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Our History

Killala Diocese

The story of the Mercy Order in Ballina is one of which we are very proud. It is a story of difficulties overcome, of challenges faced, of sufferings endured. It is also a story of magnificent achievements.

The Coming of the Sisters to Ballina

Mail coach with sisters

Mail coach with sisters from Sligo going to Ballina
to open a new foundation (Sr M. Canice)

On the 14th of October 1851 the horse-drawn mail coach from Sligo drew up in Pearse St. Ballina. Among the passengers who alighted were six members of the Mercy Order from Sligo, three professed Sisters, two Novices and one Postulant. They were met and welcomed by Rev. Patrick Malone, the Administrator of the Cathedral in Ballina. He had requested Sisters to come and work among the people and help to educate the children. At that time Ballina was a declining town, the population had dropped from 7,000 to 5,000 people, the result of famine, emigration and fever. Many people lived in very poor conditions.

The Sisters lived in Pearse St. in an unfurnished house and later they moved to Primrose hill on the outskirts of the town, where they lived for four years. They visited the homes and gave instruction to children and others. On November 21st, the two novices were professed in the Cathedral in the presence of Bishop Feeney. At the ceremony, a collection was taken up to help defray expense of furnishing the Sisters' house. In December of 1851 the principal teacher of the Girls' School in the town retired and the sisters were given charge of the school in Teeling St. which up to 40 years ago was the only Boys' school in the town. In the early years, the Convent still operated as a branch of Sligo but on September 8th 1854 it became independent with Sr. Paul Dillon from Sligo as Superior. She is remembered as the foundress of the Ballina Community.

By 1855 the Community had grown to eight members, including four postulants. The house was inadequate, so the Sisters moved to two houses in Teeling St. near the school and they paid 46 pounds a year taxes as well as money spent renovating them. They suffered great poverty and many became ill and died as young Sisters as the cemetery bears witness. But their very poverty made them close to the people they served, for in many ways they shared the common lot with them.

We can only marvel at the work these women did in such hard times and in uncomfortable circumstances, with meagre resources. Within a few years of coming to Ballina, they were teaching in three schools and visiting the poor of the parish every day bringing them food and support. In 1862 Rev. Patrick Irwin became Administrator of the Cathedral in Ballina and he took an immediate interest in the Mercy Sisters. He saw the great need they had of proper accommodation and so he set about providing a convent for them. He obtained a 999 year lease on the ground where the convent now stands and work began on the building. On September 13th Bishop Feeney laid the foundation stone. Funds were collected in Ballina and surrounding parishes. Four years later work was sufficiently advanced to allow the Sisters take up residence in the completed part and so on May 31st 1867 the Sisters walked up Upper Garden St. or Convent hill as it was to be called, to their new home.

The Convent, Ballina

The Convent, Ballina

The Convent cost 20,000 pounds, which was a huge sum of money. In 1873, the new Bishop Dr. Conway allowed Fr. Irwin to go to America to raise funds for the convent. He was very successful in this and he raised enough money to complete the front wing of the convent. However, he overstayed his leave and when he returned he found that his parish had been given to another priest. The Mercy Sisters remember Fr. Irwin with gratitude. A framed picture of him hangs in the Convent parlour and he is remembered in prayer.

Stained glass

When the north wing of the convent was completed, a Boarding school for girls was started which attracted many pupils from the surrounding area. By 1880 this school had been altered to a day school which became the present St. Mary's and it has grown from strength to strength. To-day it has over 700 pupils. More fundraising was done and money was borrowed so that another school - a primary school was opened for girls and boys in 1885. However, probably due to increase in numbers, the Sisters returned to the old school in Teeling St. in 1907 with the infant boys and they remained there until the present infant schools were built in 1939.

The work of the Sisters in Ballina was not confined to educating the young. From the start they visited the poor in their homes and assisted them in every way they could. Two of the Sisters visited the Workhouse every Sunday giving religious instruction and praying with the people.

