Spotlight on Mercy—Catherine McAuley
March 31, 2021 by Keely Knopp
Mercy’s history of actively caring reaches back for almost two centuries to the commitment of one woman, Catherine McAuley, who was born in Dublin around 1778. It was a time of strife and widespread poverty in Ireland and British law excluded most Catholics from educational opportunities, equal civil rights, and the open practice of their faith. Despite this, McAuley was successful in her mission to serve others, and that spirit of mercy and service colors every aspect of Mercy’s commitment to provide excellent health care and other needed services to all those in our community who seek them.
Catherine McAuley was born to James and Elinor Conway McAuley. Catherine’s early childhood was spent in a loving home with her father, mother and her two siblings. However, Catherine’s father James died in 1783, when Catherine was approximately 5 years old, leaving her mother widowed and unemployed, to raise the three children. In 1789, Elinor McAuley passed away leaving Catherine with a house and many debts. At only 11 years of age, Catherine learned the valuable lessons of community, kindness, and dependence on others for her survival.
Catherine worked her way out of poverty, coming to manage a household for William and Catherine Callaghan, an elderly and wealthy Quaker couple, with no children or heirs. When the Callaghans passed away in 1819 and 1822 respectively, the couple left most of their material wealth to Catherine McAuley.
This was a turning point in Catherine’s life, and a true test of her character. Catherine could have used her inheritance to retire and have a comfortable life for herself. However, she felt called to use the money to feed, educate and house those less fortunate in an area known as Baggot Street, Dublin. Catherine commissioned the House of Mercy and opened it to those in need on September 24, 1827.
The spirit of selflessness and giving at the House of Mercy so moved the Archbishop of Dublin that he asked Catherine to establish a religious order, so her work might endure. In 1831, after training and preparing for a life of religious service, Catherine McAuley and two colleagues founded the Sisters of Mercy upon a commitment to help the poor, sick and uneducated and all of those wounded by contemporary society. This commitment remains central to Mercy’s mission in western North Carolina, and throughout the world in which the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas serve.
Catherine McAuley died of tuberculosis in 1841, just ten years after founding her community, but by then there were more than 100 Sisters to carry on her work. Today there are more than 4,500 Sisters of Mercy dedicated to sustaining the legacy of Catherine McAuley.