Finding God in all things
Mary Aikenhead was imbued with the Ignatian heritage which continues to inform the Sisters of Charity.
For her initial formation in religious life, and to prepare for the founding of the congregation, Mary Aikenhead travelled with her first companion Alicia Walsh to the Bar Convent York.
From 1812 to August 1815, they lived under the guidance of the Loreto Sisters whose own congregation was grounded in Ignatian spirituality.
Their foundress, Mary Ward, had originally felt called to join the Society of Jesus; when this proved to be impossible, she adapted the Jesuit Rules of the Summary as the basis of the Loreto Constitutions.
As she grew in her knowledge and experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Mary became convinced that God was leading her to found the congregation upon the spirit and practice of the Exercises.
While still at York, she was assisted by her hosts in drawing up a basic Rule for the new congregation, based on the Loreto Constitutions. When Mary and her companion returned to Dublin in August 1815, it was a copy of this document that they brought with them.
In 1815, Archbishop Murray received the private vows of Mary Aikenhead (Mother Mary Augustine) and Alicia Lynch (Mother Catherine). Like the Jesuits, they added to the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, a fourth vow – in their case, the service of the poor.
On 9 December, 1816, after receiving the official confirmation of their canonical status as a religious congregation and after completing the Spiritual Exercises under the guidance of Fr Peter Kenny SJ, the two Sisters made their perpetual profession.
Realising she needed help in framing the new Constitutions, Mary Aikenhead turned to Fr Robert St Leger SJ (for the next six years, Mary’s spiritual director).
On examining the Rule given to her in York, he found some deficiencies, so he gave Mary an accurate copy of the Jesuit Rules of the Summary, the Common and the Official Rules, and the General Examen which prefaces the Jesuit Constitution.
Fr St Leger worked on the Constitutions, keeping closely to those of St Ignatius for the first nine chapters. He sent a completed copy in Latin to Rome in 1821, and again in 1823, but approval was deferred because Pope Gregory XVI considered it too dangerous for women to be out and about in Ireland, a country he believed to be “infested with heretics and libertines.” (For these details, I am indebted to Moira O’Sullivan RSC!) He finally approved the Constitutions in 1833.
As young women began to join the congregation, Mary Aikenhead built their formation experience on the Spiritual Exercises, frequently reminding them of the great gift that God had bequeathed to them through the inspiration of St Ignatius of Loyola.
They were to be contemplatives in action, seeking always to live in the presence of God, discerning God’s will and finding God in all things.