Aikenhead, Mary (1787–1858)

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Aikenhead, Mary (1787–1858)

Founder of the Irish Sisters of Charity. Born Mary Stackpole Aikenhead on January 19, 1787, in Cork, Ireland; died on July 22, 1858, in Dublin, Ireland; daughter and one of four children of David (a physician and chemist) and Mary (Stackpole) Aikenhead.

When David Aikenhead, a Scottish Protestant, married Mary Stackpole, an Irish Catholic, he allowed her to practice her religion but demanded that the children be brought up in the established church. In accordance with his wishes, their daughter Mary Stackpole Aikenhead, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1787, was baptized a Protestant.

For the first six years of her life, however, Aikenhead was nursed in a poor but loving Catholic home, where she went to mass and said the rosary nightly. Returning to the privileged home of her parents, she grew up attempting to reconcile with Ireland's religious split along socio-economic lines, which left Protestants holding much wealth and power, while Catholics comprised the bulk of the working poor. Although she received a private-school education and wanted for nothing, Aikenhead felt the pull of a strong conscience and spent much of her time administering to the sick and those in need. By age 16, she made her solemn profession to the Catholic faith. At 17, she received her calling into religious life, which she later recounted as a "mysterious and elusive call, so like the gentle whisper of the soft summer breeze." Above the din of the world around her, she caught the sound of the mystic words: "Follow Me."

While visiting Dublin, in the home of a wealthy philanthropist who gave money to the city's sick and poor, Aikenhead met Father Daniel Murray, then coadjutor bishop of Dublin, who would later become archbishop. Murray wanted to establish a body of religious women to do for the poor in Ireland what the Sisters of Charity were doing in France. Seeing potential in Aikenhead, he persuaded her to prepare for the religious congregation. In 1815, after a three-year noviceship at the Bar Convent of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in York, England, Aikenhead returned to Dublin with one associate to establish the Sisters of Charity in the William Street Orphanage. Modeling themselves after the Jesuits, members took simple vows—temporary for three years, and then perpetual. A fourth vow of dedication to the poor was added. The congregation was governed by a superior general, elected for a six-year term that could be renewed. Aikenhead resided at the motherhouse, which was established at Mount St. Anne's, Milltown, Dublin.

The sisters began by caring for the orphans, establishing a day school, and visiting poor families in the neighborhood. As the number of recruits grew, more houses were established, enabling them to teach religion in parochial schools and to staff additional free schools, vocational colleges, and a Magdalen refuge. In 1826, Aikenhead fulfilled a long-time desire to see the Sisters of Charity established in her hometown of Cork.

In 1834, the same year the congregation received papal approval, Aikenhead opened St. Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, the first Catholic hospital in Ireland and a pioneering effort in the staffing and management of hospitals by religious women trained in nursing. Later, the sisters established other health facilities: convalescent homes, institutions for people with physical disabilities, homes for the elderly, maternity welfare centers, homes for widows, recreational centers, and hostels.

In 1838, the sisters went to Australia and were the first religious women to take vows in that country. They later developed a separate congregation there, the Daughters of Mary Aikenhead. After Aikenhead's death, the congregation spread to England, Scotland, the United States, Zambia, and Nigeria. (By 1965, there were 811 sisters, 61 novices, and 9 postulants in 66 Australian houses. Their primary- and secondary-school enrollment was over 30,000 pupils. In the United States, the Sisters of Charity have been associated with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, California, since 1953.)

Suffering from chronic spinal problems for much of her life, Aikenhead was in pain and had difficulty walking. In her final years, as superior general, she often managed from her bed. Her mind and spirit, however, remained intact. Aikenhead's last words reflected her lifetime devotion to the poor. On the evening before her death, sisters from a neighboring convent sent a woman, who often acted as messenger, to inquire as to Aikenhead's condition. Aikenhead worried about her. "I think that poor creature would badly need a new pair of boots, won't you get them for her." That same night, she also expressed concern that she might die the next day, on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene , a time of great celebration. "If I die tomorrow," she said, "do not tell the poor penitents until the day after, as it would spoil their pleasure." She died the following afternoon, July 22, 1858. A group of Dublin's working men were granted their request to carry her coffin to the grave.


The Life and Work of Mary Aikenhead: Foundress of the Congregation of Irish Sisters of Charity 1787–1858. NY: Longmans, Green, 1924.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts