Aikenhead, Mary (1787–1858), foundress of the congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity and of St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, was born 19 January 1787 in Cork city, eldest of four children – three daughters and one son – of David Aikenhead, apothecary, son of a Scottish military officer, and Mary Aikenhead (née Stacpoole), daughter of a Cork merchant family. David was a protestant and his wife Roman catholic, and the children were brought up in the religion of their father. As an infant, because of delicate health, Mary was fostered by a poor family on the outskirts of the city, where she was influenced by her catholic foster-parents and joined in family prayer and worship.
After the death of her father, who converted to Roman catholicism on his deathbed, Mary too converted at the age of 15. Shortly afterwards she became aware of a vocation to dedicate her life to God as a religious sister, serving the poor. At that time all religious congregations of women in Ireland were bound by rules of enclosure, so Mary determined that if the Daughters of Charity, whose work among the poor in France she admired, were to open a convent in Ireland, she would join them. However, Dr Daniel Murray (qv), coadjutor bishop of Dublin, was hoping to set up a congregation of Sisters of Charity in his own city, and having learned of Mary's vocation, in 1811 he invited her to be a part of it. She agreed, on condition that a suitable superior would be found, as well as other volunteers. So she and a companion, Alicia Walsh, entered the noviciate of the Bar Convent, York, England, in May 1812, where they underwent three years of religious formation.
On 22 August 1815 they returned to Dublin and, at Dr Murray's request, took over the administration of an orphanage for girls in North William St. Soon other young women joined them, and they were able to visit the sick poor in their own homes, as well as running a primary school for local children. Thus began the Religious Sisters of Charity, whose members are vowed to the service of the poor, and especially the sick poor, with the motto Caritas Christi urget nos (‘The love of Christ motivates us’). Mary Aikenhead, now Mother Mary Augustine, was appointed head superior and the congregation was canonically erected by Archbishop John Troy (qv) on 1 December 1816.
This first foundation was followed by thirteen others in the lifetime of Mary Aikenhead, including one in Parramatta, Australia, where the sisters worked among women convicts and their children. They were the first women religious to set foot on Australian soil. But the foundation that might be regarded as the fulfilment of Mary Aikenhead's life's dream was St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin. She had longed to see a hospital where ‘God's nobility, the suffering poor’ could be given the best of medical and nursing care free of charge, such as the rich were able to procure with money. During the cholera epidemic in Ireland in 1832, the sisters in Dublin and Cork had worked heroically among the victims of the disease. In Ringsend, Dublin, they had opened a small, temporary hospital, as well as ministering in the existing fever hospital in Grangegorman. However, Mary Aikenhead remained determined to establish a real hospital for the poor, and in 1834, thanks to a gift of £3,000, purchased the residence of the earl of Meath on St Stephen's Green, which in time was converted into the first hospital in Ireland to be administered and staffed entirely by women. Mother Aikenhead had sent three of her sisters to be trained in Paris, and had procured the services of the best medical doctors in the country. The hospital depended entirely on charitable donations for its maintenance, and the sisters had to work hard to raise funds. Mother Aikenhead put all her trust in the ‘Bank of Divine Providence’ and it never failed.
Mother Mary Aikenhead had a very high ideal of service of the poor. She wrote: ‘The poor are the chosen children of God, but we are called to be the instruments of his mercy and protection in their favour. We must try to become fitting instruments . . .’. Having spent the best part of thirty years as an invalid, during which she administered her congregation from her bed, she died in Harold's Cross on 22 July 1858 and was laid to rest in Donnybrook. Her remains were carried to the grave by a number of poor workmen who had begged to be allowed to pay this tribute to one who had done so much for them and others like them. Her papers are housed in the archives of the Sisters of Charity in Sandymount, Dublin 4.