house and the work for which it was intended, were attracted to Catherine and began to join her preparations for the ministry she planned. On September 24, 1827, the Feast of our Lady of Mercy, the first residents came to live in the house they called the House of Mercy in honor of the day and two years later the Chapel was dedicated.

Between late 1829 and 1830, after prayerful deliberation and consultation, Catherine and her associates agreed to found a new religious congregation of women dedicated to service to the poor. She had never intended to found a community of religious women but the church (clergy and people) of the time were not supportive of groups of lay women working independently of church structures. Catherine's clerical mentor urged her to form a religious Institute. Catherine and two other women entered the formation program of the Presentation Sisters to formally prepare for life as women religious. At the end of one year they professed vows and returned to the House of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy consider December 12, 1831, the day of their founding as a religious community

It was only after her death that the full fruitfulness of her life began to show itself. At the time of her death there were little more than 100 Sisters of Mercy; fifteen years later there were 3,000. Today total worldwide vowed membership is about 10,000. The Mercy International Centre in Dublin, Ireland is the international "home" of Sisters of Mercy worldwide. In 1978, the cause for the beatification of the Servant of God Catherine McAuley was opened by Pope Paul VI, and in 1990, upon recognition of her heroic virtues, Pope John Paul II declared her Venerable. This places her on the path towards possible sainthood.

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

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