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Chapter 6 — Sisters of Mercy

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This chapter deals with topics that are of general application to the industrial schools run by the Sisters of Mercy. It begins with a brief history of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, and then discusses various topics, including the organisational structure of the Congregation, the way in which their religious vows impacted on the nature and quality of the care they provided, and the response of the Congregation to allegations of abuse in their institutions.

Foundation and mission of the Sisters of Mercy


The Sisters of Mercy date their foundation as a Congregation to 12th December 1831, when Catherine McAuley and two companions made their religious professions at the Presentation Convent, George’s Hill, Dublin and adopted and modified the rules of the Presentation Order as their Rule and Constitutions. In 1835, Pope Gregory XVI gave his approval and blessing to the Congregation for its dedication to the work of ‘helping the poor, relieving the sick in every possible way, and safeguarding, by the exercise of charity, women who find themselves in circumstances dangerous to virtue’. The Holy See approved the Rule and Constitutions of the Congregation in 1841. Later that same year, Catherine McAuley died after 10 years of service as Superior of the Congregation. She founded 10 convents in Ireland and two in England. After her death, the Congregation spread to six continents, with communities in North America (1842), Australia (1846), South America (1856), Africa (1896), Asia (1953) and Europe. It was recognised as an Institute of Pontifical Right in 1926.


In their Submission to the Commission, the Sisters of Mercy described the system of organisation that developed as the Congregation expanded: While there was one original foundation at Baggot St., Dublin, each individual convent, as it was founded, was established as an autonomous unit with its own governance structure and its own responsibility for attracting new members. Any new foundation thus had a limited pool of Sisters at any given time. One might almost regard each group of Sisters in a local Convent as a self-contained small Congregation.


Thus, each convent was autonomous, and evolved through local, diocesan and provincial arrangements, but they all shared the common values set out by Catherine McAuley, and the Congregation says that these values ‘must have influenced the way in which the schools were run’.


The mission of the Sisters is to provide for the relief, education and protection of the poor. This mission has been expressed in different language over the years. The 1926 edition of the Rule and Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy, which was applicable for most of the relevant period of the Inquiry, sets it out as follows: Of the Object of the Congregation The Sisters admitted to this Religious Congregation, besides attending particularly to their own perfection, which is the principal end of all Religious Institutes, should also have in view what is the peculiar characteristic of this Congregation: i.e., the most assiduous application to the Education of poor Girls, the Visitation of the Sick and the Protection of poor Women of good character. In undertaking this arduous but meritorious duty of instructing the Poor, the Sisters whom God has vouchsafed to call to this state of perfection should animate their zeal and fervour by the example of their Divine Master, Jesus Christ, who has testified on all occasions a tender love for the Poor, and has declared that he would consider as done to Himself whatever should be done unto them.



Despite sharing a mission and Rule and Constitutions, the Sisters of Mercy continued to develop as separate units. They were not a unitary Congregation and did not have any central authority in the period from 1936 to 1994. Unlike the Christian Brothers and other Congregations, which were organised along provincial lines, with Provincial Councils and, above them, a unitary central Supreme Council with a Superior General, the Sisters of Mercy were organisationally a large number of separate Communities that were united only by their adherence to the same discipline and Rule.


Most of the Sisters of Mercy houses were individual Communities, usually consisting of a single convent, whose members worked in the local area operating a school or some other charitable function, but the Community could also consist of a small number of separate convents controlled by a Mother House. An exception to this arrangement occurred in Dublin, in which the Carysfort Community was the Mother House for all the separate convents in the Archdiocese. This included, for example, the Mater Hospital, many primary and secondary schools, the convent at Goldenbridge, whose members operated both the Industrial School and the national school, and also worked in the local community, and Rathdrum. Carysfort was the closest parallel to a provincial structure because it had a large number of satellite Communities. The more usual situation was for a convent to stand alone or to have just one or two offshoots. For example, in the case of Clifden, there was one such subsidiary house at Carna. In Cappoquin, the convent was self-contained and controlled the Industrial School, which later became group homes. It also operated a secondary school. It stood separate from the other convents in the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore. Newtownforbes and Dundalk were also separate entities and thus independent Communities.


During the Emergence hearings, Sr Breege O’Neill, then Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy, outlined the organisational structure of the Congregation: At that time [1831] she [Catherine McAuley] was very clear that for us to be able to be about that work it was important that we would be locally based, and that we would not be constrained by central Government ... It emerged within 20 years of her founding the first house of the Order in Baggot Street. There were convents established in each of the 26 diocese in Ireland ... In some there might have been eight or nine convents ... These convents were autonomous. They were totally, completely and entirely responsible for their own affairs really. There was little central or there was not a coordinating structure among the convents ... there was not a sort of a central Government that established these, but they were established in each locality according to the need of the locality at the time.


