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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Margaret Aylward, Founder of the Sisters of the Holy Faith

Margaret Louisa Aylward, Roman Catholic nun, philanthropist, and founder of the Sisters of the Holy Faith, is born to a wealthy merchant family on November 23, 1810 in Thomas Street in Waterford, County Waterford.

Aylward is educated by the Ursuline nuns in Thurles, County Tipperary. After doing some charitable work in Waterford in her early years, she joins her sister in the Sisters of Charity in 1834 as a novice. She leaves the novitiate in 1836 and returns to Waterford to continue her charity work in a secular role. She again attempts to join a religious order in 1846 when she enters the Ursuline novitiate in Waterford, however she leaves after two months.

By 1851, Aylward has moved to Dublin where she is active in re-energising the Ladies’ Association of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Great Famine leads to a large-scale movement of people from rural areas into cities, including Dublin, which leads to increased pressure on the charitable institutions of these areas. Her efforts are part of this wider charitable effort to help the poor, particularly Catholics who are seen to be at risk of coercive religious conversion (known as Souperism). This association is concerned with the “temporal as well as the spiritual relief of the sick poor in Dublin.”

The Ladies’ Association of St. Vincent de Paul opens St. Brigid’s in 1856, an orphanage which has an anti-proselytising mission and claims to rescue Catholic children from Protestant agencies. The Ladies’ Association often comes into dispute with those involved in the Irish Church Missions (ICM) and the ragged schools in Dublin, with members of the Ladies’ Association distributing crucifixes to children attending the Protestant-run ragged schools and visiting the homes of parents who send their children to them. The women involved in St. Brigid’s Orphanage organise themselves into a society called the Daughters of St. Brigid. However, while the establishment of St. Brigid’s brings Aylward closer to religious orders, historian Maria Luddy notes that in the 1850s, she is not concerned with the establishment of a religious community, rather she wants to “live in a community of women who were united by their religious convictions but did not necessarily desire to take formal religious vows.”

There is a growth in religious orders for women in Ireland from the early nineteenth century due to a relaxing of anti-Catholic Penal Laws. These include the Irish Sisters of Charity who are established in 1815 under Mary Aikenhead, the Sisters of Loreto order (1822) under Frances Ball, and Catherine McAuley‘s Sisters of Mercy (1831). Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin is an important figure in persuading leaders of religious communities of women, like Catherine McAuley, to formally organise as religious congregations in order to continue their charitable work and be respectable. While Aylward is resistant to this idea for a while, she eventually agrees. In 1857 the Sisters of the Holy Faith are established, and in 1869 the order are approved by Pope Pius IX.

Aylward is arrested in 1860 for “failing to produce a child named Mary Matthews, who had been taken away and concealed from her parents for the purpose of being brought up in the Roman Catholic faith.” Matthews had been placed with a nurse in Saggart, County Dublin, when her father had died and her mother had emigrated to The Bahamas. When her mother returns, Aylward is notified by Matthews’ foster mother that she is missing. Aylward is acquitted of the charge of kidnapping but is found to be in contempt of court and serves six months in jail. She continues her work after her release.

Aylward (now Sister Mary Agatha) dies on October 11, 1889. She had continued wearing her own clothes and travelling after taking her religious vows.

Historian Margaret Helen Preston argues that Aylward is unusual for the time that she lives in because she does not believe that poverty results from sin. Aylward refers to the poor as the “Elect of God” and argues that God sees the poor as special because of their difficult circumstances.

The Sisters of the Holy Faith still work around the world.


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Death of Sister Catherine McAuley, Founder of the Sisters of Mercy

Catherine Elizabeth McAuley, Irish religious sister who founds the Sisters of Mercy in 1831, dies in Dublin on November 11, 1841. The Sisters of Mercy has always been associated with teaching, especially in Ireland, where the sisters teach Catholics, and at times Protestants, at a time when education is mainly reserved for members of the established Church of Ireland.

