About Catherine McAuley

Catherine McAuley

Founder of the Sisters of Mercy

The vision and charism of Venerable Catherine McAuley

Catherine McAuley College is named in honour of Venerable Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy. We are a Christ-centred college inspired by the charism of Catherine McAuley.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, on 29 September 1778, Catherine was greatly influenced by her father, James McAuley, a man of faith, who cared deeply for those in need. Although James died at an early age, Catherine always remembered the love and compassion he showed to all who came to him for help. After the death of her mother, Elinor, the family became destitute. Catherine lived with various relatives until she was invited to share the home of an elderly and childless couple, the Callaghans. While living with the Callaghans at ‘Coolock’ for the next twenty years, Catherine was able to learn more about her faith and assist the poor in the village, teaching the children and visiting the sick. On the deaths of William and Catherine Callaghan, Catherine inherited a large fortune which she used to build the ‘House of Mercy’ in Baggot Street, Dublin, where she could provide educational, religious and social services for women and children who were at risk of homelessness through exploitation and entrenched poverty.

On 24 September 1827, Catherine opened the ‘House of Mercy’. There she and some like-minded helpers provided food, clothing, housing and education for many of Dublin’s poor women and young girls, as well as visiting the sick in their homes. Catherine devoted considerable personal energy and wealth to redressing poverty, continually recognising and responding to the needs of those who were marginalised and oppressed by the unjust social attitudes and practices of the day.

Although Catherine did not intend to begin a Religious Congregation, it was seen to be necessary for her work to continue. On 12 December 1831, Catherine and two companions professed their religious vows thus becoming the first Sisters of Mercy. Catherine made sure the Sisters were not bound by the laws of enclosure, as all other religious women were. Her Sisters soon became known as the “walking Sisters” as they went out daily to do the works of Mercy.

Before Catherine died on 11 November 1841, many co-workers had joined her so there was rapid expansion with twelve Mercy foundations in Ireland and two in England. In January 1846, under the leadership of Mother Ursula Frayne, the Sisters of Mercy established a foundation in Perth, then in Melbourne in March 1857. Very soon, the Sisters settled in many parts of Australia. A pioneer Sister of Mercy from Dublin, Mother Mary Vincent Whitty, arrived in Brisbane on 10 May 1861 with five companions. These Sisters immediately set out to provide education to the struggling community of Irish immigrants. True to the spirit of Catherine McAuley, the Sisters engaged in visiting the local jails and the poor in their homes as well as providing accommodation for children who were undernourished and abandoned.

On 4 August 1873, Mother Mary Vincent Whitty, with six other Sisters, arrived by boat in Rockhampton to begin a presence in Central Queensland. This presence later extended north to Mackay when four Sisters sailed from Brisbane in 1880 to carry on the work begun by the Sisters of St Joseph. This included staffing St Joseph’s Orphanage at Merara (now Bucasia) and teaching in the school located near the current St Patrick’s Church. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was rapid expansion in the Mackay area, with the Sisters of Mercy establishing Catholic schools in Walkerston, Marian, South Mackay, Sarina, West Mackay, North Mackay and Farleigh, as well as acquiring the Ormond Hospital which became known as the Mater Misericordiae Hospital.

Despite many difficulties and hardships, wherever they lived and worked, the Sisters courageously served the needs of God’s people in the spirit of their founder, Catherine McAuley.

Recognition of Catherine McAuley’s work

On 9 April 1990, by decree of Pope John Paul II, Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, was declared Venerable, in recognition of her holy life, her love of God and her merciful work among the poor. Catherine’s practical, whole-hearted response to the injustices of her day, inspires us to hear and respond to the ‘cry of Earth and the cry of the Poor’ (Pope Francis) in our day.

Catherine McAuley and education

Catherine McAuley believed that education empowers people and brings about change. The Sisters of Mercy have always recognised the importance of education as a crucial way for both children and adults to reach their full potential. In Australia, the Sisters of Mercy have been in the forefront of educational endeavours, particularly in establishing primary and secondary, day and boarding schools, in rural and urban areas. Some of these initiatives are no longer owned and operated by the Sisters of Mercy but continue with committed lay leadership in the Mercy tradition.