Mary Aikenhead

mary aikenheadBorn in Cork in 1787 of an upper class Protestant father and Catholic mother, Mary Aikenhead was deeply affected by her father’s work as a doctor among the Irish poor and by his death-bed conversion to Catholicism. In 1802, she became a Catholic and, in 1808, went to stay with her friend Anne O’Brien in Dublin. Here she witnessed widespread unemployment and poverty and soon began to accompany her generous friend in visiting the poor and sick in their homes.

It was in Mrs O’Brien’s home that Mary first met Fr Daniel Murray when he visited Anne to work out their plans for reaching out to the poor. Mary came to appreciate the deep love for God that inspired their constant anxiety on behalf of the poor. In her growing awareness of being called by God to religious life, Mary realised that her call to serve the poor meant she could not join an enclosed order. In the meantime, she needed to return to Cork to help her frail mother so, after consulting with Fr Murray, she returned to Cork.

Founding of a New Religious Congregation

By 1809, Mary was free to return to Dublin; at the same time, Fr Murray was appointed coadjutor Bishop of Dublin. Over the next five years, together they planned the founding of the new religious congregation of the Sisters of Charity. Recognising that Mary had all the gifts needed, “a great heart and a willing mind”, Bishop Murray convinced her to agree to become the foundress.

Realising that she needed to be trained in the spirit and traditions of religious life, Mary travelled with Alicia Walsh to the Loreto Bar Convent in York. From May 1812 to August 1815, they completed their novitiate there.

At the Bar Convent, York

At York, their studies and formation were based on the spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola. Through his Spiritual Exercises, Mary developed a deep life of prayer, marked by the habit of praying always, of living in the presence of God, and striving to find God in all things. Her ideal became that of St Ignatius: to become contemplatives in action. Ignatian spirituality thus became the spiritual heritage of her own congregation.

In 1815, Archbishop Murray received the private vows of Mary Aikenhead and Alicia Walsh (Mother Catherine). Added to the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, was a fourth vow: to devote their lives to the service of the poor, which was to be understood as to render the Congregation extensively useful.

Vows for Life

On December 9, 1816, after receiving the official confirmation of their canonical status as a religious congregation and after completing the Spiritual Exercises under the guidance of Fr Peter Kenny, the two sisters made their perpetual profession. In 1817, at a public ceremony to celebrate the foundation of the congregation, the text of Fr Kenny’s sermon was: “Caritas Christi urget nos” (2 Cor 5:14), which subsequently became the motto of the Sisters of Charity.

With the founding of the Congregation in 1815, the first work undertaken by the fledgling community was at the Women’s Refuge established earlier by Anne O’Brien. Soon many other works followed: the care of orphans, visitation of the sick in hospitals, the poor in their homes, and prisoners in gaol, and a system of schools for the children of the poor. Mary had long dreamed of opening a hospital for the sick poor. During the 1832 cholera epidemic, the sisters ministered tirelessly to help with patient care in the city’s hospitals and people’s homes. A number of sisters succumbed to the epidemic, including Mary’s own sister Anne, known in religion as Sister M. Ignatius Aikenhead.

1834 St Vincent’s Hospital Dublin Opened

Eventually, Mary began to realise her dream. She secured professional nursing training for some of her sisters, the honorary services of generous physicians and surgeons, and other support from the local community. In 1834, Mary opened St Vincent’s Hospital Dublin, dedicated to care of all sick poor, regardless of background or creed. This first hospital was to be the model for the numerous Sisters of Charity health care facilities.

From this time until her death on July 22, 1858, Mary ministered tirelessly for the poor, together with the companions who joined her as Sisters of Charity, and her many lay friends. Over her grave at St Mary’s Donnybrook, Dublin, is a large Celtic cross and below it the inscription:

“I comforted the widow, I was an eye to the blind, a foot to the lame, to the poor I was a mother.” (Job 29:14, 16)