Adventures in Feministory: Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy
As a radical feminist, raging homo, and recovering Catholic, I’ve rarely, if ever, felt compelled to wax poetic about any organization affiliated with the Catholic Church. Then I met a Sister of Mercy, and my dogmatic belief in Catholicism’s all-encompassing evil was shot dead on the spot.
The Sisters of Mercy work internationally to promote social justice in ways that are often political and sometimes piss off the Vatican. In the United States, they are one of the groups of nuns currently being investigated by the Vatican, ostensibly because they don’t wear habits, live independently, and are committed to fixing societal problems even if it means occasionally pooh-poohing some of the Church’s archaic stances on things like abortion, condoms, and solutions to the AIDS crisis.
The sisters’ work continues the legacy of their accidental founder, Catherine McAuley. McAuley was born into a wealthy Irish family in 1778, and after inheriting a large sum of money in 1822, she decided to lease a property in her hometown of Dublin to take in poor women and children, and to provide them with shelter, food, and an education. Other women in the area were impressed by her compassion and decided to join her in her mission. The Church wasn’t too keen on a group of women setting up shop without its approval, so Catherine decided to become a nun in order to make things look more official and keep the community appeased. On December 12, 1831, McAuley took her vows, and she returned to the home she started as the first Sister of Mercy.
McAuley only lived for ten more years after her return, but in that time she founded 14 other Sisters of Mercy communities in England and Ireland. By 1954, the Sisters of Mercy had made their way to New York City and San Francisco, where they opened schools and hospitals and continued to spread throughout the Americas. Today, there are 10,000 Sisters of Mercy serving in the Americas, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and the Philippines.
The Sisters of Mercy typically embed themselves in communities addled by drugs, poverty, unemployment, war, and racism, and work to address the causes of these social ills. In the tradition of their founder, the welfare of women and children is their main priority, but they work with anyone who’s down and out, regardless of gender. They’re known for being active and recognizable members of the community, as opposed to living isolated in a convent (they’re like a non-fictional version of Sister Act.) You can find them providing a community space for drug addicts in Southwest Baltimore, teaching in the public school system in West Philiadelphia, helping the chronically homeless get off of the streets, and getting low-cost medication to poor and uninsured HIV patients. They take political stances, like when they recently lobbied for governments to recognize the human rights violations occurring after a recent military coup in Honduras, or when they criticized Bush’s veto of a bill that would have provided all children with affordable health insurance. Their charter and mission statement spell out their philosophies regarding the different issues they’ve devoted their lives to addressing. On the environment, they vow to “to reverence Earth and work more effectively toward the sustainability of life and toward universal recognition of the fundamental right to water.” They also vow to stand in solidarity with immigrants, recognizing not only poverty as the main cause of migration, but also the difficulty immigrants face when forced to leave their homes and cultures to make a way in a new one. Housing, healthcare, education, and racism are all issues that the sisters’ work continues to address.
All-in-all, these are some pretty radical ladies. They are in direct contrast to just about everything the Church has come to represent for me. My friend, whose aunt is the Sister of Mercy who blew my mind, described her aunt’s community of nuns in West Philadelphia as a sort of commune made up of some of the most progressive women she had ever met. Her aunt could barely control her eye-rolling when she talked about the Vatican’s investigation. “It’s always a struggle trying work within this male hierarchy,” she said. “But it’s a good thing, I think. A lot of people think of nuns as being subservient, but in reality we’re all given the chance to devote our lives to our work.” All of the Sisters are given the opportunity to pursue a Master’s, and many of the women were already in advanced professions upon joining.
It seems to me that the Church is a double-edged sword for many in the community. It provides the spirituality that the women entering the Sisters of Mercy are looking for, and allows them to devote their lives to social justice. The oppressive tendencies of the male leadership, as well as the Church’s tendency to separate itself from reality, are just a couple of hurdles to jump over. And let’s face it, who among us hasn’t had to deal with an asshole boss? The investigation is unfortunate, but if anyone can get through it, it’s these clever ladies.
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