In his evidence, Dr Eoin O’Sullivan ascribed the popularity of the Sisters of Mercy with the bishops, and their pre-eminence in the industrial school system, to the organisational structure of the Congregation: ... Bishops throughout the country were looking to have industrial schools in their diocese. They had difficulties with some of the Congregations, particularly the Christian Brothers and the Irish Sisters of Charity on the basis that the Bishop did not have a rule over these Congregations, effectively they took their rule from their provincial leader which probably was based in Dublin. So the Christian Brothers, while they had a working relationship with the Bishop, they ultimately took their rule from their Provincial. Whereas, the Sisters of Mercy, to the best of my knowledge, took their rule from the local Bishop. Bishops far preferred Sisters of Mercy than other Congregations, they were easier to control.


All this changed following the Second Vatican Council, when the Sisters of Mercy agreed that there would be a central jurisdiction in each diocese, but there was still no hierarchy of power as between one diocesan central authority and another. The process of amalgamation into diocesan central organisations began in the 1960s, but was not completed in the State as a whole until the 1980s. During the period of this development, a further centralising process was undertaken whereby the Sisters now agreed to adopt a central organisation for all Sisters of Mercy members and institutions. This overall centralising movement was completed in 1994, and so the two processes were moving in parallel for a period of time. Sr Breege O’Neill described this process as follows: ... our structure changed over the years. In that while we had that autonomous sort of way in the beginning after Vatican Council there was a move to amalgamate the houses in each diocese. That really came out of the sort of the thinking of Vatican II. We set about that and for the next 20 years, from the 60s to the mid 80s that process of amalgamation happened in the 26 diocese. So by the mid 80s we were now diocesan based with a leadership structure in each diocese ... When we had that in place we decided that it would be good to bring the 26 individual units together in another amalgamation. That was because at that time in the mid 80s our numbers were declining. We had a huge spread of ministries throughout the country and we were looking at how could we rationalise, how could we pool our resources so that we could be more effective in the work we were doing ... So by 1994 we formed an amalgamation of those 26 units, together with the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in South Africa, because they had a connection with Ireland. That is our present structure, which has four provincial units in Ireland. In 1994 we were almost 4,000 people. At the moment in Ireland we have 2,620 Sisters residing in 392 local community houses throughout Ireland.


Prior to 1983, all Sisters of Mercy Communities, regardless of their size, were subject to the authority and jurisdiction of the local bishop. Under the 1926 Rule and Constitutions, he was the Principal Superior of the Congregation after the Holy See. All Sisters were instructed to ‘respect and obey him’. The bishop was given the power to nominate a priest to attend to the regulation and good order of the Community, both in terms of spiritual and worldly matters. The importance of this priest’s role in the running of individual convents was clear from the following provision: He shall watch over the exact observance of the Constitutions, for the purpose of maintaining good order, peace and charity, and he shall assist the Mother Superior with his counsel and advice, in all important affairs. She shall not undertake any matter of importance relating to the Monastery or the Community, without the Bishop’s consent.


The bishop as Principal Superior, after the Holy See, was required to visit the convent at least once every three years. The Superior, or the priest he nominated, was in addition obliged to undertake an annual Visitation, during which he met with each Sister separately. If such Visitations took place, they do not appear to have been recorded, because no records of them were discovered to the Commission.


Each Community had a similar organisation. The Mother Superior was elected for a term of three years by the Chapter and was eligible for re-election for a further term. The Chapter was composed of all Sisters who had a vote. The Mother Superior selected her assistants and proposed them for election. Where the convent did not contain a quorum, i.e. seven Sisters, the bishop nominated the Mother Superior.


The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Dublin was the largest Community of Sisters of Mercy in Ireland. Its structure was set out in the Rule and Constitutions of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Dublin.1 This document did not alter the position of the bishop as the Principal Superior, or his nominated priest, but it did change the way the Sisters governed themselves. Supreme authority was ordinarily vested in the Superior General and her Council, and extraordinarily vested in the General Chapter. The General Chapter elected the Superior General and her Council. The Superior General and her Council had the right to transfer Sisters from one house to another. The Council also appointed the local Superiors.


Isolation from other Sisters of Mercy institutions was not a necessary feature of life in Goldenbridge Industrial School, because it was part of the family of institutions under the central authority of Carysfort. The Superior General of Carysfort appointed the Resident Managers and selected the Sisters who were sent to Goldenbridge. Goldenbridge was under the direct control of Carysfort in all matters concerning finance and other related matters. This arrangement would have been expected to give rise to regular exchanges of personnel and a flow of communication, but the reality was otherwise. There are no records of meetings or correspondence or any other documentation between the Resident Manager of Goldenbridge and the Superior in Carysfort. In their Opening Statement of 15th March 2005, the Sisters of Mercy made the following remark in respect of the reporting structure that operated between the Mother House and the Goldenbridge branch house at that time: Reporting relationships were not very formal and probably depended very much on the personalities and expectations of the Superior in Carysfort and the local superior or resident manager in Goldenbridge.

  1. 1954 (these Constitutions were revised in 1969, 1972, and 1985).
  2. This is a pseudonym.
  3. The Commission of Inquiry into the Reformatory and Industrial School System, which was required to report to the Minister for Education on the Reformatory and Industrial School System, began its work in 1934, and furnished a report to the Minister in 1936. It was under the Chairmanship of District Justice Cussen.
  4. This is a pseudonym.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. This is a pseudonym.