Mercy Sisters

Who are the Sisters of Mercy?

The Sisters of Mercy are a religious congregation founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley. Today the Sisters of Mercy can be found in many countries of the world.

Catherine McAuley (1778–1841)

Catherine McAuley
What would the charity of God have profited us if his mercy had not come to our aid?

As a young person, Catherine McAuley knew what it was to rely on the mercy of others. Her father died when she was a small child and on the death of her mother she moved in with relatives. Through these relatives she met an elderly, childless couple, the Callaghans, and for 20 years worked as their household manager and as a companion to Mrs Callaghan.

Mrs Callaghan died in 1819. On the death of Mr Callaghan in 1822, Catherine found herself the possessor of a considerable fortune. She promptly used it to build a house for homeless women and children, and to finance countless practical acts of mercy.

The first House of Mercy was opened in Dublin in 1827. Today it is known as Mercy International Centre.

Catherine's example and leadership attracted so many young women that, at the age of 53, she was persuaded of the need to establish a religious congregation. At the time, there was no precedent for groups of lay women working independently of church structures. So, she and two other women entered the novitiate of the Presentation Sisters in Dublin to prepare to make their vows on 12 December 1831 as the first Sisters of Mercy. Catherine took the name Sister Mary Catherine.

In an age when it was still more usual for religious sisters to remain enclosed in convents, these women went out into the world to educate and help the poor. More than this, they sought to combat the socio-political forces that privileged some and oppressed others.

Catherine McAuley's outreach was to all in need, but she had a special regard for girls and young women of the poorer classes who were frequently exploited and rarely given the opportunity of an education. She established 12 Mercy foundations in Ireland and two in England. At the time of her death, there were 150 Sisters of Mercy. Shortly after her death the sisters started establishing foundations in the United States, Newfoundland, and Argentina. The sisters came to Australia in 1846, to Queensland in 1861, and to Papua New Guinea in 1956. The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea was formed in December 2011.

In 1990 Pope John Paul II declared Catherine Venerable in recognition of her heroic virtues.

The sisters in Queensland

Vincent WhittyEllen Whitty 1819–1892

One of the sisters Catherine McAuley initiated into religious life was Ellen Whitty, a young woman who proved to be an able administrator and who was to become the founder of the Brisbane, Rockhampton, and Townsville congregations of the Sisters of Mercy. On profession, Ellen Whitty took the name Mary Vincent Whitty and is best known as Mother Vincent.

Before coming to the infant colony of Queensland in 1861 at the invitation of Bishop James Quinn, Mother Vincent had been involved in planning the first Mater Misericordiae hospital in Dublin, an experience she put to good use in her new home.

Together with five pioneering sisters, Mother Vincent formed the first female religious congregation in the sprawling diocese of Queensland where there was a large and struggling Irish immigrant population. These few women wasted no time. They visited the poor in their homes and prisoners in jail, cared for under-nourished children who had nowhere to stay, and, in the year of their arrival, established All Hallows' School, the first secondary school for girls in the colony.

Sisters of Mercy Congregation in Townsville, 1901

The first Sisters of Mercy Congregation in Townsville, 1901

Over the next 30 years, Mother Vincent went on to establish branch houses, institutions, and schools across the colony from Townsville in the north to Stanthorpe in the south and westward to Roma. Her vision was to show the mercy of God to all those in need, regardless of class, race, or faith. When she died in Brisbane in 1892, there were more than 200 sisters in Queensland, working in 26 schools serving 7000 students, and caring for 200 children in welfare institutions.

Wherever they went, the sisters followed a 'Mercy pattern' of ministry: engaging at first in education and community services, and then moving also into health ministries. The first hospital was established in Brisbane in 1906, followed by one in Rockhampton in 1915, and one in Townsville in 1945. All three hospitals also provided care for the aged.

In 1955, the sisters of the Brisbane congregation established McAuley College as a teacher training college for their sisters and other religious of Queenland. Since 1990, McAuley College has been part of the Brisbane campus of the Australian Catholic University.

Mercy charism

The Venerable Catherine McAuley placed the community she founded under the patronage of Our Lady of Mercy because Mary is the one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God's mercy. Catherine sought to bring the mercy of God to the poor, sick, and ignorant of her time.

Read more about the Sisters of Mercy worldwide.

Involvement of lay people

As the sisters' ministries developed, some grew into very large organisations that required the establishment of boards to assist the sisters. The boards have attracted many dedicated lay people who feel called to serve in this particular way.

The nature of these boards has changed over the years. Some are now incorporated companies in civil law. The congregations have needed to provide adequate in-service for board members so that they understand their responsibilities for mission as well as for business.

Mercy Partners ministries All Hallows' School, Mater Misericordiae, Mater Health Services North Queensland, Mercy Health and Aged Care Central Queensland, Mercy Community Services SEQ, Mercy Community Services North Queensland and St Patrick's College Townsville were founded by the Queensland Sisters of Mercy congregations.

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