180 years ago, on November 2nd, 1843, seven Sisters of Mercy left Carlow town for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. They were the first Mercy Sisters to arrive in the USA and the story of their success is a story in progress, writes Ray Cleere of The Carlow Seven Sisters


On April 10th, 1837, the first Mercy Sisters, led by foundress Catherine McAuley, alighted from Purcell’s coach at the Blue Bell Inn on the Dublin road, in Carlow. They were met by Bishop Edward Nolan, the then Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin; Dr. Andrew Fitzgerald, the then President of Carlow College, clergy and townspeople.

They were welcomed in Carlow College and they dined with the community in the Presentation Convent. In time they established their convent at St. Leo’s, Dublin Road, Carlow. It is still the centre of their educational establishment.
Catherine McAuley intended her sisters to be “walking sisters” as distinct from cloistered sisters. She wanted to bring the message of Christ into the back streets and alleyways of the towns and cities of Ireland, where the poor lived at the time. She wanted her sisters to visit the sick; to run schools for poor children; to set up orphanages for abandoned children and houses of refuge for distressed women.

Her strategy was extraordinarily modern. It was one of rapid response to every invitation from clergy or committed lay folk to help alleviate the plight of the poor in their parishes or communities if personnel and resources allowed. In her ten years as superior of the order from 1831 until her death in 1841, she had founded houses in Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), Tullamore, Charleville, Birr, Carlow, Cork, Limerick, Booterstown, London, Galway and Birmingham.

In 1843, Bishop Michael O’Connor, the then newly appointed Bishop of Pittsburgh, was a native of Cobh (then Queenstown), in County Cork, who had studied in France and Rome. He knew the then future Cardinal Paul Cullen who had many relatives in the Mercy order. He was familiar with the rules of the order, and he must have been impressed because he sought an introduction to the Carlow community when he visited Ireland.
He sought clerical students for his young diocese and he was introduced to the sisters by Cardinal Cullen’s uncle, Father James Maher, a great patron of the Carlow Mercy Community.

On October 5th, 1843, Bishop O’Connor addressed the sisters at Mass in the convent and was warmly received by them. He invited the sisters to send a mission to his diocese in Pittsburgh.
In his diocese, Bishop O’Connor increased the number of Catholic churches, members of the clergy, founded a seminary, a hospital, girls academy, an orphanage, and a Catholic newspaper. Of the many Carlow Mercy sisters who volunteered: 35 of the 36 sisters, seven were chosen.

From Carlow, the Sisters travelled to Dublin. On November 6th, under the leadership of Bishop O’Connor, they set sail on the first leg of their journey. They stayed in St. Ethelburga Mercy Convent.

On November 10th, they were seen off at Liverpool by relatives of Sister Josephine from the Cullen and Maher families. The Bishop’s party included a then newly ordained priest, Father Robert Wilson, six seminarians, and the Seven Sisters, all destined to work in Pittsburgh.

Their ship was a three master of the Blue Swallowtail line the Queen of the West. The sea crossing took four weeks and two days. They arrived in New York on December 10th, 1843.

In New York the party were welcomed in heavy snow, by Bishop Hughes, a native of County Tyrone, and by the then Bishop elect of Chicago, Father William Quarter. Father Quarter asked Mother Frances Warde to found a convent in his diocese. It was a promise she kept and fulfilled three years later.

In New York they were taken to the Sacred Heart convent on Houston Street where they rested. They spent their first night on American soil with the Sisters of Charity in New York and then left by train for Philadelphia.
There they were greeted by Bishop Kendrick from Dublin and by Father Patrick Moriarty, an outspoken Dublin-born Augustinian Friar. Father Moriarty had studied in Carlow College from 1817 to 1823.

Continue reading in this week’s Hallowe’en Special 2023