McAuley is born on September 29, 1778, at Stormestown House in Dublin to James and Elinor (née Conway) McAuley. Her father dies in 1783 when she is five and her mother dies in 1798. She first goes to live with a maternal uncle, Owen Conway, and later joins her brother James and sister Mary at the home of William Armstrong, a Protestant relative on her mother’s side. In 1803, she becomes the household manager and companion of William and Catherine Callaghan, an elderly, childless, and wealthy Protestant couple and friends of the Armstrongs, at their estate in Coolock, a village northeast of Dublin. For 20 years she gives catechetical instruction to the household servants and the poor village children. Catherine Callaghan, who is raised in the Quaker tradition, dies in 1819. When William Callaghan dies in 1822, McAuley becomes the sole residuary legatee of their estate.

McAuley inherits a considerable fortune and chooses to use it to build a house where she and other compassionate women can take in homeless women and children to provide care and education for them. A location is selected at the junction of Lower Baggot Street and Herbert Street in Dublin, and in June 1824, the cornerstone is laid by the Rev. Dr Blake. As it is being refurbished, she studies current educational methods in preparation for her new endeavour. On the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, September 24, 1827, the new institution for destitute women, orphans, and schools for the poor is opened and McAuley, with two companions, undertake its management.

For three years, McAuley and her companions continue their work as lay women. She never intends to found a community of religious women. Her initial intention is to assemble a lay corps of Catholic social workers. In 1828 Archbishop of Dublin Daniel Murray permits the staff of the institute to assume a distinctive dress and to publicly visit the sick. The uniform adopted is a black dress and cape of the same material reaching to the belt, a white collar and a lace cap and veil – such a costume as is now worn by the postulants of the congregation. In the same year the archbishop desires McAuley to choose some name by which the little community might be known, and she chooses that of “Sisters of Mercy,” having the design of making the works of mercy the distinctive feature of the institute.

McAuley is desirous that the members should combine with the silence and prayer of the Carmelites, with the active labours of a Sister of Charity. The position of the institute is anomalous, its members are not bound by vows nor are they restrained by rules. The clergy and people of the church of the time, however, are not supportive of groups of laywomen working independently of church structures. The main concern is for the stability and continuity of the works of mercy which the women had taken on. Should any of them get married or lose interest, the poor and the orphans whom they are caring for would then be at a loss.

McAuley’s clerical mentor urges her to form a religious institute. Along with two other women, Mary Ann Doyle and Mary Elizabeth Harley, she enters the novitiate of the Presentation Sisters to formally prepare for life as women religious in September 1830. On December 12, 1831 they profess vows and return to the House of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy consider December 12, 1831 as the day of their founding as a religious community. Archbishop Murray assists McAuley in founding the Sisters of Mercy, and professes the first three members. He then appoints her Mother Superior.

Between 1831 and 1841 McAuley founds additional Convents in Tullamore, Charleville, Cork, Carlow, Galway, Limerick, Birr, Bermondsey and Birmingham and branch houses in Kingstown and Booterstown. A cholera epidemic hits Dublin in 1832, and she agrees to staff a cholera hospital on Townsend Street.

The rule of the Sisters of Mercy is formally confirmed by Pope Gregory XVI on June 6, 1841. McAuley lives only ten years as a Sister of Mercy, Sister Mary Catherine.

McAuley dies of tuberculosis at the age of sixty-three on November 11, 1841 at Baggot Street. She is buried at Baggot Street Cemetery. At the time of her death, there are 100 Sisters of Mercy in ten foundations. Shortly thereafter, small groups of sisters leave Ireland to establish new foundations on the east and west coasts of the United States, in Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina.

Total worldwide membership consists of about 5,500 Sisters of Mercy, 5,000 Associates, and close to half a million partners in ministry. The Mercy International Centre in Dublin is the international “home” of Mercy worldwide and the mercyworld.org website is the virtual home.

In 1978, the cause for the beatification of the Servant of God Catherine McAuley is opened by Pope Paul VI. In 1990, upon recognition of her heroic virtues, Pope John Paul II declares her Venerable.