Aylward, Margaret Louisa (1810–89), philanthropist and founder of a religious congregation, was born 23 November 1810 in Waterford city, fifth among ten children of William Aylward (d. 1840), merchant, and Ellen Aylward (née Murphy), who also had a son from her first marriage. The family was wealthy – William Aylward was a successful bacon merchant and his wife had her own fortune – and was immersed in the trade, political, and philanthropic life of Waterford. Daniel O'Connell (qv) and Thomas Francis Meagher (qv) were visitors to the home. William Aylward had signed a declaration in favour of the union in 1799 because he believed it would bring emancipation and increased trade, but was soon disillusioned and became a repealer in the 1830s.
Margaret was educated in a local quaker school and, from the age of ten, in the Ursuline convent in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, where she became fluent in French. On leaving school, aged twenty, she returned to Waterford, and worked for a time in a charitable pawnshop established to protect the poor from exorbitant rates of interest, and as a lay teacher in the Presentation Sisters’ school for the poor. This school was set up by Teresa Mullowney, whose brother John had been Ellen Aylward's first husband. Margaret's extended family were notably religious and charitable – her uncle, Patrick Joseph Murphy, was the first superior of Mount Sion, the Christian Brothers’ school in Waterford, and she and two of her sisters became nuns. Though she had a vocation to the religious life, she was for many years confused and directionless. Her first two attempts to enter a convent ended in failure. In 1834 she followed her sister Catherine (Sr Mary Vincent) into the Sisters of Charity convent in Stanhope Street, Dublin. Shortly afterwards, the director of novices, the charismatic Ellen Augustine Bodenham (Sr Ignatius) was dismissed for allegedly filling her charges’ minds with intellectual vanity. Thirteen of the twenty-two novices, including Aylward, also left. A number of years later Aylward, aged thirty-five, entered the Ursuline convent in Waterford but disliked it and left after only two months. This second repudiation caused comment in Waterford; in 1846 she left for Dublin, where she spent the rest of her life.
Taking lodgings in Gardiner Street, Aylward became in a short time one of the city's leading charity workers. Wealthy and well educated, she was favoured with an imposing appearance, a warm, attractive, forthright manner, and unflagging energy, although she suffered frequent bouts of ill health due to a severe skin condition. Her father was successful in business and her mother's unmarried sisters managed their sizeable properties themselves – she therefore inherited independence, business acumen, and formidable organisational skills from both sides of her family. After a few months working with the Ladies' Association of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire), she established (June 1851) her own branch in St Mary's parish, Marlborough Street. Within five years she had 148 active helpers who brought food and clothing to the poor, and encouraged habits of cleanliness, industry and religious practice. A move to provide poor women with employment by opening a needlework factory (St Mary's Industrial Institute) in 1853 failed after two years, but Aylward's next venture – St Brigid's orphanage – was more successful. Founded in collaboration with the Vincentian priest John Gowan (1817–97), this was a ‘boarding-out orphanage’ where children were settled with foster parents in the countryside, and it broke with the then established practice of institutionalising children. It met with rapid success: started in 1857 with forty-eight children, by 1874 there was an average of 292 children in the care of St Brigid's, and it was warmly supported by Cardinal Paul Cullen (qv). The venture was impelled by fervent catholicism, as much as by charity. Aylward was a philanthropist dedicated to the poor, but no less dedicated to protecting her faith, and she set up St Brigid's explicitly to counteract the activities of protestant missionary societies whom she suspected of proselytising among the poor. All the children were placed with catholic foster parents and money was raised from the catholic middle and poorer classes.
In 1858 St Brigid's became the focus of a cause célèbre that led to Aylward's imprisonment in Grangegorman Female Penitentiary. A child in her care, born of an Irish catholic father and an English protestant mother (who had converted on marriage but reverted after the early death of her husband) was placed with catholic foster parents. When the mother, returning to Dublin from Barbados, attempted to reclaim her daughter, the child was abducted. Aylward faced charges of kidnapping and complicity. Against the fact of her having changed the child's surname from Mathews to Farrell, to prevent her being traced by relatives, was the fact that on all other occasions St Brigid's had returned a requested child to protestant relatives (though reluctantly). In November 1860 she was sentenced to six months for contempt, though cleared of the other charges for lack of evidence. The affair attracted widespread coverage, with the media dividing along predictable lines: the Morning News defended her robustly; The Times (8 Nov.) noted that with her imprisonment justice had been partially vindicated; and the Irish Times (7 Nov.) attacked her as an unmarried woman who knew nothing of a mother's love. Cullen visited her in jail and interceded on her behalf with Pope Pius IX, who sent his blessing and a cameo of the Mother of Sorrows. (The pope was no stranger to such controversy, having been embroiled in a similar case concerning a Jewish child, Edgar Mortura, which case was much cited during the St Brigid's controversy.)
On her release (May 1861) Aylward returned with undiminished energy to her charity work and set up the network of St Brigid's schools, which were aimed at educating the poorest children. To preserve their catholic ethos they were kept independent of the board of national education, and Christian Brothers’ textbooks were used. From 158 students in 1865, there were 1,099 in 1901. A number of schools were founded in Kildare and Kilkenny but the majority were in Dublin.
The years following imprisonment also saw Aylward embark on her third and successful attempt to enter religious life. Taking no chances this time, she founded (c.1864) her own order, the Sisters of the Holy Faith, which was placed under pontifical control in 1866 with permission to take the usual vows. The order was not cloistered and, unlike most other sisterhoods, made no distinction between ‘choir’ (dowried) sisters and ‘lay’ (undowried) sisters. All contributed equally towards cleaning and household management. Aylward took the name Sr Agatha but rarely used it, nor did she adopt the habit, since she felt this interfered with fundraising for her schools and orphanages. The order acquired Glasnevin House in 1865 and Aylward was buried in the convent's cemetery, following her death on 11 October 1889. Hundreds of Dublin's poor followed her funeral cortege. The congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Faith order continued to be run from Aylward House in Glasnevin with branches worldwide.