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Chapter 6 — Sisters of Mercy

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During the Emergence hearings, Sr Breege O’Neill, then Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy, outlined the organisational structure of the Congregation: At that time [1831] she [Catherine McAuley] was very clear that for us to be able to be about that work it was important that we would be locally based, and that we would not be constrained by central Government ... It emerged within 20 years of her founding the first house of the Order in Baggot Street. There were convents established in each of the 26 diocese in Ireland ... In some there might have been eight or nine convents ... These convents were autonomous. They were totally, completely and entirely responsible for their own affairs really. There was little central or there was not a coordinating structure among the convents ... there was not a sort of a central Government that established these, but they were established in each locality according to the need of the locality at the time.


In his evidence, Dr Eoin O’Sullivan ascribed the popularity of the Sisters of Mercy with the bishops, and their pre-eminence in the industrial school system, to the organisational structure of the Congregation: ... Bishops throughout the country were looking to have industrial schools in their diocese. They had difficulties with some of the Congregations, particularly the Christian Brothers and the Irish Sisters of Charity on the basis that the Bishop did not have a rule over these Congregations, effectively they took their rule from their provincial leader which probably was based in Dublin. So the Christian Brothers, while they had a working relationship with the Bishop, they ultimately took their rule from their Provincial. Whereas, the Sisters of Mercy, to the best of my knowledge, took their rule from the local Bishop. Bishops far preferred Sisters of Mercy than other Congregations, they were easier to control.


All this changed following the Second Vatican Council, when the Sisters of Mercy agreed that there would be a central jurisdiction in each diocese, but there was still no hierarchy of power as between one diocesan central authority and another. The process of amalgamation into diocesan central organisations began in the 1960s, but was not completed in the State as a whole until the 1980s. During the period of this development, a further centralising process was undertaken whereby the Sisters now agreed to adopt a central organisation for all Sisters of Mercy members and institutions. This overall centralising movement was completed in 1994, and so the two processes were moving in parallel for a period of time. Sr Breege O’Neill described this process as follows: ... our structure changed over the years. In that while we had that autonomous sort of way in the beginning after Vatican Council there was a move to amalgamate the houses in each diocese. That really came out of the sort of the thinking of Vatican II. We set about that and for the next 20 years, from the 60s to the mid 80s that process of amalgamation happened in the 26 diocese. So by the mid 80s we were now diocesan based with a leadership structure in each diocese ... When we had that in place we decided that it would be good to bring the 26 individual units together in another amalgamation. That was because at that time in the mid 80s our numbers were declining. We had a huge spread of ministries throughout the country and we were looking at how could we rationalise, how could we pool our resources so that we could be more effective in the work we were doing ... So by 1994 we formed an amalgamation of those 26 units, together with the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in South Africa, because they had a connection with Ireland. That is our present structure, which has four provincial units in Ireland. In 1994 we were almost 4,000 people. At the moment in Ireland we have 2,620 Sisters residing in 392 local community houses throughout Ireland.


Prior to 1983, all Sisters of Mercy Communities, regardless of their size, were subject to the authority and jurisdiction of the local bishop. Under the 1926 Rule and Constitutions, he was the Principal Superior of the Congregation after the Holy See. All Sisters were instructed to ‘respect and obey him’. The bishop was given the power to nominate a priest to attend to the regulation and good order of the Community, both in terms of spiritual and worldly matters. The importance of this priest’s role in the running of individual convents was clear from the following provision: He shall watch over the exact observance of the Constitutions, for the purpose of maintaining good order, peace and charity, and he shall assist the Mother Superior with his counsel and advice, in all important affairs. She shall not undertake any matter of importance relating to the Monastery or the Community, without the Bishop’s consent.


The bishop as Principal Superior, after the Holy See, was required to visit the convent at least once every three years. The Superior, or the priest he nominated, was in addition obliged to undertake an annual Visitation, during which he met with each Sister separately. If such Visitations took place, they do not appear to have been recorded, because no records of them were discovered to the Commission.


