The Life of Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

If you’ve read my novella, Consequences, or even just the back cover copy, you’ll notice it takes place during the life of Catherine McAuley, a woman most people, especially outside of Ireland, have never heard of.

I found out about her nearly 18 years ago when I started working at my current day job. We can trace our history directly back to Catherine and her ministry. Here’s a brief summary of her life and if you want more details, I recommend the definitive biography of by Mary Sullivan titled The Path of Mercy.

Early Life and Culture

No images of Catherine McAuley exist from her lifetime. This is believed to be the most accurate depiction of her as a laywoman.

Catherine was born on September 28, 1778, into comfortable, middle-class circumstances. But at an early age she began to notice the poor and disadvantaged who were all around her on the streets of Dublin. Crop failures destroyed the agricultural economy and caused terrible famines. Desperate people migrated to the cities to work in factories, where they suffered horrifying working conditions, and those without work often ended up in poorhouses.

It was a time of extremes in Ireland. Social and religious prejudice was pervasive, especially against Catholics like Catherine. The ruling class was Protestant and education was available only to those with property and land, both of which most Catholics did not have thanks to earlier Penal Laws (more on those in a future post) that stripped Catholics of most of their rights. Wealth and poverty sat side by side but there were few resources available to help the poor.

Catherine felt great sorrow when she observed the suffering of the poor, especially disadvantaged women and children. As a girl, her own situation offered her many comforts, although after the death of her father Catherine’s family suffered economic hardships.  She felt called to change the environment in which she found herself and found supporters among both Catholic and Protestant connections.

Catherine’s Life Changes

The House of Mercy with a statue of Catherine out front.

When she was 25, Catherine was invited to live with a Quaker family, the Callaghans, at their country estate, Coolock House. She stayed with them for nearly 20 years, never marrying and taking care of them into their old age. At the age of 44, after having already created a network of services for poor people near Coolock, Catherine received a large inheritance when the Callaghans died within a short time of one another.

With that money she built a large home on Baggot Street in Dublin, bordering a fashionable neighborhood, to serve as a shelter and educational center for young women from poor neighborhoods. Skeptics called the house “Kitty’s Folly,” because her intentions were so daunting. On September 24, 1827, she opened the House of Mercy house on Baggot Street, where it stands today.

The Sisters of Mercy

A painting of Catherine made after her death depicting her as a Sister of Mercy.

The purpose of the House of Mercy was to prepare residents, nearly all women and children, for employment, self-sufficiency. Catherine’s determination and example attracted companions willing to give their time and money to help, but the Church didn’t like that they were lay women and insisted they form a religious order. In 1831, these women became the religious congregation known as the Sisters of Mercy, called “the walking sisters” because of their active involvement among the community.  Thus, in an era when the cloistered life was the norm for women in religious congregations, Catherine McCauley, at the age of 52, founded not only a charity, but also a religious congregation and a new form of religious life.

Catherine McAuley believed that God intended for the poor and the sick to be loved and cared for through action, prayer and philanthropy.  She never wavered from that mission in spite of the difficulties she faced. The Sisters of Mercy fought tuberculosis, cholera epidemics and the ravages of disease, prejudice and poverty. Terrible economic conditions forced many Irish to immigrate to other countries, and the Sisters extended their mission accordingly. The community expanded to 14 locations in Ireland and England before Catherine’s death in 1841.

Today the Sisters of Mercy sponsor a diverse range of ministries and professions.  Their mission is to serve the poor, the sick, and the uneducated through direct service, especially for women, children and the elderly, and to advocate for changes to the systems that create poverty and suffering.

Virtue Recognized by the Catholic Church
On April 9, 1990, Catherine was declared venerable by the Catholic Church. This is the first major step on the road to sainthood and means that her life and writings were closely examined and she was found to possess “heroic virtue.” Additional inquiries into her life will continue until two miracles are declared as occurring by her intercession, at which point she will become a saint. This could take hundreds of years, especially with advances in science making miracles more and more difficult to prove. (The process is much more complex than this, but this is the nutshell version.)

One thought on “The Life of Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

  1. Thank you for posting, Nikki! It is a wonderful summary of why I found Mercy a place I wanted to complete my career. As a life-long Protestant/Presbyterian, I have nonetheless found inspiring the tradition of the Mercies and Catherine’s revolutionary approach to providing compassion and care, something our world surely needs more than ever.

Leave a Reply