Illustrated Catholic Family Annual – Mother Mary Aikenhead

illustration of Venerable Mary Aikenhead from the 'Illustrated Catholic Family Annual', 1881, artist unknownArticle

Few persons in this country know much about the religious whose picture we give above, yet she was a great woman did for the Sisters of Charity in Ireland what Mother Seton did for them in this country. Mary Aikenhead, the foundress of the Irish Sisters of Charity, was born in the city of Cork, 19 January 1787. She was, on her father’s side, of Scotch descent. Her grandfather, David Aikenhead, was a Scotchman, and held a commission in the Twenty-sixth Cameronian regiment. He gave up his military profession, married a Limerick lady, settled in Ireland, and made the city of Cork his winter residence. He died young, leaving two children, one of whom was named David, the father of the subject of this sketch, who studied medicine and established himself in Cork as a practising physician and chemist. Here he met with one who was called a “dangerous papist,” a Miss Stackpole; he asked her to become his wife, and, her parents consenting, she made no objection. Their first-born was baptized in the Protestant Church as Mary. She was bright and quick as a child, and, as she grew up went occasionally to the Catholic church, and the result was that she became a Catholic on 6 June 1802, in her fifteenth year.

Dr. Aikenhead died on 28 December 1801, and was received into the Catholic Church a short time before. After her father’s death Mary was sent to the Ursuline Convent, Cork, to finish her education. Here she made great progress, and became acquainted with Mother Louise Moylan, sister of Bishop Moylan, coadjutor of Cork, and of Colonel Stephen Moylan, of Revolutionary fame, at one time on Washington’s staff; and Mother Borgia McCarthy, sister of Bishop McCarthy of Cork. At the reception of a Miss Ball, at the Ursuline Convent, she met with a Mrs. O’Brien from Dublin, who occupied a distinguished place in the Catholic society of that day. They soon became warm friends, and the result was that Miss Aikenhead visited Mrs. O’Brien in Dublin, and here she met the late Archbishop Murray, who made a very favorable impression on her religious mind. While in Dublin she visited several religious institutions, and became firmly resolved to devote her life to the service of God. She was called to Cork, and soon after, her mother dying, and her sisters becoming boarders at the Ursuline Convent, she found herself free to visit Dublin again, which she did in 1809.

Dr. Murray, having resolved to introduce the Sisters of Charity into Ireland, looked around for the proper person to aid him. Mary Aikenhead, to her great surprise, was chosen by Dr. Murray to be the first superior. It was decided that she should go to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, near York, England, there to go through her novitiate and to prepare herself for the great work before her. She left her native city for York on the 24th of May, 1812, and arrived there on 6 June. Here she took the name of Sister Mary Augustine.

In 1815, after having performed her novitiate, she returned to Ireland, together with the other sisters who went with her to England. All were professed September 1, and Sister Mary Augustine was named superior-general. The community soon increased, and Mother Augustine worked with a will while in their lirst establishment, in William Street, Dublin. She was superior, novice-mistress, went on the sick mission, and oftentimes worked in the kitchen and got ready the dinner for the community.

Mother Augustine was at this time in the prime of life, a noble-looking woman, and one that in any sphere of life would have attracted attention. It was not long before several pious and distinguished ladies joined the order, and its increase was rapid. In 1826 she visited Cork and founded a house there. She returned to Dublin early in 1827.

On 1 February 1830, the new convent being finished, the archbishop blessed it under the title of Our Lady of the Assumption. Here Mother Augustine had a wide field for her ability. She visited the sick, attended the plague-stricken in the hospital, taught men, women, aud children, reformed the erring, trained the young, and thus found abundant occupation for her ever-active energies.

In 1834 our own Bishop England applied to her for sisters to form a foundation in Charleston; but she could not spare any to him. In 1843 she was appointed superior-general for life of the Sisters of Charity in Ireland, and very properly too, for it was to her they owed their origin. In 1838 she sent out sisters to New South Wales.

Mother Aikenhead suffered much from disease, and was forced, on account of it, to remove to her country house at Harold’s Cross in 1845. Notwithstanding her sufferings, she was always cheerful, and often humorous, but always the lady and the nun. In 1858 symptoms of dropsy became manifest. It was warded off for a time, but eventually the disease set in, and after some weeks paralysis ensued, and she died on 22 July 1858, surrounded by her religious children.

As the author of her life, from whom we have culled the above, says: “Her abiding monument is the congregation which she founded, which she inspired with her spirit of labor and of love, and rooted on the Rock of Peter. Generation will succeed generation of the Sisters of Charity, and still, as time rolls on, it will be said of them that they ‘continued in good life and holy conversation, to that they were acceptable’ both to God and to man, and to all that dwell in the land.'”

MLA Citation

  • “Mother Mary Aikenhead”. Illustrated Catholic Family Annual, 1881. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 January 2017. Web. 26 February 2017. <>