Each Community had a similar organisation. The Mother Superior was elected for a term of three years by the Chapter and was eligible for re-election for a further term. The Chapter was composed of all Sisters who had a vote. The Mother Superior selected her assistants and proposed them for election. Where the convent did not contain a quorum, i.e. seven Sisters, the bishop nominated the Mother Superior.


The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Dublin was the largest Community of Sisters of Mercy in Ireland. Its structure was set out in the Rule and Constitutions of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Dublin.1 This document did not alter the position of the bishop as the Principal Superior, or his nominated priest, but it did change the way the Sisters governed themselves. Supreme authority was ordinarily vested in the Superior General and her Council, and extraordinarily vested in the General Chapter. The General Chapter elected the Superior General and her Council. The Superior General and her Council had the right to transfer Sisters from one house to another. The Council also appointed the local Superiors.


Isolation from other Sisters of Mercy institutions was not a necessary feature of life in Goldenbridge Industrial School, because it was part of the family of institutions under the central authority of Carysfort. The Superior General of Carysfort appointed the Resident Managers and selected the Sisters who were sent to Goldenbridge. Goldenbridge was under the direct control of Carysfort in all matters concerning finance and other related matters. This arrangement would have been expected to give rise to regular exchanges of personnel and a flow of communication, but the reality was otherwise. There are no records of meetings or correspondence or any other documentation between the Resident Manager of Goldenbridge and the Superior in Carysfort. In their Opening Statement of 15th March 2005, the Sisters of Mercy made the following remark in respect of the reporting structure that operated between the Mother House and the Goldenbridge branch house at that time: Reporting relationships were not very formal and probably depended very much on the personalities and expectations of the Superior in Carysfort and the local superior or resident manager in Goldenbridge.


The result was that Goldenbridge was, for a different reason, left in much the same isolated situation as that which prevailed in smaller Communities of the Sisters of Mercy. The Community in Dundalk, for example, would not have expected any Visitation, inspection or supervision by any other Sister serving as a Sister of Mercy. A nun in Dundalk did not have any prospect or possibility of being transferred. By joining that Community, she became a member of a stand-alone Congregation and, unless she resigned or was dismissed, she would remain there during her entire lifetime. This immobility came about by necessity in smaller convents. Goldenbridge, despite its proximity to Carysfort and other houses, remained in relative isolation. Nuns there also served for very long terms in the one post and were left to carry on their work without outside interference or inspection.


A consequence of the autonomous convent system was that there was a smaller pool of Sisters available for work in an industrial school. Thus, Sr Margaret Casey, Provincial Leader of the Western Province, in her evidence at the Phase I hearing in respect of Newtownforbes, said: The Sisters also would have been drawn from the small local pool of the Sisters in the convent there in Newtownforbes and there was no expert or back up service really available to them.


This limitation of choice was particularly significant in relation to the position of Resident Manager.


In 1953, the Resident Manager of Goldenbridge, Sr Bianca,2 delivered a lecture to a conference on childcare management at Carysfort College, in which she spoke about the role of Resident Manager: The efficient and satisfactory running of every Home depends largely on the person in charge. Experience shows that, where the person in charge is kind but firm; sympathetic but impartial; efficient without being over-bearing; determined but open to suggestion; approachable without being too free; the other members of the staff will take their cue from her, and the result will be content and harmony in the entire Home.


She stated that a successful Manager should have: ... sufficient skill and judgment to settle each difficulty as it arises; have a sympathetic interest in both children and staff; have a strong personality, without being overbearing or dictatorial, be enthusiastic and enterprising; and above all, she must be strictly impartial.


These observations echoed what the Cussen Commission had said in its report in 19363 about the importance of the quality of the Manager to the proper care of the children in industrial schools.


The smaller the Congregation, the less easy it was to find a person with these necessary skills.

  1. 1954 (these Constitutions were revised in 1969, 1972, and 1985).
  2. This is a pseudonym.
  3. The Commission of Inquiry into the Reformatory and Industrial School System, which was required to report to the Minister for Education on the Reformatory and Industrial School System, began its work in 1934, and furnished a report to the Minister in 1936. It was under the Chairmanship of District Justice Cussen.
  4. This is a pseudonym.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. This is a pseudonym.