Sister Mary Aikenhead (1787-1858), who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in 1815 to provide services to “the suffering poor”, has been declared Venerable by Pope Francis. Being declared Venerable is the second of four steps in the Catholic Church’s Canonisation process.
Throughout the world today Religious Sisters of Charity are in Ireland, England, Scotland, Zambia, California, Nigeria, Malawi and Australia. Religious Sisters of Charity continue to work courageously and creatively with people who are poor in the areas of healthcare, education, pastoral and social work.
They actively engage in advocacy, action and prayer for people in need, linking and networking with others in the quest for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. When Mary Aikenhead set up her Congregation two hundred years ago, there were only a hundred women religious in Ireland, all enclosed contemplatives.
Mary applied to Rome for permission for her Sisters to take a fourth vow of ‘Service of the Poor’, enabling them to visit poor people in their own homes; those who were sick and hungry and cold and penniless and with no one to turn to.
With the support of Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin, she received her training in Religious Life at the Bar Convent, York where, under the guidance of the Loreto Sisters, she was formed in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.
Mary and her sisters became the first women religious to visit prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol. In 1830, she opened her first Catholic school for poor children in Gardiner Street, Dublin. Against all odds she founded St Vincent’s Hospital in 1834, the first Hospital in Ireland to be run by women to care for patients of all creeds and where doctors and nurses could receive training.
In 1838 Mary Aikenhead sent five Sisters to Australia, the first women religious to set foot in this country. Sister Clare Nolan, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, concurs with Sister Mary Christian, Congregational Leader of the Religious Sisters of Charity in Ireland that Mary Aikenhead was a woman ahead of her time.