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Mary Aikenhead: in the service of the poor

30 November, 1999

She reached out to every need, providing health-care, education and social services in a time when these were not provided by the state. Úna O’Neill RSC writes about the work of the founder of her order.

In the village of Donnybrook in Dublin, across the road from the Rugby grounds, is a small cemetery in which lies the tomb of Mary Aikenhead, the Foundress of the Religious Sisters of Charity.

Born in Cork in 1787, she died in Our Lady’s Mount in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, on 22 July 1858. The inscription on her tombstone reads: The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me and I comforted the heart of the widow, I was an eye to the blind and a foot to the lame. To the poor I was a mother (Job.29:13-16). It is a fitting description of a woman of faith who spent her life in the service of the poor – a service that continues to flourish in Nigeria, Zambia, Australia, England, Scotland, Venezuela and in her native Ireland.

Her father, a Scots Protestant, was a doctor and chemist. Her mother, Mary Stacpole was a Catholic. As was often the tradition of the time, Mary was sent to live with a ‘nanny’ – a Mrs Rourke – and in that home the seeds of her future commitment to Catholicism were sown. Returning to her family home at the age of six, she moved into a privileged and comfortable life, receiving an education befitting a young lady of her social class. She often went to Mass with her aunt in the South Chapel in Cork. One day the Priest preached a homily on the parable of Dives and Lazarus, comparing the lives of the rich man with that of the poor man Lazarus. This moved her deeply and after some time of reflection and preparation, at the age of fifteen, she was received into the Catholic Church. As she grew older she became increasingly aware of the suffering and misery of people living in poverty. This led her, at the invitation of Archbishop Murray, to found the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity in 1815.

Her Congregation was to be different. Rather than living within the Convent, her Sisters would devote themselves actively to the service of the poor, initially by visiting the sick poor in their own homes. This was a brave move. Religious Sisters at that time kept largely to their Convents. Not so Mary Aikenhead. Born to privilege, she left it behind to walk with the Lazaruses of her world.

In the course of that journey, she found that poverty is many sided and has many different faces. She reached out to every need, providing health-care, education and social services in a time when these were not provided by the state. It was not enough for her, however, to provide services.

She was also concerned with the causes of poverty and did all she could to influence those who had the means to effect change. In 1833, for example, she converted an old store house in Sandymount into a small ‘hospital’ to cope with an outbreak of cholera. At the same time she wrote to the Commissioners of Enquiry into the State of the Irish Poor describing the appalling conditions in the parish of Ringsend in Dublin. In the course of her letter she says: “Within the last year we have witnessed 40 cases of men willing to work if they could procure employment, who were reduced to sickness which in some instances terminates in death from excessive misery”.

Some years later, her concern for the sick poor prompted one of her best known foundations, that of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. It was the first hospital in Ireland to be managed and staffed by women and it grew out of her great desire to provide for the poor what the rich could pay for themselves.

Today we have people from many countries and cultures living in Ireland. That was not so in the Ireland of Mary Aikenhead but she was as concerned, as we are today, to ensure the equality and dignity of all. When St. Vincent’s Hospital opened in 1835 the prospectus read: ‘The institution would be such in which every friend of humanity would feel an interest and… would present to individuals of every sect, and every creed equal advantages and equal attention.”

Life was not easy for Mary Aikenhead. There were difficulties within the Congregation in regard to personnel. Her efforts to provide health care and education to those in need were often met with opposition and cynicism. She was frequently disappointed at the lack of support of those who initially encouraged her in her plans. She was only forty-four years of age when she became ill – an illness that eventually confined her largely to bed or wheelchair in the last eleven years of her life.

Her problems were many and indeed on one occasion she wrote to one of her friends: ‘My poor heart is as weak as that of a chicken. Pray that I may be faithful to the end!’ (27 August 1856) However, she did not allow the anxieties and difficulties to stop her in her service of the poor. That was not her way. Her movement was outward — away from preoccupation with self.

She faced all difficulties with fortitude and faith. Her strength came from her steadfast commitment to Jesus Christ echoed in the motto which she had chosen at her profession: ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.’ Even from her sick bed she guided and directed the work of the Congregation, writing daily letters of advice, encouragement and challenge. Her vision, her energy, her sense of humour seeped through her suffering, reminding us that those who are old and ill can contribute richly to the lives of those around them.

We live in very difficult times. There is much to worry about, much to question, much to cause anxiety. We hear constant talk of recession, growing unemployment and economic difficulties. We read of conflict, civil unrest and war in different parts of the world. We are aware of social, economic and political systems that care little about those without a home, a country, an identity; those who are being abused, abandoned, imprisoned; those who are lonely, isolated, deprived of any quality of life.

Mary Aikenhead’s faith challenges us to respond, not just in words but in action. She calls us in our day to continue to speak God’s word, to do what we can by speaking the word of truth and love and forgiveness and justice; by feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, questioning unjust structures and systems and challenging those who exploit others.

Like her, we need to value people for themselves and not for their busyness or productivity or success. To do all of this we must put our trust in Jesus, most especially so when we are challenged by those who would want to sideline or ridicule our faith in Him.

Mary challenges us today to be a sign of hope to people in these often dark and dreary days. Like her, and all those who have gone before us in faith, we too can stay with the difficulties and the darkness, can overcome the paralysis of discouragement and despair, because we know that God will enable us to remain strong and constant even when we feel like giving up.

A final quote from her sums this up very well. She writes: “Low spirits and dreads of evil to ourselves or Congregation, or even to the church, are actually the beginnings of despair. If all the rest of the world goes wrong, we should still persevere in trying to serve our God with faith and fervour.” (7 November 1834)

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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