In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Sisters of Mercy

Text contributions from Ian Saxine, MHS Historian.
Items courtesy of Mercy Hospital

Mary Catherine McAuley

Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy
Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy

The story of Mercy Hospital has its origins in Ireland, where its founding order began in the early nineteenth century. Like the hospital which bears their name, the Sisters of Mercy made it their mission to serve the most vulnerable members of society.

Currently the largest organization of religious women in the English-speaking world, and found in more than 40 countries serving in a multitude of ministries, the Sisters of Mercy trace their origins to Mary Catherine McAuley (1778-1841) of Dublin. McAuley grew up in unusual circumstances, as the daughter of a middle class Irish Catholic family. (In British-ruled Ireland at the time, Protestants dominated the upper classes and monopolized virtually all of the land.) Mary Catherine McAuley, noted both for her faith, practical nature, and her devotion to service, used an unexpected inheritance to build a House of Mercy to care for homeless women and children in Dublin, which opened in 1827.

She invited her many female friends and acquaintances – Catholic and Protestant – to assist her to educate young children and girls, visit the poor and care for the sick in their homes, as well as to train low income women as domestic servants and find local employment opportunities for them among their neighbors. Some volunteered for a few hours at a time; others more frequently, while some lived at the House of Mercy on Baggot Street, Dublin.

Establishing the Sisters of Mercy

By 1830, church officials were strongly encouraging Catherine McAuley to stabilize the work force and the important work by forming a religious institute. Although she had no prior intention of founding a religious community, Catherine and two companions took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and an additional vow of service on December 12, 1831, establishing the Sisters of Mercy. In 1837, the following was added to their public vows: “and the care of the poor, the sick, and the ignorant.”

In addition, the “Mercy Rule” which was soon approved by Rome, gave the original Sisters the freedom to go wherever the poor, sick, and uneducated needed help. Residents of Dublin soon grew accustomed to seeing the sisters carrying out their vows in their midst, and dubbed them the “walking nuns.” Their insistence on being a community free to respond to need, inspired and enabled the Sisters of Mercy in Portland, Maine to respond to the severe health crisis of 1918.

Asked about what qualifications there should be for a Sister of Mercy, McAuley answered “she must feel a particular interest for the sick and the dying; otherwise the duty of visiting them would soon become exceedingly toilsome.”

The Order Spreads

The Sisters of Mercy faced their first test during the 1832 Cholera epidemic. Poorly understood at the time, the disease rampaged through the crowded streets of Dublin that year, at one point claiming 600 lives per day. The spread of the epidemic was eventually contained. But the spread of the order had just begun.

Beginning at The House of Mercy (later named St. Catherine’s Convent), the Sisters of Mercy quickly spread across Ireland and Great Britain. Although Mother McAuley lived only 10 years after becoming a Sister, she opened fourteen other missions and oversaw 100 women take vows. Her strong faith in God, and her trust in the leadership potential, faith, and creativity of the women who joined her, bore great results in the Mercy world.

Sister Annunciata, Portland, ca. 1940
Sister Annunciata, Portland, ca. 1940
Northern Light Mercy Hospital

When Mother McAuley responded to American bishops’ requests for Sisters, she selected her dearest friend and companion, Sister Frances Xavier Warde, to bring the Mercy community to the United States. Another intrepid leader, she established the first foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1843. Over the next 41 years the Sisters started nearly 100 foundations throughout the U.S. In 1865, Warde and six Sisters of Mercy arrived in Bangor, Maine where they opened a school that later became Saint John School. In 1873, Bishop David Bacon invited them to Portland to teach and care for orphans. From these locations, the Maine Mercy community spread and established numerous educational, pastoral, and social services, along with healthcare institutions, and a mission in the Bahamas

A Legacy of Charity

In one of her final moments, Mother Catherine McAuley said that “My legacy to the Institute [of mercy] is charity.” She was correct. By the time she died, she left behind a vibrant organization with a legacy of a distinctive Mercy service to those poor, sick, and uneducated. Recognizing her great contribution both to the Catholic Church and to the greater global community served by the Sisters, Pope John Paul II conferred the honorific “Venerable” to Mother McAuley’s title. That is a stage on the path to canonization for sainthood, eagerly awaited by her Sisters and all who love Mercy.