Mary Aikenhead

Contributors: TOR.


Catholic nun and founder of the Irish Sisters of Charity. She was born 19 January 1787 in Cork. Her mother Mary was a member of the wealthy Catholic merchant family, the Stackpooles, and her father, Dr David Aikenhead, was a doctor and pharmacist. Her father was first-generation Irish with a Scottish military background. He was largely sympathetic towards Irish Catholics because of their poverty, and the discriminatory property laws then in force. Mary was baptised a Protestant at Shandon Church in Cork. As a young child, she was sent to the countryside to recover from ill-health. There, she lived for six years with a Catholic Irish family, the O’Rourkes, and attended mass. Upon her return to Cork city, she often attended mass. Her maternal grandmother and a widowed aunt also introduced her to the Ursuline and Presentation nuns in the city. These early religious experiences had a important influence on her.

Aikenhead attended a city school. She was resolved to continue to practise the Catholic faith, but in secret because of her father’s opposition. With the help of a housemaid, she attended mass every morning before breakfast. In 1801, when she was fourteen her father’s health declined. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. At the age of 16, she also converted publicly to the Catholic faith. When she finished school, she decided to dedicate herself to helping the poor in Cork. Through the connections of her good friend Anna Maria O’Brien (1785–1871), Aikenhead went to Dublin and was introduced to a circle of Catholic women engaged in helping the city’s poor. As well as charitable work, she developed an interest in the religious life. After the death of her mother, Archbishop Murray of Dublin asked her to set up a congregation of Sisters of Charity and arranged the necessary authorisation from the Vatican.

To prepare for this, she entered the Bar Convent of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin in York, England, in June 1812. There she trained with other young Irish novices for three years. She took Sr Mary Augustine as her name in religion. She returned to Dublin in September 1815 and pronounced her vows to the archbishop. She opened her first convent in North William Street, Dublin. She was appointed Superior-General of the new Congregation of the Irish Sisters of Charity, an uncloistered order. As well as the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which all religious took, the Sisters of Charity also took an oath of service to the poor. Under her guidance, the new order was devoted to helping prisoners, the poor, and the sick. She worked hard to build up the order and with voluntary assistance, established hospitals and schools throughout Ireland. In 1816 she got papal recognition of her work but the order’s constitution had to wait until 1833 to get papal approval. Though very short of funds Aikenhead opened a second convent in Stanhope Street in 1819, where she personally instructed the novices. The authorities at Kilmainham Gaol invited the Sisters of Charity to undertake prison visits: Aikenhead herself visited female prisoners who had been sentenced to death.

In spite of ill-health, she established ten new convents. The Sisters of Charity quickly gained a reputation for their great work amongst Ireland’s poorest. They provided schools, hospitals, and refuges for women. They set up several convents in Dublin, as well as Peacock Lane, Cork (1826); Lady Lane, Waterford (1842); Clarinbridge, Galway (1844), and Clonmel, Co. Tipperary (1845). During the terrible cholera epidemic of 1832, the Sisters of Charity worked tirelessly to tend its victims.

Appalled by conditions in the poorest areas and especially the city slums, Aikenhead appealed for donations to start a hospital for the most needy. She bought the town house of Lord Meath in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, for £3,000, and opened it as St Vincent’s Hospital in January 1834—the first Catholic hospital in Ireland since the Reformation and the first to be run by nuns At the start the hospital had no equipment and few qualified staff. Aikenhead sent sisters to Paris for training. Once established, it provided its own training courses. The rigorous standards of its training and the dedication of its staff quickly gained it a high reputation.

As the order grew, Aikenhead’s health deteriorated and she spent most of the last thirty years of her life in a wheelchair or on a couch, crippled with spinal problems, dropsy, and eventually paralysis. But ill-health did not dampen her spirit and energy. She continued to play a very active role in organising the convents and raising money. New institutions were established abroad, including Australia. In 1838, the Archbishop of Sydney Dr John Polding, asked her to send five sisters to Australia, which at that time had few institutions. The sisters set up Sydney’s famous St Vincent’s hospital in 1857. In 1845 Aikenhead founded Our Lady’s Hospice for the Dying at Harold’s Cross, Dublin, and she herself died there in the summer of 1858. Her coffin was carried to the graveyard in Donnybrook by the workingmen of Dublin. Her congregation has since spread to England, Scotland, the USA, Venezuela, Zambia and Nigeria. It administers large schools, orphanages, and hospitals. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV agreed to her beatification, the step before canonisation to sainthood. In 1958, the Irish Government issued a stamp to commemorate her life’s work.

Life & Studies. Maria Nethercott, The story of Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity (New York 1897). Anon, The life and work of Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Congregation of Irish Sisters of Charity, 1787–1858 (London 1924). Margery Bailey Butler, A candle was lit: life of Mother Mary Aikenhead (Dublin & London 1953). Margaret M. Donovan, Apostolate of love: Mary Aikenhead 1787–1858 foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity (Melbourne 1979). Donal Blake, Servant of the poor: Mary Aikenhead (1787–1858) (Dublin 2002).

Tomás O'Riordan