Irish Sister of Mercy Deirdre Mullan is director of Mercy Global Concern which maintains a Mercy presence at the United Nations in New York. She gave a keynote address on “Challenges from Our World” at the recent Living Mercy conference in Brisbane. This is an edited version of the address
IT is a privilege for me to be back in Queensland and to engage with you in this very challenging topic, of Living Mercy today, and to be back in the place where six of my country women arrived in 1860, headed by Mother Vincent Whitty.
We are fortunate to have such leaders who, at this time of diminishment, challenge us to be more than we think we can be.
Such a challenge might give us new energy for renewal and revitalisation, for today we live in exciting times – worrying, yes – volatile, yes, but steeped in possibility.
I have chosen to look at the Challenges Facing our World through the lens of Catherine McAuley and to ask: What is or was the influence of Catherine McAuley on Women’s Global Issues?
Who was Catherine McAuley?
In the early 1780s, as American politicians in Philadelphia sparred over the radical statements they wanted to include in the Constitution and as mobs in Paris edged towards a bloody revolution, James McAuley started his own small revolution in Dublin.
Our history is rich in portraits of what it was like to be a Jew in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, or to be Aborginal in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries.
To be Catholic in Ireland in the latter part of the 19th was not far from that, measured in pain, poverty and risk.
It began in 1695, after the English finally conquered all of Ireland.
They developed a separate set of laws, called the Penal Laws, that stripped Catholics of most of their property and gave them second-class status.
Catholics were forbidden to hold public office, to enter a profession and to speak their native tongue.
Priests were hunted, jailed and sometimes executed.
The result was a nation with rarely anything to hope for, a place of mean streets and shanties, a land where wealth was counted in potatoes or, for the most fortunate, a pig or two.
By openly inviting the Irish poor into his home or by visiting their hovels, James McAuley was committing a brazen public act.
His brazen act would have probably gone unnoticed by history were it not for a pair of brown, wide-set eyes watching his every move.
He had a four-year-old daughter called Catherine, and what her father did became etched in her mind.
When Catherine was five, her father died and she was raised in a Protestant, English-speaking world.
She grew into a hope-filled and bright young woman with polished manners and a knack for diplomacy, but underneath she had inherited her father’s gifts – a quiet sense of outrage at the poverty she saw around her and the steely determination to make things change.
Catherine understood what the ancient Irish Brehon laws taught: If you see something and do nothing about it, you are as guilty as the perpetrator.
When she was left an inheritance by William Callaghan, in whose family she was raised, Catherine’s keen conscience dictated it was not a gift that gave her entry into the world of the elite.
Instead it was to be a gift that was to challenge the elite.
Soon other young women began to join Catherine and among them was Ellen Whitty, best known as Mother Vincent, who was to lead the group of Sisters of Mercy who established the order’s first Queensland community in Brisbane in 1861.
Born on March 3, 1819, in County Wexford, Ellen joined the Sisters of Mercy when she was 19.
She was greatly influenced by the foundress Catherine McAuley who prepared her for religious profession.
From the outset, this group of women was different from other groups of nuns.
Catherine added a vow of service to educate the poor and help women, who, she felt, were the first victims of poverty and the last to be rescued.
Catherine’s young volunteers soon found themselves in appalling situations.
In 1832, a cholera epidemic broke out in Dublin and since no one else volunteered, the Sisters of Mercy went to work, led by Catherine.
The Irish had never seen anything like this – Catholic women, from the upper classes, risking their lives to help the poor.
Soon, word spread of this new breed of women and bishops from many parts of Ireland began appearing at Baggot Street to beg Catherine to start convents in their communities.
When Catherine died in 1841, most of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of Ireland attended the funeral of the nun who had begun her career determined not to be one.
What she had set in motion was moving far beyond her native Ireland.
There was interest in having Houses of Mercy in England, Newfoundland, Australia and the United States.
From those first beginnings, in this country alone, the Sisters of Mercy have built schools, colleges and hospitals, and worked in prisons and shelters.
They have influenced political offices and have worked with the indigenous peoples of this land; they have served in soup kitchens, in refugee shelters, in parochial schools, as well as in ministry to the homeless.
They have been a voice for the indigenous, for the immigrant, and have become involved in all sorts of social and eco-justice work.
This new breed of women called Sisters were indeed a force to be reckoned with.
Inspired by Catherine McAuley, Sisters of Mercy all over the globe continue to be passionately committed to the struggle for justice.
