The debt the world owes to the visionary Mary Aikenhead


St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin was the first Catholic hospital run by Religious women.

In 1815, Mary Aikenhead, with Alicia Walsh, after completing their novitiate, founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in Ireland.

They were the first, so-called Walking Nuns who visited the sick in their homes and tried to alleviate the wide spread poverty.

During a cholera epidemic, Mother Aikenhead’s thoughts frequently dwelt on the possibility of providing a hospital in Dublin where the sick could enjoy the benefits of the best medical and surgical skill available and be nursed back to health by the Sisters of her Congregation, “where the poor could be given for love what the rich obtain for money.”

In 1831, Mary suffered severely from inflammation of the spine and was prescribed complete rest but continued to administer the growing congregation from her sick bed. She also became a close friend of her physician, Dr O’Farrell, and while he attended her, they began to work on a hospital project.

Mary had received a dowry of £3000 and with this she planned to open a hospital. Haunted by the misery of the wretched slum dwellers, she knew she wanted a large, airy building in a good locality with a fairly spacious garden.

In 1833, she sent three Sisters to the Hospitalières de St Thomas in Paris to learn about hospital administration. The following year, with unshakeable belief in Divine Providence, she bought the Earl of Meath’s mansion on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and with her health much improved, she supervised the conversion of the building to a hospital.

Funds began to trickle in. In 1835, the first ward of St Vincent’s Hospital was opened.

S. A. Atkinson writes in her book, Mary Aikenhead: Her Life, Her Work, and Her Friends: “About the month of April, 1835, all the arrangements were completed, and the institution, under the title of St Vincent’s Hospital, was opened with twelve beds for female patients although Mother Aikenhead could not at the time reckon with certainty on even 20 poundsa year for their support. The beds were soon filled. … Rev. Mother opened another ward and then another and lastly a ward for children. … accommodation for forty patients. … Dr O’Farrell who was appointed first physician to St Vincent’s Hospital had no assistance. The first operation in the hospital was on a poor little boy, who lay in the Rev. Mother’s lap while it was being performed.”

In 1841, the House next door to St Vincent’s Hospitalwas for sale. Immediately a sum of money became available and the purchase was arranged. Plans for this building were in progress when
the Sisters resident at St Vincent’s heard a noise.

They soon found that the four stories of the building had collapsed. The Sisters were shocked. Mother Aikenhead was delighted and pleased that now a proper building would be constructed and
attached to St Vincent’s.

Mother Mary Aikenhead’s dependence on Divine Providence – “God will provide” – was the driving force in all that she achieved for God’s poor. Thisis the legacy the Sisters of Charity of Australia hold dear.

The vision continued

The legacy of Mary Aikenhead’s revolutionary idea is still operating to this day. Now administered in Australia by Mary Aikenhead Ministries, St Vincent’s Health Australia, together with its partners, forms one of Australia’s leading Catholic, not-for-profit, diversified healthcare providers.

Founded on a firm commitment to Gospel values and Catholic social teaching and conducted in the spirit of Mary Aikenhead, the health services span the public, private, and aged care health sectors.

Health services include: Tertiary referral centres; adult acute health services; sub-acute care diagnostic services including pathology and radiology services; public and private rehabilitation; extensive allied health services; inpatient and community mental health; public and private emergency centres; inpatient – and community-based palliative care; correctional health; community health; a full range of aged care services, including acute, residential, and community care;research institutes.

The vision from Ireland

The dream which impelled Mother Mary Aikenhead to found a hospital in Dublin for the sick poor spread around the world. There are 14 hospitals in Australia alone which were founded or acquired by the Sisters of Charity of Australia which are now administered by Mary Aikenhead Ministries.

But the vision in Ireland came to a close at the end of May, 2017 when the Congregational Leader, Sr Mary Christian issued a statement which said the the Religious Sisters of Charity would end their involvement with St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, and would not be involved with the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital.

“For the last two years we have been actively working to find the best way to relinquish our shareholding in the St Vincent’s healthcare Group (SVHG). It includes three hospitals; St Vincent’s University Hospital, St Vincent’s Private Hospital, and St Michael’s Hospital, Dun Laoghaire,” she said.

“Although the Sisters of Charity will no longer have any direct involvement in the provision of healthcare services, we remain dedicated to preserving the legacy of Mary Aikenhead, whose mission in life was to heal and care for the sick and poor.”






Reaction to the news was both swift and somber. The Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, Sr Clare Nolan (with Sr Mary Christian, below left) wrote to the Congregation here on May 30: “Difficult news from Ireland overnight… after more than 200 years of service to the sick poor of Ireland, our founding Congregation has announced it will end its involvement with St Vincent’s Healthcare Group.

“This is a wrench for our Sister Congregation, as well as for our own Sisters in Australia whose vocations to be nurses as well as women Religious were founded and formed in many of the St Vincent’s Hospitals across the world. They are all in our thoughts and prayers at this challenging time – one which should give us all an opportunity to reflect on our call to be consecrated, apostolic women Religious.” (For full reaction, see the special edition of Congregational News from May 30 below.)

The reaction continued in an interview in The Irish Times on June 3 with one of the Religious Sisters of Charity’s best-known members in Ireland, Sr Stanislaus Kennedy.

The depiction of the Sisters of Charity during the recent controversy over the transfer of the National Maternity Hospital to St Vincent’s hospital was akin to elder abuse, according to Sr Stan.

She said she was shocked and surprised by the scale of the controversy over St Vincent’s and the criticisms levelled at her order. “It shook me, it really did.” During the controversy, very little thought was given to the background of the Sisters of Charity and the work its members had done over the years, she contended.

“A lot of the stuff that came out in the media about us was very hurtful. There was a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. It was very distasteful.”

Sr Stanislaus (left), the founder of Focus Ireland and the Immigrant Council of Ireland, said her order had been depicted as “a power-grabbing congregation” and “a group of old ladies who didn’t know what they were doing.”

“In another context, this would come under elder abuse,” said the 78-year-old nun.

When we have so much to praise the Lord for, we must not complain.
True affection is to rejoice in the happiness of our dear ones. Never allow a sentiment of resentment to enter into our hearts.
Pray, reflect and consult – and may the divine spirit direct all to God’s greater glory.
May our dear Lord Jesus fill your hearts with His own love. Amen!
We must have patience with others as He has patience with us.
Under every difficulty try to pray fervently.
We have much to thank Him for, even for those little drawbacks on our comforts and conveniences.
Do pray that justice may be accomplished in peace and that truth may prevail.
Go on now as steadily as you can, relying on the Divine assistance and fear not.
What we do ought to be done well.

The Sisters of Charity acknowledge the First Peoples and traditional custodians of this land where we live. We respect, value and honour their history, culture and spirituality. We are committed to standing in solidarity and to actively working for justice, peace and harmony in this land.

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