The Workhouse

The Poor Relief Act of 1838 brought the recently established Workhouse System to Ireland from England. A site of 8 acres 15 square perches was acquired at a cost of 716 pounds 9 shillings and 9 pence and work was begun on a new workhouse to accommodate 1,200 people. It was opened in 1839 before the famine. It was the fifth largest in the country, an indication of how the authorities saw the poverty of the area. Originally, it catered for all North Mayo and West Sligo. Two more workhouses were built, one in Dromore West in Co. Sligo and the other in Belmullet in West Mayo. Conditions in these workhouses were dreadful, both basic and disagreeable. But poverty and disease were endemic in the population and so there were always clients clamouring for admittance. During the famine years it was so overcrowded that an extra workhouse had to be opened in Ardnaree. At the start, victims of fever were housed in the same building as other patients, a practice which spread infection. So in 1870 a separate fever hospital was built in the grounds of the workhouse where cholera victims were treated. The Staff in the hospital consisted of just one paid nurse who was assisted by inmates or paupers who had no other employment. Since the salary offered to the nurse was very low and because of the prevailing conditions in the workhouse, few nurses were interested in getting employment there. Remuneration in terms of salary or plain money was not a determining factor in the Sisters accepting invitations to serve in whatever capacity they could. It was sufficient for them that there was opportunity to be MERCY. In 1902 the nurse on the staff resigned and the Guardians of the Workhouse asked for two Sisters of Mercy to take charge. Sr. Michael McNama and Sr. Brendan McHale went for training to Loughrea and to Waterford where there were established hospitals. In 1905 they took up duty in Ballina fever Hospital. Later Sr. Columba Neville was assigned to the kitchen. By 1908 the Visiting Committee's Report on the hospital was very different from preceding ones. It stated "The Sisters working under desperate difficulties have raised it to the status of a first class Hospital".


Between 1906 and 1909 major reviews of the Poor Laws were undertaken by the government and so the abolition of the Workhouse System was recommended, and their replacement by County Homes, County Hospitals and District Hospitals. In 1921 all the inmates in the Workhouse were transferred to the County Home in Castlebar. The Workhouse became a military barracks and the infirmary became a district hospital. Both were demolished in the early 1930s and St. Joseph's Hospital was built on its site in 1936.

St Joseph's Hospital

Stained glass The Hospital has since served the Ballina area very well with its excellent Staff under the directorship of Mercy Sisters to this day. It provides a wonderful service for the people of Ballina and the surrounding area through the various clinics, X-Ray Departments, Speech Therapy, Physiotherapy, Psychiatric unit and a Hospice Unit for Palliative Care.

Physiotherapy Department in the hospital

St Augustine's Community and Nursing Unit

Down the road on the banks of the winding river Moy stands a modern Nursing Unit and Day Care facility for older people.

It is also of under the directorship of a Sister of Mercy. An extract from its Philosophy of Care states - "Our aim is to provide quality care in a comfortable stimulating and home-like environment where Residents' privacy and independence is respected, their dignity is valued, and their rights are upheld.


Residents enjoy artwork


Stained glass

The great work the Sisters were doing in Ballina was soon recognised and their services were in demand for other parishes. In 1804, the Parish Priest of Binghamstown, where the Belmullet workhouse was built asked for Sisters to take charge of the workhouse and the workhouse school. In 1894, three Sisters took up residence in Belmullet, Sr. Benignus as teacher, Sr. Assisi as matron and Sr. Vincent as housekeeper. As well as improving conditions each day in the workhouse, these Sisters did heroic work during the 1918 'flu epidemic, risking their own lives to look after those who were infected. At the abolition of the Workhouse System in 1921 the inmates were removed to Castlebar and the Sisters opened a school. But during the Civil War in 1922 the army occupied the main building so in 1923 the Sisters were recalled to Ballina. Fortunately they took with them the Stained Glass Window, the Chalice and the Crucifix from the Workhouse Chapel for safe keeping. In 1974 the Stained Glass Window was inserted into the window in Aras Deirbhle - a Community Nursing Unit, where it remains to day, a treasured reminder of the faith and culture of a suffering people.

