When my book, Catherine’s Mercy, comes out next June, you’ll meet a fictionalized version of Anna Maria (or Marie) Doyle. She was one of Catherine McAuley’s closest friends and a main character in the book. September 24 is Mercy Day, the 195th anniversary of the opening of the first House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827. That is why I’ve chosen to share Anna Maria’s true story below. Hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I did!
Anna Maria Doyle was born in Dublin on August 6, 1801, to James and Catherine Doyle. She was the second youngest child of six, two of whom didn’t survive childhood. The Doyles were a respectable Catholic family. James was a merchant tailor, meaning he bought cloth (silk) in addition to tailoring garments. When the Act of Union was passed in 1801, abolishing the Irish Parliament and joining Ireland to the United Kingdom, it allowed the rise of Protestantism among the upper classes and many Catholic businesses suffered, including the Doyles.
We know very little about Anna Maria’s youth, other than she was said to be “distinguished from childhood for sweetness of disposition and tender piety.” Anna Maria’s parents sent their sons to the best schools possible, and Anna was clearly an educated woman, so her biographers speculate that she may have been sent to school in France, for she was fluent in the language and later translated many French prayers for the Sisters of Mercy.
Anna Maria was apparently a beautiful woman, for “she was much sought after” by the wealthy men of Dublin “and harassed with proposals of marriage.” Because of their financial misfortunes since the Act of Union, her parents pressed her accept one, but Anna Maria couldn’t shake an inner calling to religious life. Like Catherine McAuley, she longed to do something to alleviate the suffering she saw in the streets of Dublin. She planned to become a Presentation Sister like her biological sister Catherine had, but she was the only child left at home and her parents were growing old, so she didn’t feel right leaving them.
It is said that when Anna Maria Doyle first saw the House of Mercy being constructed on Baggot Street, she “remarked the building with indescribable attraction.” The man in charge noticed her delight and offered to give her a tour and told her what it’s purpose was. She began to have renewed hope; Catherine’s lay ministry to the poor would allow her to fulfil her dream and tend to her parents as well.
In the spring of 1827, Anna called upon Catherine at her home, the residence of her sister, Mary, and brother-in-law, William McAuley. They lived in a house on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, just outside of downtown Dublin. There are no records of what was said between the two women, but their first meeting must have gone very well, for Anna Maria later said that from the beginning “we were very much pleased with each other.” Catherine remarked that she “believed Miss Doyle sent by heaven.” When pressed for details, Catherine only replied, “it commenced with two.”
Anna’s joy was short-lived, however, because only a few weeks later, her sister, Catherine, only 33, died of consumption in the Presentation convent in Killarney. Only six months earlier, they had lost her brother, James, and now this. She and her brother, John, an artist In London, were now the only remaining Doyle children.
While Anna was grieving the death of her sister, so too was Catherine McAuley, who lost her dear sister Mary. It appears the two were some consolation to one another, and Anna Maria was a great help to Catherine in tending to the final touches regarding the House on Baggot Street. At the time, Catherine was weighed down by taking care of her five nieces and nephews, whom she semi-adopted upon Mary’s death, tending them while their father worked. Meanwhile, the Superioress of the Presentation convent offered Anna Maria her sisters’ place there, but meeting Catherine had changed Anna Maria’s mind. She was more determined than ever to help Catherine in her ministry.
Seeing Catherine’s need, Anna Maria inquired of Catherine when she might begin working at the House of Mercy. Catherine wrote her back that the House would open on September 24, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Catherine Byrn, the 15-year-old daughter of Catherine McAuley’s cousin, Anne, whom Catherine had adopted when her mother died five years previous, was appointed as Anna Maria’s assistant.
On September 24, the three of them turned the five-inch metal keys in the lock at 64A Baggot Street, and the House of Mercy was officially opened. That day, they began lessons at the poor school, which had strong enrollment, and Catherine interviewed the two women interested in living at the residence for working women.
Catherine, still living with her nieces and brother-in-law in Kilmainham, came daily to check on business, but it was Anna Maria who was in charge at the House. By December, the school had five hundred female students and young tradeswomen were staying at the House overnight. Soon, young women of means were inquiring about offering their services on a part-time basis, including two nieces of “The Liberator” and champion of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell. Suddenly, volunteering at the House became the fashionable thing to do. In June 1828, Catherine moved into the House permanently.
In late 1828 or early 1829, the Presentation Sisters again contacted Anna Maria, saying that they had obtained an “increase in property” which would allow them to receive her without a dowry. But Anna Maria would not be swayed. She told them her “Merciful Savior had inspired” her work at Baggot Street and there she would remain.
By 1830, it was clear that the women of the House would have to become religious Sisters, so Catherine chose Anna Maria and Elizabeth Harley, whom Anna Maria already knew because they had been part of the same parish of St. Andrews, and whom Anna called “a saintly creature.”
During her novitiate, Anna Maria was in charge of the sacristy until August 1831, when she suffered a severe hemorrhage of the lungs brought on by overexertion, likely commanded by their harsh novice mistress.
On December 13, 1831, Anna Maria, Catherine and Elizabeth took their vows as the first Sisters of Mercy. Elizabeth’s religious name became Sister Mary Ann Doyle. An outbreak of cholera soon followed and all in the House were consumed with caring for the sick.
In March 1835, Catherine named Sister Mary Ann as Superior of the first convent in Kingstown. The following year, she became Superior of the new foundation in Tullamore, County Offaly, on April 21, 1836. She had great responsibility, serving simultaneously as superior of the community, directress of novices, and mistress of schools. Catherine was able to visit her six times between 1836 and 1841, the only times they saw one another before Catherine died. Likely at Catherine’s request, Sister Mary Ann (and all of the other Superiors of the foundations) was not present at her deathbed.
In February 1844. Sister Mary Ann made her first foundation without Catherine, in the city of Kells. There they taught in an existing school and visited the poor and sick in their homes, later also ministering to those in the local workhouse.
In 1847 Mary Ann, who was now ill, to Tullamore, thinking she would live out her days in seclusion. But once again, God intervened through Dr. Maginn of Derry who asked the Sisters to found a convent in his town of Derry. On July 18, 1848, Sister Mary Ann traveled to Derry as assistant to Catherine Locke, who would be the Superior there. She did the same in 1852, only to find that the Sisters of Loreto were already in the town of Omagh.
From 1854 -1866 Sister Mary Ann lived in the Covent in Derry, where she died on September 11, 1866.