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24 September 2014
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Sisters of Mercy Birmingham
Sisters of Mercy Birmingham

We're Sisters of Mercy

St Mary’s Convent in Handsworth is home to five Sisters of Mercy who aim to meet the needs of the local community and beyond.

A brief History of St Mary’s

Mercy Facts

  •  There are over 10,000 Mercy Sisters in almost every part of the globe.
  • Sisters of Mercy commit their lives and resources to act in solidarity with persons who are economically poor, especially women and children.
  • Catherine McAuley was born in Ireland in September, 1778.
  • Catherine established 14 Sisters of Mercy foundations in her lifetime.

St Mary's Convent of Mercy

Hunters Road, Handsworth, Birmingham
Tel no: 0121 554 3271

Inside St Mary's Convent of Mercy
Inside St Mary's Convent of Mercy

St Mary’s Convent of Mercy in Handsworth, Birmingham first opened its doors in 1841. After a threat of closure, the convent has reopened its doors to the public.

Local Catholic man John Hardman Senior, a stained glass master living in Handsworth at the time, donated the land and paid for the convent to be built.

Mr Hardman was a close friend of  renowned architect Augustus Pugin who is also responsible for the building of St Chad’s Cathedral in the centre of Birmingham. Hardman and Pugin worked together to build the convent in beautiful Gothic medieval architecture.

In 2000, plans were drawn up to close the convent – but the Sisters of Mercy embarked on a programme to restore the building and develop a multi-media exhibition facility for the public to enjoy.

Take a look  inside St Mary's Convent with our picture galleries and interactive panoramic images using the links on the right >>>

Mercy comes to Birmingham

Catherine McAuley
Portrait of Catherine McAuley

Founder of the Mercy Sisters, Catherine McAuley opened the convent on  19th August 1841. Catherine, along with a group of new Sisters, including John Hardman’s daughter, Mary Juliana, started the first convent of Mercy in Birmingham. Soon after they opened a school nearby and a House of Mercy for the training of young women.

Sister Barbara Jeffery explains: “Catherine’s role was to support the Sisters at the new convent.  For every convent Catherine opened she always spent a month with Sisters to encourage them in their new life the convent."

St Mary’s Convent in Handsworth was the last of 14 convents Catherine McAuley established in her lifetime.

The spiritual works of the Mercy Sisters

Mercy work is about seeing and responding to someone else’s needs. The needs can be either of the body or spiritual through teaching, counselling, comforting and praying. The Sister derive their inspiration and strength from their own spiritual lives.

Inside St Mary's Convent
Inside St Mary's Convent of Mercy

The hand of Mercy is extended to help women and children who have been subjected to violence as well as communities devastated by the effects of globalisation and racism.

Sisters at St Mary’s will be reaching out into the diverse local community, providing a place to uplift the heart and mind of everyone, helping parents with counselling and parenting programmes, offering a hand of friendship to all who visit the Day Centre and offering support to people of faith with prayer. 

Sister Helen Ryan explains: “The community work at the convent is inspired by Catherine McAudley's life spent reaching out to women and children. People of all faiths and cultures are welcome at the convent. The door will be always be open to for those in need.

If we can’t provide the help they require we will be able to point them to other places in the city that can help them.”

Life at the convent

Outside St Mary's Convent of Mercy
Outside St Mary's Convent of Mercy

St Mary’s convent is home to five Sisters. A normal day would involve early morning prayers, then each Sister would go about their day doing whatever work they have been assigned to which may include visiting the sick, social work and liaising with other Mercy associates around the world.

 “It’s a very exciting time for us because we just don’t know how this house is going to be accepted in this area, the people of different faiths and cultures that will come to the door or the people that will want to come and explore the story of Mercy, " says Sister Kathleen Gooch, "Hospitality was one of the major criterias of Catherine McAudley’s life and that’s what we’re hoping for this house. Our dream is that people will always see St Mary’s as an open door.

