In March, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia celebrate Women’s History Month and on March 8, dozens of countries recognize International Women’s History Day as a national holiday. At Merion Mercy Academy, every day is a celebration of women and an opportunity to reflect on the countless ways women have made an impact, from the past to the present. It is also a time to recognize the importance of our own contributions and potential to make a difference in the world.
We have countless examples of American women who have left an indelible mark:
Susan B. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement and helped secure a woman’s right to vote.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dedicated her life to fighting for gender equality and paving the way for women in the legal profession.
Katherine Johnson, who was a mathematician and worked for NASA, helping to put the first man on the moon.
Grace Hopper, who was a computer scientist and helped develop the first computer programming language.
Billie Jean King, who fought for gender equality in tennis and won 39 Grand Slam titles.
Simone Biles, who is considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all time and has won a total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals.
Of course, one of our greatest sources of female inspiration is Sisters of Mercy Foundress Catherine McAuley, who said, “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.” In early nineteenth-century Ireland, Catherine recognized the many needs of people who were economically poor and determined that she and women like her could make a difference.
Catherine spent her inheritance and opened the first House of Mercy on Lower Baggot Street in Dublin, Ireland, on September 24, 1827, as a place to shelter and educate women and girls. Despite her best intentions and the support of the Archbishop of Dublin, she faced public misunderstanding, criticism, and suspicion. There were those who called her an upstart; her work among the poor judged unfit for proper women to perform; and a meddling of the “unlearned sex” in the work of the clergy. Regardless, she persevered, eventually establishing a religious congregation in order to continue her life-changing work. On December 12, 1831, Catherine and two companions became the first Sisters of Mercy. In the ten years between the founding and her death, she established 14 independent foundations in Ireland and England.
In 1990, more than 150 years after her death, Pope John Paul II recognized the profound charity of Catherine McAuley, declaring her Venerable: “The Servant of God Catherine McAuley…practiced to a heroic degree the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity toward God and neighbour, and along with them the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.”
Today, there are more than 2,000 Sisters in the Americas and over 6,000 Sisters of Mercy in more than 30 countries around the world. In addition to the three vows—poverty, chastity and obedience—that all Catholic sisters take, the Sisters of Mercy also take a fourth vow of service. They serve with more than 3,100 Mercy Associates, several Companions in Mercy, close to 1,100 Mercy Volunteer Corps alumni and thousands of co-workers in Mercy-sponsored programs and institutions.
This Women’s History Month, let us follow the example of Catherine McAuley, sharing her sense of social consciousness, fortified by universal empathy, and convinced that all are worthy of God’s mercy. Let this deep awareness and compassion move us to take principled action and serve the needs of others, thereby continuing the legacy of women changing the world.