McAuley, Catherine (1778–1841)

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McAuley, Catherine (1778–1841)

Irish nun who founded the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy (Sisters of Mercy) . Name variations: (incorrectly) Catherine McCauley. Born in Ballymun, County Dublin, Ireland, in 1778 (some sources cite 1781); died in Dublin on November 11, 1841; second ofthree children of James McAuley and Elinor (Conway) McAuley; founded the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy (Sisters of Mercy), in December 1831.

Selected writings:

The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley, 1827–41 (Sisters of Mercy, 1989).

Catherine McAuley's father James McAuley was part of the growing Catholic middle class in 18th-century Ireland. Having started out as a carpenter, he became by turns a builder, timber merchant and grazier, ending as a country gentleman on his estate at Stormanstown House in north Dublin. Her mother Elinor Conway McAuley was over 30 years younger than James when they married at the end of the 1770s. James McAuley died in 1783 when Catherine was still a small child. Elinor, who was fond of pleasure and fashion, gave up Stormanstown House and moved into central Dublin. She was also irked by the social and legal stigmatism that came with Catholicism, so she and two of her children converted to Protestantism and joined the Church of Ireland. Catherine remained Catholic.

These familial religious divisions persisted after her mother's death in 1798. McAuley went to live with her uncle Owen Conway and his daughter Ann Conway , who became her closest friend, while her brother and sister went to live with relatives of her mother, the Armstrongs, who were also Protestant. Ann Conway's confessor, Father Andrew Lube, became a trusted adviser of Catherine. When the Conways fell on hard times, McAuley joined her siblings at the Armstrongs', where she came under considerable pressure to change her religion. Although she refused, she always remained close to her brother and sister despite their religious differences. She was subsequently invited by the Callaghans, friends of the Armstrongs, to become a companion to Mrs. Callaghan, who lived in Coolock, north Dublin. McAuley soon became involved in helping the poor of the village and in organizing classes for the local children. After Mrs. Callaghan died in 1819 and her husband died three years later in 1822, McAuley inherited the Callaghan estate which was valued at almost $150,000.

Her inheritance gave her the opportunity to extend her involvement in charitable work. There were enormous social problems in Dublin, with poor housing, overcrowding, insanitary conditions and epidemics of typhus and cholera. Although she became acquainted with the Sisters of Charity and visited their convent at Stanhope Street in Dublin, McAuley was not at this point attracted to the religious life. Such a choice was still considered unusual, as the great expansion of Irish religious life was in the future. Her aim was to build a large house which would serve as a school for poor children and a shelter for homeless young women, and she wanted to invite other lay women to join her in this project. McAuley bought a site on Baggot Street, in the heart of fashionable south Dublin, to the considerable disapproval of some of the residents who did not welcome the new establishment. In 1827, she and her friend Fanny Tighe went to France to study the educational system there. Later that year, the first group of women moved into Baggot Street. Also in 1827 her sister Mary McAuley died, and following the death of Mary's husband two years later Catherine became responsible for their children. Consumption cut a swathe through the family and four of the children were to die before their aunt.

The Baggot Street foundation encountered increasing problems with the Catholic Church authorities, partly because of their lay status and partly because some church leaders feared her group would become a rival to the Sisters of Charity. These problems prompted McAuley to reassess the issue of canonical status, and in September 1830, as a preliminary to founding her own order of nuns, she entered the Presentation Convent at George's Hill in Dublin to serve her novitiate. She took her final vows in December 1831 and within days the new Institute of Our Lady of Mercy was established. The Sisters of Mercy soon proved their value when a cholera epidemic broke out in the spring of 1832 and they took charge of one of the temporary hospitals at the request of the Board of Health.

McAuley was a formidable administrator with a gift for developing administrative talent among her subordinates. She faced enormous problems in the early years of the Sisters of Mercy, including the myriad difficulties in establishing new foundations in Ireland and Britain, lack of money, poor health, and continuing problems with certain Catholic church leaders, but she overcame most of them by her determination, practicality and good humor. The new order spread rapidly, and in the last seven years of her life she founded 11 convents in Ireland and Britain. Her biographer, Roland Burke Savage, attributed the expansion of the order to the fact that McAuley gave complete local autonomy to the different foundations. She believed that the family spirit, which she regarded as an essential element of her order, could not be maintained under centralized control. In her view, the local superior was much better able to understand local problems and conditions. It was also the case that many novices preferred to enter local convents rather than go to some central novitiate far away from their homes. By 1841, the order had two foundations in England and had been invited to go to Newfoundland in Canada. But by late 1841, the family weakness, consumption, was beginning to affect McAuley's health. She kept up her reassuring manner while privately arranging her affairs. Few of her nuns realized how ill she was. Catherine McAuley died on November 11, 1841, and was buried in the Baggot Street cemetery.


Bolster, Angela M. Catherine McAuley 1778–1978: Bicentenary Souvenir Booklet. Dublin: Irish Messenger Publications, 1978.

Savage, Roland Burke. Catherine McAuley: The First Sister of Mercy. Dublin: M.H. Gill, 1949.

Sullivan, Mary C. Catherine McAuley and the Tradition of Mercy. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995.

Deirdre McMahon , Lecturer in History, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland