Emory Saint Joseph's celebrates Sisters of Mercy

Jan. 20, 2015

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Catherine Elizabeth McAuley

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Mary Beth Spence
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The story of Saint Joseph's began in Dublin, Ireland in the early 1800s, when Catherine Elizabeth McAuley followed her father's example of reaching out to those in need. Some of her earliest work included offering religious instruction and distributing food and clothing to the poor.

In 1827, upon receiving a sizable inheritance Catherine McAuley was inspired to use her fortune to continue and expand these works by establishing the House of Mercy on Baggot Street in Dublin to shelter and educate women and girls. Although her original intention was to assemble a lay corps of Catholic social workers, the Archbishop of Dublin advised her to establish a religious congregation.

Four years later in 1831, McAuley and three other women took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in addition to a fourth vow, pledging themselves to "the service of the poor, sick and ignorant," thus formally founding the Sisters of Mercy.

Known as the “walking nuns,” McAuley and the Sisters traveled the streets of Dublin helping the poor, and staffed a hospital during a cholera epidemic in 1832.

Although McAuley passed away in 1841 living only ten years as a Sister of Mercy, she is credited with establishing 12 foundations in Ireland and two in England. At the time of her death, there were 150 Sisters of Mercy, and shortly thereafter, small groups of sisters left Ireland to establish branches of the order in Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. At the invitation of the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Sisters of Mercy traveled to the United States, and soon founded branches of the religious community in Baltimore, New York, Providence, Chicago and Savannah.

Through the years, Mother McAuley's mission of caring for the sick with dignity, respect and compassion continued, when four Sisters of Mercy traveled from Savannah to Atlanta in 1880 to establish Saint Joseph's, the city's first hospital. With only 50 cents among them, the Sisters were determined to further the healing ministry of Christ.

Over the last 135 years, the Sisters have kept that mission alive, inspiring the nurses, physicians, board members and all of the people who work at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital to live that mission daily.

In honor of Mother McAuley, the McAuley Award was established 35 years ago at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital. This monthly award is given to an employee who exemplifies Mother McAuley's life, healing ministry and spirit of providing compassionate care to those in need.

Today, through the determination of a woman driven to make a difference in early nineteenth century Ireland, more than 7,000 Sisters of Mercy continue Mother McAuley's mission around the globe through the foundation of hospitals and schools and work in pastoral and social services.