Origins Of The Mercy Congregation
On December 12th 1831 Catherine McAuley, Mary Anne Doyle and Mary Elizabeth Harley made vows as Sisters of Mercy thus founding the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. Catherine asked for two qualities in those who wished to join her ‘Mercy Family’; they were ‘a desire to be united with God and a profound love for the poor and a particular interest for the sick and dying’.
In 1832 a cholera epidemic hit Dublin and Catherine agreed that the Sisters would staff a cholera hospital in Townsend Street despite the fact that Elizabeth Harley died of consumption in April 1832, just four months after making her profession. Catherine lived out of the belief that ‘the poor need help today, not next week’. In the first few years many of the people who had became sisters died of consumption. This concerned Catherine and led her to acquire a house in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) where sisters who were in ill health could go to recuperate. This was the only house she founded out of concern for the sisters.
Spread Of The Congregation
The story of Catherine and her sisters spread and almost immediately requests came from around the country and from abroad asking Catherine to establish Mercy houses to respond to local needs. Within fifteen years three thousand women were working as Mercy Sisters across Ireland as well as in several places in England, Scotland, the US, Australia and Newfoundland. When Catherine was asked to set up a foundation in a place her approach was to identify a group of sisters who would take on this new place as an independent development. She would accompany the group as they set out and would remain with them, usually for a month, then she would return to Baggot Street and leave them to carry on the work as they saw fit.
In turn these independent foundations received requests to establish foundations in other places and so during Catherine’s lifetime the foundation she had established in Carlow in 1836 had itself established other independent foundations in Naas, Co Kildare in 1839 and in Wexford in 1840. Over the years Mercy foundations arose across the country and abroad, some coming directly from Baggot Street and many coming from other independent foundations. The pattern also became more complex as on some occasions foundations would be independent while on other occasions they remained directly associated with the founding house. These decisions were often based on practical considerations of distance and the challenges of travel at the time.
Evolution Of The Organisation
Because of a close connection with the local bishop, over time groups of sisters involving a number of locations, tended to be based within the same diocese. Indeed by the 1970s some dioceses had a number of groupings of Mercy Sisters. At that time, in the light of the Vatican Council, where there were a number of groups of sisters in a diocese they came together in one group through a process known as diocesan amalgamation. After diocesan amalgamation Killaloe Mercy established two houses in Kenya in 1980 and 1989 and Cashel Mercy established a house in Brazil.
Catherine saw care for people who were sick and education for people who had no access to education as the primary concerns of the sisters. Over the years they went on to be involved in all aspects of healthcare and education as is evidenced by the many Mercy healthcare and educational establishments across the world. Since the 1970s in particular, in response to changes in society and what were perceived as changing demands sisters in Ireland moved into other work such as social work, justice work, community development. The range and nature of that work has developed and expanded over time. Side by side with these changes came other changes like moving to live in small groups in housing estates and in some instances moving out of the large convents completely.
In July 1994 the structure of the congregation in Ireland changed again. Following much reflection, discussion and consideration over many years all of the Mercy Sisters in Ireland, together with the people they had working abroad at that time and the Mercy Sisters in South Africa came together to form one unit called The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Ireland & South Africa. The members choose to organise the newly formed Congregation into seven provinces; four in Ireland and one each in South Africa the US, and Kenya.