Ancestry UK

The Sisters of Mercy

The Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley, an Irish Catholic laywoman who wanted to address the many needs of people who were economically poor in early nineteenth century Ireland. Using an inheritance, she opened the first House of Mercy on Lower Baggot Street in Dublin, Ireland on September 24, 1827, a place to shelter and educate women and girls. Her original intention was to assemble a lay corps of Catholic social workers. Impressed by her good works and the importance of continuity in the ministry, the Archbishop of Dublin advised her to establish a religious congregation. Three years later on December 12, 1831, Catherine and two companions became the first Sisters of Mercy. In the 10 years between the founding and her death, she established 14 independent foundations in Ireland and England.

The Sisters of Mercy were very active in the care of children and established a large number of Catholic orphanages, industrial schools and other institutions in Ireland, Great Britain and across the world.

In Ireland, the Sisters made a particular contribution to the medical care provided in the country's workhouses. They were first allowed to act as workhouse hospital nurses in 1861 at the Limerick Union workhouse. After protracted correspondence on the matter, the appointment of three of the order's nuns was reluctantly acceded to by Irish Poor Law Commissioners, so long as the posts were advertised and interviewed in normal manner and that the workhouse master retained overall responsibility for the infirmary's operation. There was also concern that such appointments did not result in demands for religious segregation within workhouse infirmaries. Within twenty years, the Irish Local Government Board was positively recommending the employment of Sisters of Mercy to provide workhouse medical care. A survey in 1903 revealed that 85 unions employed nuns as nurses, with the nursing matron in 32 workhouses being a nun. Nuns were also employed as teachers. In many cases, the nuns were given their own separate accommodation on workhouse sites.


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