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Mary Aikenhead servant of the poor

Mary Aikenhead

One step closer: Leader of Australia’s first religious congregation, Ireland-based Sisters of Charity, is on the road to sainthood.

MARY Aikenhead formed the Sisters of Charity in Dublin, Ireland, in 1815, with the special mission of serving the poor, at a time of widespread famine and growing unemployment.

Known as the walking nuns, they were the first to take their work beyond the cloistered convent directly to the streets, helping the poorest and most neglected people in their homes.

Mary started schools, realising that education was the key to break the cycle of poverty.

She fulfilled her great dream of establishing a hospital, which she called St Vincent’s after St Vincent de Paul, who had dedicated himself to serving the poor.

The hospital was for the poor where they could be treated with love and dignity. 

Born into a comfortable family with a Catholic mother and a Protestant father in 1787, Mary was baptised in the religious tradition of her father.

She was fostered, which was common, for the first years of her life, in a poor Catholic family.

Upon returning to the family home, her father’s religion and position provided the opportunity for Mary to have a good education and social access.

The work of Mary’ s father with the Irish poor had an influence upon her.

At 15 she chose the faith of her mother.

Upon hearing the story of the poor man Lazarus and the rich man Dives (Luke 16:19-31), Mary began to develop a life choice to help the poor.

In 1812, supported by Daniel Murray, coadjutor archbishop of Dublin, Mary and her companion, Catherine Walsh went to the Bar Convent, York  (Mary Ward’s sisters), to be formed in the religious life.

They returned to Dublin in 1815 and Mary began her life’s work, taking a fourth vow of service of the poor.

Soon after Mary set up the congregation, she was told about the needs of the Church in Australia by Bishop John Bede Polding, its first bishop.

He wanted religious sisters to work with the downtrodden Catholic women convicts at the Female Factory in Parramatta.

Moved by stories of the plight of the poor, Mary called for volunteers to go to the New South Wales colony and eventually sent five sisters.

They were the first religious women in Australia.

Today Sisters of Charity are in Ireland, England, Scotland, Zambia, California, Nigeria, Malawi and Australia.

They continue to work courageously and creatively with people who are poor, in the areas of healthcare, education, and pastoral and social work.

Congregational leader of the Sisters of Charity of Australia Sr Clare Nolan said: “Mary Aikenhead’s life teaches and inspires us to dream courageous visions, to have compassion for human pain, to analyse unjust structures which are the cause of poverty, to work with others to solve problems and to remain resolute in the face of hardship.”

On March 18, Mary Aikenhead, who died in July 1858, was declared Venerable by Pope Francis.

The Sisters of Charity ask that anyone who has requests granted through the intercession of Mary Aikenhead to notify Sr Elizabeth Dodds by email at

Written by: Staff writers
Catholic Church Insurance

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