From Small Beginnings

The story of the Sisters of Mercy in Aotearoa New Zealand largely follows the pattern of European settlement from 1850-1900 with Congregations founded in Auckland 1850, Wellington 1861, Hokitika (to become Christchurch) 1878, and Dunedin 1897.

The frontier towns which welcomed the Sisters from Mercy foundations in Ireland and Australia were, by 1900, thriving city ports fuelled by gold and a booming pastoral economy.

Founding Sisters

It was the appeal of our first Bishop, Jean Baptiste Pompallier to the Carlow Mercy congregation to come to his end-of-the-world diocese and minister to Māori women and children that drew the first eight Sisters of Mercy to Auckland. Some early brave attempts were made to follow this mission in Auckland and Wellington but the Land Wars forced the Tangata Whenua out of the towns to their rural strongholds. The Catholic Māori mission stations in the Auckland diocese failed through lack of resources. The overwhelming pressures on the sisters to staff the rapidly developing network of parish schools for children of the settlers and soldiers meant that the original call to serve Tangata Whenua was lost and not reclaimed until well into the next century.

In accordance with the philosophy of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland in 1831, each Mercy foundation was autonomous in governance, following the Rule, Constitutions, practices and traditions cherished from their Irish roots. Catherine’s instructions to her Sisters and the Annals of the first Mercy foundations were prime references in every community.

Over the years the amalgamation of smaller foundations such as those of Reefton and Westport to Wellington (1927), Hokitika, Lyttelton and Greymouth to Christchurch (1918), Gore to Dunedin (1897) matched like with like. In the mid 1900s, Sisters from the other Mercy congregations came to Auckland to do their nursing training at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, and Auckland nursing sisters staffed Mater Hospitals in Dunedin and Palmerston North.

In the 1960s, the congregations had set up a single Scholasticate at Monte Cecilia Auckland for its young Sisters to attend the Catholic Teachers College and Auckland University. Later again, there was a brief experience with a single novitiate.

The early years of each foundation had been marked by precarious numbers of Sisters, decimated by tuberculosis and strenuous working conditions but by the beginning of the 20th century numbers were swelled by increases in local vocations supplemented by young women entering from Ireland and Australia. Each congregation benefited from the post-war vocations ‘bulge’ of the 1950s and ’60s. Auckland in particular received several large groups from Ireland up until the early 1960s.

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