The Sisters of Mercy arrived in Belfast from the Mercy foundation house in Baggot Street, Dublin, in 1854, and a year later a second foundation was made in Downpatrick.
In the course of those 150 years, over 350 young women joined these two communities. In the mid 1800s the country was attempting to recover from the
effects of the devastating famine and Belfast’s industrial growth was already presenting the range of problems that would become all too common in the town.
From the outset, the Sisters threw themselves into the educational and social work for which they would soon become renowned. They concerned themselves primarily with the care of females, particularly their education as a means of helping them escape from overwhelming poverty.
The Sisters became engaged in all aspects of education, in nursing and in all forms of social work. Thousands of children and young people have looked back in later life with gratitude at the education they received in the Mercy convent schools. The widely-renowned and highly-regarded Mater Infirmorum Hospital, Belfast, remains a flagship monument to the work of the Sisters of Mercy in the field of nursing and medical care.
From Belfast and Downpatrick, the Sisters expanded their mission to other parts of Counties Antrim and Down, responding, insofar as their numbers allowed, to the needs of parishes which called on their help. The Sisters accompanied the people of these parishes through the vicissitudes of two world wars and 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In later years they also became involved in missions in Nigeria and Iceland.
From the 1960s onwards, the impact of the Second Vatican Council was felt throughout the Catholic world. As a consequence, renewal and development took place in the Mercy Congregation. From the autonomous diocesan units that were characteristic of the original Mercy structures, the congregation has now become global in perspective. In 1994, the Down and Connor Mercy communities became members of the Mercy Ireland Union, now part of a wider international sisterhood that nobly – and often heroically – continues the works of mercy wherever their presence is needed.
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Ulster Historical Foundation
Author - Sr. Marie Duddy