Catherine McAuley

Irish Origins: Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

The Sisters of Mercy are a group of religious women devoted to apostolic work within the Catholic Church. They were founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, an Irish heiress who felt called to respond to the needs of the poor in her native city.

Catherine McAuley

Born in 1778, Catherine grew up in Ireland at a time when Catholics were considered vulgar, there were few priests and no religious schools for Catholic children. Church bells and steeples were banned and the Church did not even hold title to its own cathedrals. Poverty was a significant issue, accentuated by the lack of education and training options for the poor. There was little tolerance for the practice of Catholicism, and Catherine’s limited religious education and lack of support meant that she was often put to the test. In this environment however, Catherine’s faith held strong and true.

Catherine was orphaned during her teens and eventually became the live-in companion of William and Catherine Callaghan. This was the beginning of a twenty-year association with the Callaghans, a time of learning and deepening conviction, and a time for the power of mercy to shape and dominate her life. The Callaghans gave financial support to Catherine’s charitable works that included religious instruction and the education for the poor, and later left their entire estate (the modern equivalent of £1,000,000) to her. It was with these funds that she was able to improve the living conditions of many women and children through the education of the poor, the visitation of the sick, the training of young women, and the protection of distressed women of good character. Other women joined her in these works of mercy and the history of the Sisters of Mercy began.

Asked about the beginnings of the Congregation, Catherine offered this simple explanation:

It commenced with 2, Sister Doyle and I. The plan from the beginning was such as is now in practice. In ’27 the House was opened. In a year and a half we were joined so fast that it became a matter of general wonder… Seeing us increase so rapidly, and all going on in the greatest order almost of itself, great anxiety was expressed to give it stability. We who began were prepared to do whatever was recommended and in September 1830 we went with dear Sister Harley to George’s Hill to serve a novitiate for the purpose of firmly establishing it. In December ’31 we returned and the progress has gone on as you know.

Letter to Sister Elizabeth Moore, January 13, 1839.
Audio supplied by Mr Tim Sherlock and Sister Mary Angela Johnson rsm.


Catherine’s Tomb, Baggot Street, Dublin

The Constitution of the Sisters of Mercy was approved by Rome on 5 July 1841 and the Congregation, dedicated to the service of the poor, sick and uneducated, spread rapidly throughout the English-speaking world. In April 1990, Pope John Paul II declared Catherine McAuley Venerable – completing one stage of the process by which the Catholic Church defines sainthood.

A published compilation of The Works of Mercy is now available for purchase in our online store.