‘No young lady was more in request as a partner; she was a first-rate dancer, light of step and easy of carriage in the country dance, but excelling in the minuet.’
Not the sort of words generally associated with prospective saints. And yet that is precisely how Mary Aikenhead, founder of the Religious Sisters of Charity, was described by her Victorian biographer. On 18 March 2015, Pope Francis issued a papal decree proclaiming her heroic virtues. Not only does that mean she can henceforward be referred to as the Venerable Mary Aikenhead, but she is also now only two steps from sainthood.
Mary Aikenhead was born in Cork City in 1787 and baptised beneath the celebrated Shandon bells in the Anglican Church of St. Anne’s. She was the eldest child of Dr. David Aikenhead, a Protestant physician and apothecary (chemist) whose father had emigrated to Cork from Scotland.[i] Her mother Mary was a devout Roman Catholic, born into the Stacpole family, a prominent Cork dynasty of Anglo-Norman origin.
The Aikenhead home was on Daunt Square, just off Grand Parade. It was a prosperous part of Cork but the neighbourhood was still replete with channels and canals, since covered, which were designed to drain the swampy marshland of the River Lee upon which the city was built.
Mary was an extremely feeble baby and almost certainly asthmatic. Dr. Aikenhead deduced that the fog, the damp and the contamination created by the surrounding waterways was the cause of her ill-health. Unwilling to relocate his successful practice, he realised he could at least move his daughter to the higher ground above the city, away from the untreated waters.
And so the child was fostered out to John and Mary Rorke, a deeply Catholic couple, who lived at Eason’s Hill in Shandon. Mrs. Rorke, who became Mary’s nanny, duly raised the child as a Catholic. Mary joined the family Rosary every night before bedtime and every Sunday she accompanied the Rorkes to Mass in the Bishop’s Chapel.
Mary’s health blossomed at the Rorkes and her parents opted to keep her there until she was six years old, visiting once a week. In 1793, when she rejoined her family, the Rorkes came with her; Nurse Rorke as live-in nanny to Mary’s younger siblings, her husband as coach driver. Mary’s Protestant education recommenced at a nearby school and every Sunday she accompanied her father to service in Shandon Church.
The girl also developed an early ‘them and us’ awareness when she contrasted the prosperous houses of her parents and their neighbours with the considerably less affluent community stuffed into the miry lanes and typhus-riddled shacks of Shandon.
The Aikenhead and Stacpole families both swung behind the cause of the United Irishmen in the 1790s. The liberal-minded Dr. Aikenhead once hosted the rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald to dinner. Lord Edward, who was on the run at the time, arrived disguised as a Quaker. The story runs that the house was surrounded by redcoat troops, with the sheriff at their head. Lord Edward somehow managed to vacate and cross the river to safety.
Whether such a tale be true or not, there is no doubt that the failure of the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798 saddened Dr. Aikenhead greatly. He sold his practice soon afterwards and moved in with his Catholic in-laws. His health collapsed and he died in his early fifties shortly after Christmas 1801. On his deathbed the Protestant doctor was received into the Catholic Church.
Six months after his death, his daughter followed suit. Aged 15, Mary was officially baptised a Roman Catholic.
With her father dead and her mother’s health failing, it fell to Mary to look after her younger siblings, with the support of her wealthy Stacpole relatives.
By the age of 18, Mary was a well-known society girl in Cork. ‘Her appearance was exceedingly attractive’, wrote one contemporary. ‘Tall, with a graceful, well-proportioned figure, and singularly expressive, changeful eyes … she had an agreeable manner [and] a cheerful manner’.
For the next number of years she threw herself into the social whirl of a city booming with the rich Atlantic trade passing through the nearby harbour. On summer days she enjoyed boating excursions along the coast. Evenings were a whirl of balls and soirees, concerts and theatre trips. And yet, no matter what time she got home, she reputedly never missed the 10 o’clock mass the following morning.
During this time, she heard a sermon by Dr. Florence McCarthy, the new Coadjutor Bishop of Cork, in which he told the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, about a penny-pinching rich man who goes to hell and a poor but munificent beggar who goes to heaven. Sensing parallels all around her, Mary’s interest in ‘God’s nobility, the suffering poor’ deepened greatly from this moment onwards.
