On September 24, we will celebrate the 195th anniversary of the day Catherine McAuley opened the doors of the House of Mercy on Baggot Street. This began her ministry of serving the poor, the sick, and those in need of education. Beginning on September 17, we will “Celebrate Mercy” in history, poetry, education, art, justice, music, ministry, and prayer through reflections written by sisters.
By Sister Mary C. Sullivan
What gift did God give the Mercy family on September 24, 1827, and what does God ask of us on that day? I often ponder these questions—especially when the ancient feast of Our Lady of Mercy approaches each year.
On that day 195 years ago, God spread over our Mercy Family the great warm Shawl of God’s Mercy, and asked us to extend it, as wide as we could, over the poor, sick, ignorant, lonely, hungry, and suffering of our own time and place. September 24 in 1827 was the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, an ancient feast day of Jesus’ Mother Mary (now no longer a feast day in the calendar of the Roman Church). On that day, God asked us to do what Mary had always done: to stretch out over all God’s beloved people the Shawl of God’s own merciful comfort and help, the sheltering Cloak of God’s own tenderness.
September 24 was for centuries the ancient feast of Our Lady of Mercy, also called Our Lady of Refuge and Our Lady of Ransom. To honor this feast, many Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca—in his Madonna della Misericordia—chose to paint Mary in a long red dress with her wide and outstretched blue cloak mercifully sheltering men, women, and children.
And in Dublin on that day in 1827, Catherine McAuley extended the great Shawl of God’s Mercifulness by opening wide the front door of the newly built House of Mercy on Baggot Street, and beginning a protective school for poor Irish girls, and a welcoming shelter for homeless servant women.
Catherine’s sister Mary had died in late August, and Catherine was now caring for Mary’s five children, two young cousins, and at least two orphans. Therefore, she herself could not live at Baggot Street just then, so she asked her fifteen-year-old cousin Catherine Byrn and a new friend, Anna Maria Doyle, to move into the house on September 24, 1827, and to open wide the Merciful Shawl of the school and the shelter on that very day. 1
Ever since then, the gift of God’s own out-stretched Merciful Shawl has been a persistent, enabling call to each of us throughout the Mercy world. It daily asks us weak, ordinary human beings to accept the weight and duties of God’s Shawl of Mercy and to extend its sheltering comfort to all God’s beloved people.
We remember that night during the 1832 cholera epidemic, when Catherine was kneeling beside a young woman who had just given birth and then died of cholera. Catherine “had such compassion on the infant that she brought it home under her shawl and put it to sleep in a little bed in her own cell, but as you may guess the little thing cried all night.” 2 The child, of course, needed to be fed, so the next day a loving wet-nurse was found.
That is just one early moment in the long story of the out-stretched Shawl of God’s Mercy that constantly covers and calls us. It doesn’t wait for our convenience, clear calendars, or adequate capacity.
This Shawl, or an outstretched woolen Cloak in winter months, has been an essential part of the Mercy “habit” from the very beginning. Its God-given meaning and Gospel dimensions are wider than the first Book of Customs realized or noted. The Shawl and the Cloak were then and are now sacramental, liturgical vestments, quietly laid out by God for the merciful service God asks.
And by the grace and gift of our Merciful God these vestments have never worn out. They are still reaching out and sheltering God’s beloved people in Guam, Brooklyn, Kenya, New Zealand, Missouri, Manila, London, Samoa, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Vietnam—wherever suffering people look for mercifulness, refuge, hope, peace, compassion, and there is a Sister of Mercy, an Associate, a Companion, or a Friend of Mercy nearby.
This is what we commemorate on September 24, 1827.
This is what we celebrate on September 24, 2022.
September 24 is not a vague “Mercy Day.” (Yes, a thoughtful, loving meal together is a good idea, but that is not the centerpiece of the day.)
September 24 is a holy day; it asks us to call to mind:
–the outstretched Shawl of Our Lady of Mercy’s own compassionate “Fiat” and Visitation journey;
–all the extensions of Jesus Christ’s own merciful Shawl, embracing all those who sought his refuge and shelter;
–and all the initial acts of merciful outreach by which, in 1827, God’s own Mercifulness inaugurated a new community of Shawl and Cloak wearers who would reach out to shelter and soothe the poverties, sicknesses, and debilitating ignorance of God’s beloved people throughout the world.
In the original Rule which she composed for us and which was approved in Rome in July 1841, Catherine asked us to pray in a special way on this feast day of Our Lady of Mercy. She asked us to turn to Mary, begging “that we may always, and on all occasions, be favored with [her] singular assistance, especially in the arduous functions of the Institute, and in the practice of every religious virtue.”
Catherine especially wished us to pray that Mary “will be graciously pleased to obtain that perfect union of hearts and minds may always reign amongst us, that we may ever be faithful to the observance of our rules, and persevere to the end of our lives in the spirit and grace of our vocation.” 3
It is a humble prayer of consecration and supplication, addressed to Mary, the merciful Mother of Jesus, whom Catherine regarded as the “principal Patron and Protectress” of the religious congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. 4
Perhaps this year, during some quiet moment on September 24, 2022, we might each ask ourselves what the gift of God’s gracious, outstretched Merciful Shawl and Catherine’s own humble words might mean for us today.
2 CMcATM, 98
3 CMcATM, 310-11
4 CMcATM, 310