McAuley (McGauley), Catherine Elizabeth (1778–1841), educator, social worker, and religious foundress, was born 29 September 1778 at Stormanstown House, Drumcondra, Dublin, one of three children (two girls and a boy) of James McGauley and his wife Elinor (née Conway). McGauley, by turn carpenter, builder, timber merchant and glazier, died in 1793, after which Elinor sold Stormanstown House and moved to Queen Street. After Elinor's death in 1798, Catherine with her brother and sister were looked after by a Mr Armstrong, a protestant apothecary, with whom she stayed until 1803 when she joined the home of William Callaghan and his quaker wife Catherine (d. 1818), who had no children of their own. She lived with the Callaghans at their home, Coolock House on Dublin's northside. This became Catherine's immediate focus for service to the poor. She brought solace to the sick and needy, prepared young girls for employment, taught children at the gate lodge and assembled the domestic staff for instruction. From this grew her idea of a home for distressed women. The poor and underprivileged, she said, need help today, not next week. On William Callaghan's death in 1822 she became residuary legatee of his fortune, which she treated as a trust for the poor. Provision of systematic education for the poor became her immediate priority, which she intended to pursue as a laywoman. Her first incursion into urban poverty was in response to a request from Fr Joseph Nugent who asked for her help in founding a parochial poor school in Middle Abbey Street.
In 1824 she acquired property in Baggot Street and built what became in 1827 the House of Mercy, which included a school for poor girls and accommodation for homeless women. In the early stages of her charitable work Catherine and those who worked with her were laywomen, but by 1830 she and her companions had decided to become a religious congregation. After a period of formation with the Presentation Sisters, she took religious vows on 12 December 1831 as Mary Catherine and took up residence in Baggot Street. Archbishop Daniel Murray (qv) appointed her as superior of what had now become a convent. Just over three years later the definitive Mercy chapters in her rule were accorded the decretum laudis (24 March 1835) by Rome. By then close on 1,000 women had been catered for in her House of Mercy. Two years later her rule and constitutions for the Sisters of Mercy were given diocesan approval. This rule emancipated her congregation from the formalism of religious life by opting for a more flexible approach to contemporary economic and social conditions, which could not be properly addressed by cloistered sisters. Papal approbation, which male congregations had enjoyed for almost three hundred years, was granted to women for the first time in 1841 when the Sisters of Mercy were approved as a religious congregation. McAuley thus achieved an important place in the historical development of apostolic religious congregations.
As early as 1823 she not only advocated but pioneered the ideal of technical and vocational education. Hers was a three-tiered vision: primary education for all, secondary education for pupils whose parents were unable to meet the expenses of fee-paying schools, and vocational education. She had no objections to placing her schools under the aegis of the National Board of Education. Finally, she pioneered a monitorial system which aimed at promoting promising students in whose interests she introduced special training courses. No other educational establishment in Ireland at this period offered what Catherine McAuley had on offer in Baggot Street. By 1836 the Baggot Street school served as a teacher training centre from which young women were placed in employment; this was two years before the establishment of the Central Training School in Marlborough Street which catered only for boys and was fee-paying. (It was not until 1877 that McAuley's Baggot Street school was recognised as Ireland's first training school for girls.)
In time she was wooed by Irish and English bishops keen to extend to their dioceses services similar to those she had established in Dublin. In the later 1830s, though in indifferent health, she founded from Baggot Street convents at Kingstown (1835), Tullamore and Charleville (1836), Carlow and Cork (1837), Booterstown and Limerick (1838), Naas and Bermondsey, London (1839), Galway, Wexford and Birr (1840). Her foundations in Bermondsey, Birmingham and Liverpool placed her congregation in the vanguard of the second spring of English catholicism. Six months after her death the first Mercy mission to the new world was established in St John's, Newfoundland (May 1842). The global dimension of her legacy was visible in foundations in Pittsburgh (1843), Perth, Western Australia (1848), Auckland, New Zealand (1849) and Brisbane, Australia (1860).
Catherine McAuley died from tuberculosis on 11 November 1841, the feast of St Martin of Tours, like whom she may be said to have ‘shared a cloak with Christ’; she was buried in Baggot Street convent. An innovator who had the flexibility, detachment and freedom of spirit to change direction when necessary, she animated countless others at the centres of wealth, power and influence to share in her efforts. On 9 April 1990 Pope John Paul II proclaimed her ‘venerable for mercy’, the first Irish woman to have been so proclaimed by the catholic church.