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Pope Francis honours Mary Aikenhead



18 March, 2015: Cork born Mary Aikenhead (1787-1858), who founded the Religious Sisters of Charity in 1815 to provide services to “the suffering poor”, has been declared Venerable by Pope Francis. Being declared Venerable is the second of four steps in the Catholic Church’s Canonisation process.  

Throughout the world today there are more than 400 Religious Sisters of Charity in Ireland, England, Scotland, Zambia, California, Nigeria, Malawi and 145 in Australia.  Religious Sisters of Charity continue to work with people who are poor in the areas of healthcare, education, pastoral and social work.  Newer initiatives that the sisters are involved in are championing the abolition of human trafficking, campaigning for clean water in Malawi, Nigeria and Zambia, advocating against injustice and raising awareness of the need to preserve our fragile earth.
When Mary Aikenhead set up her Congregation two hundred years ago, there were just over 100 Sisters in Ireland, all of whom lived as enclosed contemplatives behind convent walls. Mary applied to Rome for permission for her Sisters to take a fourth vow of ‘Service of the Poor’, enabling them to visit poor people in their own homes; those who were sick and hungry and cold and penniless and no one to turn to.   With the support of Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin, she received the necessary training for Religious Life in the Bar Convent, York and opened her first Convent in North William St in Dublin.  She and her sisters became the first women religious to visit prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol.  She opened her first Catholic school for poor children in Gardiner Street, Dublin, in 1830.  Against all odds she founded St Vincent’s Hospital in 1834, the first Hospital in Ireland to be run by women to care for patients of all creeds and where Doctors and Nurses could receive training. In 1838 Mary Aikenhead sent 5 Sisters to Australia and they were the first women religious to set foot in that country.
“Mary Aikenhead was a woman ahead of her time” says Sr Mary Christian, Congregational Leader of the Religious Sisters of Charity “All around her she saw the plight of people who were poor and suffering.  Her great faith and trust in Divine Providence enabled her and the first Religious Sisters of Charity to provide education for poor children, establish medical facilities for those in need of health care and to visit the sick and poor in their homes.  In one of her letters we read that the sole purpose of the Congregation is: ‘to lend our humble assistance to alleviate the sufferings of the poor of every creed.’  Mary Aikenhead’s life was not easy, but she never lost hope.  Her life teaches and inspires us to dream courageous visions, to have compassion for human pain, to analyse unjust structures which are the cause of poverty, to work with others to solve problems and to remain resolute in the face of hardship.”
"The Sisters of Charity are a great bunch of women and it's my privilege to know and work with them says Ms Pat Coyle, Director, Jesuit Communications Ireland.  “Inspired by their love of Jesus Christ and the call of their foundress Mary Aikenhead to  serve the poor and those who suffer, they roll up their sleeves and with great generosity do everything they can to alleviate suffering and pain ,especially of those least able to help to themselves.  They give hospice care to the dying, work with the sick in hospitals and at home. They care for our migrants and asylum seekers, and look after the ever increasing number of people left homeless, in these days of spiralling home repossessions. They visit prisoners in jail and look after their families, they teach our children."

    Notes for the Editors:
Being declared Venerable is the second of four steps in the Catholic Church’s Canonisation process. A person is declared Venerable when it is established that the person had practised virtue (theological and cardinal) to a heroic degree.
Servant of God is the title given by the Pope when he gives permission for the opening of the cause of a person’s Sainthood.  Mary Aikenhead was given this title in 1921.
Beatification is the third step towards Canonisation.  It is a decree permitting the public honouring at the level of the local church, of a Servant of God whose virtue to a heroic degree or martyrdom have been recognised.  It is also a recognition that the person can intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in their name.
Canonisation is the definitive decree of admission of a Servant of God among the canon of saints and a declaration that the person should be publicly honoured by the Universal Church.