A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Giving thanks for 150 years

Mercy Sisters Wellington NZ

Sr Stephanie Kitching

Sr Stephanie Kitching, congregational archivist for the Mercy Sisters

14 June 1861, a mid winter morning, the crack of dawn: Bishop Viard was woken from his sleep by a messenger from the steamer, Lord Worsley, which overnight had put down anchor in Wellington Harbour. Three Sisters of Mercy had arrived as a result of his request to Bishop Pompallier and Mother Cecilia Maher in Auckland. They were unexpected and unheralded since Viard had retracted his request due to lack of funds.


However, things were dealt with and the Sisters stayed. Sisters Mary Bernard Dickson (who had nursed with other Sisters in the Crimean war) and Mary Augustine Maxwell, along with a French postulant, were quickly down to work on the hill above the beach. They took over running the small St Mary’s School and Providence for Maori girls which had been set up by Viard eleven years earlier. The first convent had a ground plan of 35 feet by 20 feet!

Another Mercy foundation was made in Reefton in 1891 by a community of Sisters from Singleton, New South Wales. Amalgamation of these two foundations occurred in 1927.

From these small beginnings the Sisters of Mercy have spread into many parishes in the Wellington and Palmerston North Dioceses. Over the years they have undertaken the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy wherever they went . In August 1935 it was reported in the Evening Post that Archbishop O’Shea, on the opening of the convent in Abel Smith St, Te Aro, eulogised the Sisters’ great work in building up an excellent educational system while not confining themselves to teaching. Their activities also extended to nursing the sick and caring for the orphan, he said.

Since their arrival the Sisters have begun 43 schools in the two dioceses and taken over many more which had been started a short time earlier in a particular district. Countless thousands of students have been educated to a high standard in the environment of the charism of Mercy:

• Te tapu o te tangata: Respect for human dignity

Original St Mary's Convent

Original St Mary's Convent

• Aroha: Compassion

• Awhinatanga: Service

• Tika: Justice

• Aroha ke te rawa kore: Concern for  the poor and vulnerable

The Sisters have also ministered in health care in various places. Besides daily visitation of the sick in their homes, other ventures have been noted. During the 1918 Great Influenza Epidemic sisters were called upon to nurse in the temporary hospital set up in the Normal School in Pipitea St.

One of the Sisters wrote: “ Some of the grandees of the city volunteered to take charge of the office just near the door but would not venture near the wards which were crowded out, mostly with dying women (black plague and bad pneumonia). Two sisters [Magdalene and Teresa] were asked to do night nursing from 10pm – 8am (It is too terrible to think of – corpses being taken out while other patients were being admitted). Sisters Stanislaus and Teresa did afternoon work.” Two sisters, S M Placidus and S M Alexis, also nursed Bishop Verdon from Dunedin at the Wellington Redemptorist Monastery until he died from the illness.

Entrance to new conference centre with St Mary’s chapel in the background

Entrance to new conference centre with St Mary’s chapel in the background

In 1950, after a request from Archbishop McKeefry, Aorangi Hospital, Palmerston North, was purchased and renamed Mater Misericordiae Hospital (later Mercy Hospital). Having obtained professional nursing qualifications, the Sisters cared daily for the sick for the next fifty years. However, by the mid 1990s the economic and political forces revolutionising healthcare were challenging the viability of the small hospital. This was a difficult time but finally in 2000 the hospital was sold to a group of doctors who renamed it Aorangi Hospital . The proceeds of the sale were put to good use in healthcare ministry for the elderly.

Caring for children was one of Catherine McAuley’s fondest wishes for her Sisters. When she began the Sisters of Mercy she set up a House of Mercy in Dublin (now Mercy International Centre) to take care of the waifs and strays she gathered from the streets as well as the poor women who came to the door. The Sisters in Wellington for many years ran the Providence, a home for Maori children and later European orphans. This shifted out to Upper Hutt in 1910 with the Sisters caring for children who were orphans or whose families needed them to be in care because of straightened circumstances. Now in these different times the complex has been adapted and extended to provide forty-one units of income related rental housing for the elderly.

Our Lady of the Southern Cross by Sr Julia Lynch rsm

Our Lady of the Southern Cross by Sr Julia Lynch rsm

The life of a Mercy Sister is centred around Jesus who himself was always there for the needy. The Sisters’ vows of poverty (simple living), chastity (inclusive celibate loving), obedience (listening to God through the signs of the times) and service of the poor, sick and uneducated free them to give their lives to help bring about the reign of God in our world today. Their commitment to God and to God’s people is evident in the rhythm of prayer, ministry, community time and recreation in their everyday life. One of the hallmarks of Catherine was her readiness to respond to the call of the needy. She asked her Sisters to be flexible in their life and to be available when such calls were heard. This flexibility has been the history of the Sisters here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Up until 2005 the Sisters of Mercy had been four separate congregations, established according to Catherine McAuley’s principle of autonomy so that the Mercy mission could flourish in the local Church. With the ease of communications and the shrinking of distance, it became obvious that we needed to reconfigure to better serve this mission in today’s world. After a lengthy process the decision to move forward was made by all the Sisters and on 12 December 2005 Nga Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa Sisters of Mercy New Zealand came into being. We have indeed refashioned our resources to better serve those in need but the process has also involved a refashioning of ourselves. When four groups come together there are differences which need to be addressed and worked through. We have come to appreciate the value of our differences and to see how they enrich the total Mercy endeavour in Aotearoa, Samoa and Tonga.

We really appreciate the support we have had from you, the people, over the years. Our companions and partners in mission ensure our charism, the gift of God’s mercy – to know God’s loving kindness and to share this with others - is going from strength to strength. May you all be richly blessed!


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