The following article by Nicola Depuis gives an account of the life of our foundress Mary Aikenhead. It is a chapter from the book ‘Mna na hEireann’ published by Mercier Press, Cork in 2009.
Cork–born Mary Aikenhead was a woman ahead of her time. She was born during an era when women were expected to be subservient and quiet, yet Mary, with her unrelenting belief in Diving Providence and her devotion to ‘God’s nobility – the suffering poor’, cast off the expected limitations of her sex as she set about establishing the Roman Catholic order of the Religious Sisters of Charity. She opened the first hospital in Ireland ever to be run by religious sisters or, more importantly, by women. Her belief that ‘just because it has never been done before, there is no reason why it should not be done now’ was put into practice time and time again, as she became the first religious woman in Ireland to visit prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol and the foundress of the first sisterhood to set foot in Australia. A true feminist, she was fearless in challenging clerics about the just treatment of her congregation. In her seventy-two years, Mary reached out and touched the lives of many, lifting the spirits of the suffering poor and inspiring generations of women to do the same.
Mary’s life began on 19 January 1787. She was the first-born child of Dr David Aikenhead, a wealthy apothecary and property owner of Scottish Protestant descent, and Mary Stackpole, an aristocratic Catholic from a wealthy merchant family.
She was fostered out to Mary and John Rourke, who lived on Eason’s Hill, for the first few years of her life, although why this was done is unclear. This was to prove a fateful decision as Mary, baptised a Protestant, began to mix with the poorer Catholics in the Shandon area – a portion of society that she would have been cut off from had she spent these formative years with her aristocratic birth parents. When she was six, her parents brought her home to live with them. She was sent to a nearby school for the daughters of Protestant gentlemen, where she was to be prepared for life in genteel society.
When Mary was twelve, her mother’s sister Rebecca Gorman returned from a stay at a convent in Bruges, where she had been leading a religious life. Rebecca was to have a huge influence on Mary, lending her religious books and often bringing her along to mass and benediction. On one of these occasions, Mary heard a sermon by Dr Florence McCarthy, coadjutor bishop of Cork, at the South Parish church. It was about the parable of Dives and Lazarus, in which an uncaring rich man ends up in a place of torment while a poor man inherits paradise. Having lived amongst both the rich and the poor, Mary felt called to act. Poverty was widespread in Ireland in the nineteenth century. Many people were unable to afford shelter, food, health-care or education, and children were frequently abandoned and left to fend for themselves. At the age of fifteen, Mary was received into the Catholic Church and developed an interest in the religious life. She considered joining the Presentation Sisters but was disheartened by the idea of enclosure, as she felt strongly about retaining the freedom to visit the sick poor in their homes.
Through the connections of her good friend Anna Maria O’Brien, Mary was introduced to Dr Daniel Murray, future archbishop of Dublin and a man who was to play a huge role in her life. Dr Murray was hoping to establish a congregation of religious sisters who would visit the poor in their own homes, similar to the French Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. To Mary’s surprise, he proposed that since she had ‘a great heart and a willing mind’ she should lead this new venture as the first mother superior of the new congregation. Her claims of inexperience and a lack of training in the religious life were dismissed, and in 1812, unable to enter France because of the political climate, Mary and her companion Alicia Walsh entered the Bar Convent in York belonging to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary took the name Sister Mary Augustine but was to be known throughout her life as Mrs Aikenhead. Three years later, Mary and Alicia (now Sister Mary Catherine) returned to Ireland where Dr Murray had prepared their first convent on North William Street off Summerhill in Dublin. The two women immediately set to work making the ‘walking nuns’ a reality.
In 1816, Pope Pius VII gave his approval to the establishment of the congregation, and on 9 December Dr Murray received the perpetual vows of Sr Mary Augustine and Sr Mary Catherine into the Pious Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity. The congregation’s motto became Caritas Christi urget nos (the charity of Christ urges us). The constitution of the congregation called for vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, as well as a fourth vow obliging the sisters to devote their lives to the service of the poor. Though very short of funds and constantly relying on the ‘rich bank’ of God’s providence, in 1819 Mary opened a second convent on Stanhope Street, where she personally instructed the novices. As the number of novices grew, Mary and the sisters, with the help of the Society of Friends and the Christian Brothers, opened new schools for the education of the poor on Gardiner Street (1830) and in Sandymount (1831). However, whilst visiting the sick poor, several of the young sisters picked up illnesses from which they eventually died, and it was Mary who nursed them day and night. But to every challenge and struggle, Mary’s constant response was, ‘God’s will. Amen!’
At the age of forty-four, Mary’s health began to fail and she spent most of the last thirty years of her life either in a wheelchair or on a couch, crippled with spinal problems, dropsy and eventually paralysis. It was under these difficult circumstances that she ran the congregation, mainly through the use of her ‘lame pen’.
Mary’s activity was unceasing. She directed her sisters in their heroic work during the cholera epidemics of both 1832 and 1833 and the famine in the 1840s. She undertook the management of many institutions, including a refuge for prostitutes on Townsend Street. She sent sisters to Australia in 1838 and to England in 1840, and she continued to play a very active role in organising the convents and raising money for the various charitable works in which the sisters were engaged. Many have said that she did her best work from her sickbed – an inspiring feat in itself.
From her own experience helping the sick poor, the majority of whom were Catholic, Mary began to recognise an urgent need for a hospital where Catholic doctors and nurses could be trained. She envisaged a hospital for patients of all creeds where both the poor and her own sisters, who were very susceptible to disease, could be treated. Even though the Act of Catholic Emancipation had been passed in 1829, Catholics were still excluded from positions of trust, including posts in public hospitals and schools of medicine. With this in mind, Mary appealed for donations to start a hospital for the most needy. She wrote 4,000 letters from her sickbed, where she also hand-made bolster slips and pillowcases for the hospital. In January 1834, her dream was realised when she opened St Vincent’s Hospital in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. It was the first Catholic hospital in Ireland since the Reformation and the first to be run by religious sisters. Nursing as a profession in the modern sense was unknown at the time, but Mary Aikenhead helped to raise the level of respect and recognition awarded to nurses. It was recorded that the first operation at the hospital was performed on a little boy who lay in Mary Aikenhead’s lap throughout the procedure.
In 1845, Mary moved to a house in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, where she spent the last thirteen years of her life. The evening before she died she was told that a messenger had come from the Magdalen Asylum in Donnybrook to enquire how she was. Aware that the next day would be the feast of Mary Magdalen, always a special day of celebration for the residents, she replied, ‘If I die tomorrow, do not tell the poor penitents until the day after as it would spoil their pleasure.’ These were her last recorded words. She died at 3 p.m. on 22 July 1858, forty-three years after taking her vows. Such was her impact on the poor and working people of Ireland that a deputation from a body of Dublin workmen requested, as a favour, that they might be allowed to carry her coffin to the grave, and a farmer wrote in a letter to his cousin, ‘In her, Ireland’s poor have lost their best friend. No other woman ever did so much for them.’ Since Mary ‘s death her congregation has spread to many parts of the world, including Scotland, America, Venezuela, Zambia and Nigeria, where they continue to work in schools, hospitals and prisons.