Catherine McAuley was a liberator, a feminist with a larger world view, an educator who saw education as a tool to empower and a moral agent intent on affecting change.
With this as our heritage and Catherine as our foremother, we dare to ask: How are the Sisters of Mercy and their associates meeting some of these challenges today? And what is it that drives Catherine’s followers forward?
To find answers to those questions, we need to look at what is happening in the world of Mercy and to “visit” with some of our contemporary Mercy Sisters and associates.
Here are just a few nuggets from around the Mercy world.
While working in Sudan, Australian Mercy Sister Cathy Solano would not – could not – take the plight of the girl child as the norm, and so she insisted that girls too had a right to education.
Out of her work, and indeed because of her work, the Scholarships for Girls Campaign was born.
In the city of Philadelphia, United States, Mercy Sister Mary Scullion refused to accept that in the richest country in the world there are people living on the streets.
She began her work as an advocate for the homeless, driven by a personal conviction that “none of us are home until all of us are home”.
By 2000, there were fewer than 200 people living on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.
That is in large part thanks to an extraordinarily well-run program, founded by Sr Mary Scullion and Joan McConnon.
More than 95 per cent of those who have been helped by their H.O.M.E. project have never again returned to life on the streets – a success rate that has made the program a model for dozens of other US cities.
In Cambodia, Brisbane’s own Sr Denise Coughlan, heading Jesuit Relief Services, has helped to rebuild the primary school system – one school at a time – in a country that was devastated by a genocide.
In the USA, Mercy Sister Karen Schneider, a paediatrician at the John Hopkins Hospital, bridges the medical gap by providing services in a prestigious US hospital for sick children from Peru, Haiti and Guyana.
She travels to these countries with a team of experienced doctors, nurses and volunteers.
These trips have been so successful that they are now part of the medical school’s course work.
Just fresh from a recent trip to Peru, Karen said: “One of the extraordinary gifts of contemporary apostolic women religious is our ability to network, to extend hospitality and share resources, especially in service of those who suffer the ravages of injustice and poverty.”
In Karachi, Pakistan, Margaret Madden has worked for 16 years at Notre Dame Institute, started by Sr Deirdre Jordan. This institute also supports an education project in Baldia Town, Karachi, among a minority group of Hindu peasants.
Because of their low status the children are not accepted in government schools.
The Notre Dame Institute of Education provides two schools for children of various castes, creeds and cultures.
In central London, I have witnessed the work of Sr Lynda Dearlove at the Women-at-the Well drop-in centre where women who have been victims of trafficking and prostitution are cherished and helped.
And I could go on and on … because, all over the Mercy world, there are quiet revolutions happening.
Mercy Sisters have abandoned their uniforms to become a leaven for good in a hurting world; walking with the un-churched, homosexuals, refugees, battered women, the sick and the broken – doing over and over again what Catherine did in her day.
Mercy women are breaking out of all attempts at restriction to reach for the unreachable.
These extraordinary women take very seriously Catherine McAuley’s call to instruct the ignorant by challenging “deliberate ignorance”. (Helen Marie Burns, in Mercy Global Concern’s DVD, Frayneworks, Multi-Media, Australia, 2007)
As Mercy Sister Helen Marie Burns reminds us, “Many of us prefer not to know because knowing brings with it a responsibility to act.”
So why do we Sisters of Mercy do what we do?
Like Catherine in Dublin, we know that it is not enough to be compassionate, we must act.
Experience allows us to concur with the teaching of the apostle James: “… faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)
Catherine McAuley disturbed the status quo. When the Church of her day tried to define what a Mercy way of life might look like, Catherine had other ideas and reached for the unreachable.
She defined Mercy then and now by ministering to women left illiterate by systems around them; she honoured the sick and dying and useless levels of society by attending to them.
She spoke for the silenced ones and sent her Sisters far beyond the pale of every nation to reach out healing hands to peoples all over the globe.
Today, Mercy Sisters, our associates and our students have grasped her spirit and are moving forward, for we are part of a team marching boldly and doing what needs to be done, holding to the truth that the spirit can never be controlled.
Do I believe that the spirit of Catherine McAuley has influenced women’s global issues? Yes, I believe she has.
Let us resolve today to turn our attention to these issues, so that 100 years from now, when the history books are analysing our own contribution, it shall be written:
They advocated, demanded and realised change.