A Catholic Monthly Magazine

St Patrick’s Church, Sydney (5)

Fr Michael Whelan SM

Sisters of Mercy

Catherine McAuley was born into a middle-class family in Ireland in 1778 but by the time she reached adulthood she had witnessed the death of both parents and experienced considerable personal poverty. The sad plight of the young, unemployed and homeless girls at risk in Dublin haunted Catherine and when she inherited a substantial sum of money on the death of her 'adopted' parents, she decided to use it to build what we could call today a refuge for women and children. She called it a 'House of Mercy' and it was opened on the 24th September 1827. The house was referred to by some of her family as 'Kitty’s Folly' – a reflection of the criticism it evoked from some quarters in both Church and society.

With two companions Catherine McAuley underwent the traditional formation of religious life and prepared to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at the Presentation Convent, George's Hill, Dublin. When the three were professed on 12th December 1831,  Catherine's innovative spirit was strongly in evidence. She and her Sisters wanted to be free to walk among the poor, to be visible on the streets of Dublin, to have a profile of service that could not be ignored. They did not include the traditional fourth vow of enclosure and later, when the Rule of the Sisters of Mercy was approved, a fourth vow of service to the poor, sick and ignorant was added as a fitting reflection of the stated purpose and unique character of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. The presence of the Sisters among the poor, sick and dying, the neglected and oppressed – first in Dublin and then in other centres in Ireland and England, and eventually, in an amazingly short time, around the world – sparked a revolutionary attitudinal change to meeting the glaring needs of the time and earned them the title 'the walking nuns'. 

In 1846 the Sisters of Mercy came to Australia and settled in Perth, but it wasn't until 1865 that the North Sydney Mercies established a presence in Sydney under the leadership of Mother Mary Ignatius (Elizabeth McQuoin). Originally, Elizabeth and her companions were to go to Bathurst, but whilst they were on their voyage to Australia, Bathurst was made a separate diocese and the Bishop already had Sisters to minister there. Elizabeth was invited by Bishop Bede Polding to make a foundation in his diocese of Sydney.

In 1865, the Sisters eventually settled at Church Hill. They soon began teaching children, and operating a residence for servant girls. Their first 'school' was the crypt under St Patrick's church. A parish hall and girls' school were opened in 1918. The St Patrick's Girls High school closed in 1990. 

Sr Mary Ignatius RSM (Elizabeth McQuoin)

The St Patrick’s Girls' Commercial College, was established by the Sisters of Mercy in Harrington Street in 1928 and eventually became a renowned Business College. It was transferred in 1995 to Centacare, Sydney and was relocated to Surry Hills. The Sisters also ran the primary school at St Brigid’s, Miller’s Point, from 1901 until it closed in 1992.    


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