The Charism of Catherine McAuley & the Sisters of Mercy


Centred on God, focused on world.


Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831, never expected to be a nun. Towards the end of her life, she confessed, “I only wanted to serve the poor, because that seemed what God was asking of me.”


The well-spring in Catherine’s life was her sense of having been blessed by God, with a desire to enrich other lives from the bounty she had received. Her life was marked by a discontent with so much of what she saw, a ceaseless effort to make things better. “We can never say it is enough” was one of her quotes. And another: “We must resolve to be good today, but better tomorrow.”


Catherine’s vision of a world transformed by God’s love was fired by her deep conviction that she and her companions could make a difference to people’s lives. Her dream was to lift them from the poverty, ignorance and illness that ground them down, liberating them from whatever held them bound.


In the context of her day, that meant freedom from the penal laws which denied Irish Catholics the right to practise their faith, to own land and property, to find employment for themselves and schooling for their children. It meant especially protection and empowerment for women and girls, in a society where too often they were treated as chattels.


Catherine was a lay woman when she built her first House of Mercy and began her ministry to Dublin’s sick and poor. Her first colleagues were young women poised to take their place in fashionable Irish society. She took vows at age 53, just 10 years before her death.


While religious life ensured that her dream continued to unfold, her focus remained centred on the world of her day. Her ‘walking sisters’ were never meant to be confined to the cloister, but were to find God in the lives of the people they served. The Sisters of Mercy were the first order of Catholic nuns to win church approval for a way of life that combined community prayer with social involvement.


Catherine was able to see God’s presence in the whole of life. She would endorse Mercy’s insistence today that people cannot live healthy lives on a dying planet, and that issues like global warming and climate change have to be on the agenda. Her spirit is reflected in the resolve of her sisters in Aotearoa, Samoa and Tonga to be “centred in God, impelled to be Mercy, keeping hope alive in our world today.”


Dennis Horton

Director of Mission 

Pou Atawhai Centre for Mercy Mission

Nga Whaea Atawhai Sisters of Mercy New Zealand

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