The Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley, who was born in Dublin Ireland on 29th September 1778. Her life was shaped by her Catholic faith and her father’s caring concern for the poor. From 1803-1822 Catherine cared for Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan who lived at Coolock House. Their Quaker beliefs had an important influence on Catherine and helped develop her vision of caring for those in need.
Establishing Baggot Street
Catherine’s dream of having a house where women and children could be educated and trained for employment was realised with the opening of the House of Mercy in Baggot St, Dublin in 1827. She was supported in this work by lay women. In 1831 Catherine and two companions took their vows and the Sisters of Mercy were established. Although Catherine was to die of tuberculosis only 10 years later in 1841, many women joined this new community and they spread rapidly across the world. Bishops wanted to have these “Walking Sisters” in their diocese to respond to the needs of the poor, sick and uneducated. From these early beginnings it is possible to trace the journey of the Sisters to Dunedin.
Early beginnings in Dunedin
The Sisters were invited to Dunedin by Bishop Verdon.
“Bishop Verdon … saw poverty and distress, and recognized that the sick, the poor and the uneducated were being deprived of much necessary relief and instruction. Every day he heard reports of orphaned and destitute children being placed in non-Catholic institutions. Concerned, he realised the need to secure for Dunedin, and particularly for the heavily populated area of South Dunedin, an order of nuns who, in addition to teaching, would also care for the orphaned and the sick.” (Sister Stephanie Glenn, 1996. Divide and Share. Pg 12)
The Sisters immediately began visiting the sick, poor and lonely in their homes and two weeks after their arrival were teaching 156 children at St. Patrick’s parish school. The apostolate of teaching the poor quickly spread throughout the dioceses. Wherever branch houses were established the Sisters began teaching while also responding to the local needs of the poor, the sick and the needy. This responsiveness was evident during the 1918 ‘flu epidemic.
“On its appearance in Dunedin the Sisters at once notified the Health Department of their readiness to help in any way the Department wished. Their offer was gratefully accepted and the Sisters began caring for the ‘flu victims in their homes. … While the epidemic raged and nursing facilities became stretched to the limits, the Sisters set up part of the boarding school as an infirmary and nursed many of the sick there. … Besides assisting the direct nursing of the sick, the Sisters also undertook to care for the infant children of parents struck down in the epidemic. This they did in a crèche which they had set up in St Patrick’s School, and the little ones were well looked after until their parents were fit enough to take them home.” (Sister Stephanie Glenn, pg 94-95)
Mercy in New Zealand
Between 1850 and 1900 small groups of Sisters of Mercy were establishing foundations throughout New Zealand. The common theme across all these foundations was education of children, especially those from poor families, setting up of orphanages, visiting the poor and care of the sick in their homes and through the establishment of private hospitals. The first of these was Mater Misericordiae Hospital established in 1900 by the Auckland Sisters. Then in 1936 a second Mater Misericordiae Hospital was opened by the Sisters in Dunedin. Hospitals were subsequently established in Palmerston North (1950) and Whangarei (1963). A new hospital was opened in Dunedin in 1969 to enable this work to be expanded and is the only Mercy Hospital continuing this mission in New Zealand today.
The four separate foundations of the Sisters of Mercy in New Zealand began a journey of collaboration in 1950 that would result in a single congregation being established on 12 December 2005. At the same time there was a move to respond to the needs of the people of the Pacific and develop relationships with the Sisters of Mercy in Australia. To enhance the relationships between Sisters of Mercy throughout the world the Sisters have participated in Mercy International Association and have supported the development of Mercy International Centre, which is based in the original Baggot Street house that Catherine McAuley opened in 1827.