All the Sisters are working towards the same vision and that’s what holds us together. This house that was once on the verge of closure is now taking on a whole new life.”

What it means to be a Sister

A Sister's habit in the 1960's
A Sister's habit in the 1960's

The Sisters derive their inspiration and strength for their working lives from their spiritual lives. Faith is at the heart of everything the Sisters do and prayer is central to a life dedicated to Mercy.

Dressing as a Sister

Traditionally the public would expect to see a Sister dressed in a habit: a long, dark simple frock, and veil with a large crucifix or a small pin. But things have now changed.

Sister Alphonsus Milward says, “When I first started out as a Sister in the 60’s I wore the full habit. Over the years they have been adapted gradually and now we can wear anything. It’s entirely up to each sister whether they still wear the veil, some sisters wear the veil when they are out doing missionary work. There are still Sisters who wear the full habit but they are very few. But what we do all wear is our Mercy Cross and ring.

Wearing the Mercy Cross and Ring

The Mercy cross is a replica of the Ebony and Ivory cross worn by Catherine McAuley.

The Mercy Cross and ring
The Mercy Cross and ring

Sister Barbara Jeffery says, “By wearing the Mercy Cross it signifies us uniting ourselves with Christ who died on the cross for us, that we ourselves are united in his death and resurrection. The Mercy cross has no figure on it as signifies that we are placing ourselves on the cross with Christ.

“The significance of the ring is a bit like a wedding ring. A lot of children say ‘Sister you’re married to God’ and in a certain way we are, because we do take our vows. The ring is a sign of our fidelity to the vows that we make and the circle is the symbol of everlasting.”

Our vows

Vows are taken to show commitment to taking up mission and ministry as a Sister.

Sister Helen Ryan explains:  “As Sisters of Mercy we take four vows:

  • A vow of poverty – to relinquish all our monies and commit them to the institute for the works of Mercy.
  • A vow of obedience – the call to live out the life that we have committed ourselves to on a daily basis.
  • A vow of chastity – not to marry and to live in a community together and be commited to each other, giving our time to love the world and the people we meet on a daily basis.
  • A vow of service - to be of service to those in need."

A prayer of Mercy

Inside St Mary's Convent of Mercy
Inside St Mary's Convent of Mercy

The words of a prayer first recited by Catherines McAuley is about the total giving of herself to God. It is a prayer that is known and recited by all Sisters of Mercy throughout the world.

“Catherine’s prayer is a summing up of her whole life and how all her efforts were directed to God’s greater glory,” says Sister Kathleen Gooch

The Prayer…
“My God I am yours for time and eternity. Teach me to cast myself entirely into the arms of your loving providence with the most lively unlimited confidence in your compassionate tender pity. Grant me O most merciful redeemer that whatever you ordain or permit may be acceptable to me. Take from my heart all painful anxiety; suffer nothing to sadden me but sin, nothing to delight me but the hope of coming to the possession of you my God and my all in your everlasting kingdom. Amen.”

Listen to Catherine McAuley say the prayer using the link on the right >>>

Sister Mari-Bernarde Leonard  says “To me, being a Sister of Mercy is a terrific privilege. I’m now 88 and I’ve been a Sister of Mercy since I was age 17. I‘ve been part of this community for a long time and I’m privileged to be part of something that very much reflects the life of Mother McAuley our holy foundress."

Visit St Mary’s Convent and explore the story of Mercy

St Mary's Convent of Mercy
Inside St Mary's Convent of Mercy

St Mary’s is now open to the public. Go along and explore an innovative exhibition, which takes you on a tour of the convent via audio-visual, interactive displays.

Learn more about the history of the convent, see relics relating to the life of Catherine McAuley and find out how the Mercy principles are being carried forward in the 21st century.

For more information on visits and tours to the convent, please call 0121 554 3271

Listen to the Sisters talk about the vision for St Mary's Convent, their committment to their faith and Mercy work using the links on the right >>>

last updated: 26/06/06
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