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From Baggot Street to Hokitika

Mercy Beginnings

On the 24 September, 1827, the first House of Mercy was opened by Catherine McAuley (1778-1841) in Baggot Street, Dublin, for the relief, education and protection of the poor.  On 12 December, 1831, Catherine and two other women made their profession of religious vows, and the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy came into being.  In 1835, Pope Gregory XVI gave his approval and blessing to the Institute for its dedication to the work of ‘helping the poor, relieving the sick in every possible way, and safeguarding, by the exercise of charity, women who find themselves in circumstances dangerous to virtue” (Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, Dublin, 1985).  In the ten years of her religious life, Catherine founded twelve convents in Ireland and two in England.  After her death, the congregation spread to every continent: North America (1842), Australia (1846), South America (1856), Africa (1896) and Asia (1953).  The congregation did not have a centralised government structure, and each new foundation was separate and autonomous.  New foundations were made from individual convents, usually at the request of a Bishop or priest who wished to provide for Catholic education and the care of the sick in their parishes.

Ennis Foundation

Thus it was that when Dean John Kenny, Parish Priest of Ennis, County Clare, and his Bishop, Dr Vaughan of the Diocese of Killaloe, decided to seek a community of Sisters of Mercy for Ennis, they went to the convent in Limerick to plead for a group of Sisters from there to come to work in the Parish.  On 29 May, 1854, Mother Elizabeth Moore and four Sisters from Limerick arrived in Ennis to begin the new foundation.

New Foundations

In subsequent years, this foundation grew and flourished, and by the 1870's it was in a position to make new foundations of its own.  Sisters went from Ennis to the United States in 1872, establishing houses in Meriden and in Middleton, Connecticut.  In a few years they set their sights further afield, sending a group of Sisters to Singleton, in New South Wales, in 1875, and to Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1878. There were later foundations in Killaloe, Spanish Point and the United States.

The Importance of the Diary

The diary is part of the archives of the Sisters of Mercy in Ennis, now held in the Congregational archives in Dublin.  It offers an insight into post-famine Ireland, where there was great poverty and deprivation, and few opportunities for education and employment, especially for women. Religious Orders such as the Sisters of Mercy were founded to provide education for the poor and care for the sick.  Although the need in Ireland was great, the Sisters answered calls from faraway places for their services. The stories of their journeys and the new foundations they made are a valuable resource. Digitisation of this diary, currently available in its original form in Baggot Street, will make it accessible to Sisters of Mercy throughout the world, and to researchers and the wider public, while preserving the original.

The Diary

The Hokitika diary, written by Sr Clare Molony (1844-1931), describes the journey of the ten women, eight professed Sisters and two postulants, who set out from St Xavier's Convent of Mercy in Ennis on 23 July 1878 to travel to Hokitika. They travelled first to Queensown (Cobh), and from there to Plymouth, embarking on the S.S. Garonne in Plymouth on 1 August, finally arriving in Hokitika on 15 October. The diary describes places visited en route, people the Sisters met, visits to Cape Town, Melbourne and Dunedin, and life on board the steamer.  The weather plays a prominent part, and they frequently encounter rough seas.  On two occasions the engine stops, but not for long. The Catholic faith of the Sisters sustains them, and their greatest joy on the journey is when they are able to attend Mass on their visits to land.


Hokitika, up to the 1860's, was a small Maori village on the west coast of the southern island of New Zealand.  In 1864, the discovery of gold there led to a dramatic increase in its population - in 1864 it was 1,800, by 1866 it was 30,000, and by the end of 1867 it was estimated that a further 37,000 had arrived. They came from the gold-fields of Australia in the hope of making their fortune in Hokitika. At first the men came, then they brought their families, and as the majority of them were Catholic, they soon looked for schools to provide a Catholic education for their children.  The parish priest, Fr Martin, set about looking for Sisters of Mercy to come and make a new foundation.  He enlisted the help of Mother Cecilia Benbow, a Sister of Mercy working in Wellington, who was travelling to Europe to procure funds and Sisters for her own convent.  In Ireland, she approached the Sisters in Ennis, who, true to the pioneering spirit of their foundress, expressed a willingness to make a new foundation in Hokitika.  The diary which describes their journey there is held in the Congregational Archives in Dublin, and a copy can be found in the Library of New Zealand.

 (To access a complete reproduction of the diary, click on “Browse Collections” at top of page, then “Diary”, “Hokitika Diary”, then click on “Completed letters.pdf” under “files” on the panel on the right,)