CRUCIFIX (The Crucifix from the Workhouse)

In 1924, the Sisters rented a house in Logmore from Mr. Carter, with a view to the Sisters returning to the hospital but that did not materialize. Instead, they started a Commercial and Music School and later a private Junior School which later became a Secondary school, which is very successful to the present day.

Logmore House

The First Convent - Logmore House


There was also a branch established in Ballycastle in 1914 when Sisters went to reside in the old Coastguard Station.

Sisters taught in the Primary school in town one mile away and in 1962 a Secondary school - Stella Maris was opened. It operated for 38 years. It was never envisaged that Stella Maris would become a large school, even though it served a large catchment area. And how well it served that area! Today its past pupils are to be found in all professions all over the world.

Costguard's House

Coastguard's House, Ballycastle (Sr M. Canice)


Carrowcullen House, Skreen Convent

In 1921 Sisters went to live in Skreen in Co. Sligo. They started a Commercial school and one Sister taught in the Primary school. Later a Sister did community work among the people. That Convent is now closed, it was made available to Monks from America - the Spiritual Life Institute in 1993, and now a number of hermitages dot the beautiful landscape there.

San Diego

In 1969, in their first Mission outside Ireland, four Sisters were missioned to San Diego in beautiful California, to administer and partly staff a parish Grade School from which Dominican Sisters were withdrawn. Mercy Sisters are still on the staff of that school.

Other Individual Sisters Who Carried Mercy Afar

In the 60s the parish of Ballina initiated Traveller education. Traveller children were picked up from the bogs and lane-ways and they were taken to evening classes in the Town hall and later in the Boys' School. The Sisters were invited to get involved in this work which they did for years. When more Travellers enrolled in the two local schools run by the Brothers and Sisters, this after-school programme discontinued. Traveller education is steadily progressing both at Primary, Post-Primary and Third Level.

To-day on the site of the Convent farmyard and using the converted farmyard sheds, stands a workshop for disadvantaged youth and travellers in the area, which is St Catherine's. This was planned and organized by Sr. Mary Gallagher, working with the National Association for Traveller Centres in 1984. This workshop is still flourishing and now it has spaces for thirty participants.

Sister M. Aquinas was one of the founding members of the community centre in Ballina in 1970. Here people were welcome to call in, rest and relax, play cards and enjoy food. The Community Centre is still in operation and Sisters of Mercy volunteer various services. Later, she helped establish a Wheel-chair Hostel in Cowleyville, Ballina. When the accommodation there was no longer adequate, she and the Committee purchased a site and they built a magnificent residence for wheel-chair users known as Emmanuel House. Later, they added a few semi-detached houses for seniors on the same grounds. The hostel is now run jointly by the Committee and the Cheshire Foundation.

Sr. Aquinas then turned her compassionate heart to people with Aids virus. She travelled to Boston where she worked for some time. In 1994 she volunteered her services for a short while in an orphanage in Romania. Finally, she joined the Diocesan Mission to Brazil and after much loving work, she became suddenly ill and she died there among the people she truly loved, and who loved her equally well.

In 1984 Sr. Mary Heffernan volunteered to go to Hafnarjurdur, Iceland as an experienced nurse, mid-wife and radiographer. She remained there for eleven months. In 1986 she answered a call to share all her wonderful skills in famine-stricken ETHIOPIA. There she developed Mother and Child Health Care Programmes. She held clinics in several outpost stations. She nursed the ill back to health and she became all things to all people in need, between 1986 and 2000. Sadly she died suddenly in her native Ballina in 2002.

Since becoming a Province, two former Killala Mercies - Sr M. Loreto Burns and Sr Maureen Kelly have become missionaries in foreign lands, - Loreto in Kenya and Maureen in Peru. Both are excited about their new, though difficult experiences.

And yes! The Mercy Apostolate to Killala Diocese continues to the present day, through prayer, pastoral care, lay associates, visitation, social work, community work, nursing, cooking, housekeeping, education, instruction, receptionist duties and volunteer work. The Lord continues to write straight with crooked lines!

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