Along with Cecilia Lynch and other well-to-do friends, she began to visit the swarming, unventilated hovels and lean-to’s where the vast majority of Cork’s citizens were living.
At this time there were many different orders in Ireland but they were all enclosed so that, as Mary observed with dismay, none of the clever, talented, educated women within their walls were permitted to reach the communities who so desperately needed them. This situation was highlighted when her friend Cecilia Lynch announced that she was joining the Poor Clares in Dublin, another enclosed order.
In 1807, Mary chanced to meet Anna Maria O’Brien, the daughter of a prosperous Dublin silk merchant who was renowned for bringing food and comfort to Dublin’s poor and indigent. Mary accepted an invitation to stay with Mrs O’Brien on Mountjoy Square and spent ‘a considerable time’ accompanying her on these benevolent wanders through the backstreets and alleys of Dublin. Following the death of her mother in 1809, she returned for another spell.
At the O’Brien’s, Mary became friendly with an Arklow-born priest called Daniel Murray who became Coadjutor Bishop of Dublin in 1809. It was he who conceived the idea of a congregation of Sisters of Charity to help the poor. He initially offered the leadership to Cecilia Lynch but, when she declined, he was much impressed by the depth of Mary’s disappointment.
As he watched and listened to Mary, he became convinced that he had found the perfect woman to head up his new order. In the summer of 1811, he met Mary in Dublin and popped the question.
Her early bashfulness that she was not worthy of such a role appears to have metamorphosed into something rather more serious and, as one contemporary put it, ‘for a long time her gaiety left her as she wrestled with this strange new destiny’.
At length she accepted Dr. Murray’s assertion that it was ‘God’s will’ but she insisted she first complete a three-year novitiate at the Bar Convent in Micklegate, York.
On 7 September 1815, the Pious Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity’s opened their first convent in an orphanage on North William Street, off Dublin’s Summerhill, with Sister Mary Augustine – aka Mary Aikenhead – as its Superior-General.
The Sisters took the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but, the ground-breaking difference was the addition of a fourth vow: to devote their lives to the service of the poor. This was to be the first Order in Ireland in which nuns were permitted to leave their enclosures.
‘Mother Aikenhead’ threw herself into advancing the Order’s aims, raising much needed funds from moneyed Catholic communities to found, for instance, a school for poor children on Dublin’s Gardiner Street and, in 1834, St. Vincent’s Hospital, the first hospital to be staffed by nuns in the English-speaking world. The first operation at the hospital was performed on a small boy who lay in Mary Aikenhead’s lap throughout the procedure.
In 1823, Daniel Murray became Archbishop of Dublin. On his request, Mary also took on a refuge for prostitutes in Townsend Street, Dublin, which she then relocated to Donnybrook. Designed as ‘a shelter from scorn, derision, and temptations of the world’, this was to be one of the infamous Magdalene Laundries which would put the Sisters of Charity under a darker spotlight in more recent times.
The physical exertion took its toll on Mary and she was confined to eother a bed or wheelchair from the age of 44. However, she continued to direct her sisters when the cholera epidemic struck in 1832. The following year, she dispatched five Sisters to Australia; they became the first nuns to set foot on the continent. She also became the first religious woman to visit prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol.
Remarkably, she died on the feast of Mary Magdalene, 22 July, 1858, aged 71. She was interred in the cemetery attached to St. Mary Magdalen’s, Donnybrook. By the time of her death, the Sisters of Charity had ten institutions, with innumerable missions and charitable works in motion.
Following the decree of 18 March, the next step for Mary Aikenhead is beatification. And if she gets through that, the final step for the Protestant doctor’s daughter is all out canonisation.
A short synopsis of the life of Mother Mary Aikenhead.
Sarah Atkinson, “Mary Aikenhead: Her Life, Her Work and Her Friends”, 1882.
Nethercott ||, Maria, ‘The Story of Mary Aikenhead, Foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity’. London, 1897.
[i] Mary’s grandfather was David Aikenhead of the 26th Cameronian Regiment, who married a woman from Limerick (Anne Wight) and settled in Cork.