Great Women: The Sisters of Mercy

On Monday 16th January 1854, three nuns, Sisters M. Philomena Maguire, M. Ignatius Crolly and Mary Lister, along with their young student Kate Molloy, arrived in Belfast. The Sisters of Mercy were founded only 23 years previously by Catherine McAuley with a sum of money she inherited, which she wished to use to help the poor. They were the first three Sisters of Mercy to travel to Belfast from the Motherhouse in Baggot Street, Dublin, and the first nuns to travel to and settle in the north-east of Ulster since the 16th century.[1]

The Sisters of Mercy travelled to Belfast at the request of a group of Catholic businessmen, who believed there was an urgent need to help their co-religionists, many of whom had come to Belfast seeking work during the post-Famine years. The Sisters soon established day schools for children, an evening school for the girls and women working in the mills, and visited the sick, dying and those in prison.  The Sisters of Mercy also took over a penitentiary for women located in Bankmore Street, at the request of Bishop Denvir, the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor whose residence – officially known as his ‘Palace’ – was the current St Patrick’s Presbytery in Donegall Street.[2]

The four pioneering women settled in North Belfast, and in 1854, St Paul’s Convent was established on the Crumlin Road.[3] Evening classes for working girls and women began in March that same year.  The first class was so over-run that they had to split the days! Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were for those who could not read, about 300 students.  Tuesdays and Thursdays were for those who could tolerably read and wanted to further their education, about 250 students.  The evening classes taught political geography, arithmetic, history and writing.  Around 550 students paid one penny per week to attend evening classes.[4] The statistics for attendance underlines how the Sisters of Mercy answered a serious educational and social need in North Belfast, even prior to the establishment of the Mater Hospital.

In the early 1870s two nuns, Sister M. Magdalene Malone and Sister M. Vincent Byrne felt they had experienced poor treatment from the Protestant matron of Frederick Street Hospital while visiting patients, who had requested their presence. At this time, there was some mistrust of nuns among the Protestant community, who feared that they would try to convert people on their death beds. This interaction spurred Sister M. Magdalene to create a hospital that would care for the sick poor of Belfast, no matter their creed.[5]

Sister Magdalene Malone was elected superior of her community on the Crumlin Road by her fellow nuns in May 1883 and, immediately, responding to growing need in an ever-expanding Industrial Belfast, decided to create a hospital and opened the Mater Infirmorum Hospital in 1883.[1]In 1883, she approached Bishop Patrick Dorrian who was able to purchase a small property for £2,300, Bedeque House on the Crumlin Road. This was converted into a hospital containing 28 beds and an adjoining dispensary.[7]  Bedeque House was an ideal location because the building was adjoined to the convent gardens.[8] On 1 November 1883, the Mater Infirmorum Hospital was opened under the care of the Sisters of Mercy, who had proven their capability for medical aid during the Crimean War.[9] The prospectus of the hospital read that, “This Institution is established for the relief of the sick and dying poor, WITHOUT DISTINCTION OF CREED”.[10]

While the hospital did not discriminate on the basis of religion, it was still a Catholic institution, intended to provide a Catholic style of pastoral care.[11] In 1900, a new hospital building was built, which later became a teaching hospital for Queen’s University Belfast. The cost of £2,600 for the new site was paid for entirely by Dr Patrick McAlister, Bishop of Down and Connor, from his private coffers.[12] In 1945, a new maternity unit was unveiled and inaugurated by Bishop Mageean, who ruled out the provision of contraception, birth control or abortion, as fitting with a Catholic ethos.[13]

With the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948, the voluntary donations which supported the Mater Hospital began to dwindle. From this date, the hospital was indebted to the Young Philanthropists’ Association, which fundraised successfully for the Mater Hospital through social events such as dances and concerts.[14]

The Mater Hospital did not initially join the NHS, as it could not guarantee that the hospital would continue to be run according to Catholic ethical principles. The conflict arose from the Northern Ireland government’s wish to implement the NHS in full as the Minister of Health, William Grant, had laid out a different system in Northern Ireland than the one implemented in Britain. In Britain, a hospital had the choice between NHS integration or remaining independent whereas, in Northern Ireland, if a hospital refused full integration it would be barred from any NHS activity and no longer be classed as a hospital. As a Catholic institution, the Mater Hospital also faced the issue of Canon Law, which dictated that the hospital could not be run by the state, as opposed to the Church.[15]

The Mater Hospital today. Source: https://belfasttrust.hscni.net/hospitals/mater/

The controversy over the Mater’s exclusion from the NHS dominated the Mater’s history for twenty-one years. The issue was debated in both Houses of Stormont, amidst ongoing negotiations between political and religious representatives.[16]  This debate lasted until 1 January 1972, when the hospital entered the state system, being transferred to the state on a 99-year lease with its denomination character safeguarded.[17] After five years of integration, the Irish Times newspaper reported that the Catholic character of the hospital had not been affected, other than the Protestant staff being ‘lax’ in the refilling of the holy water fonts.[18]

The Mater Hospital has played a key role in the North Belfast, and wider Belfast community since its foundation. During the First World War, ‘hospital ships’ brought injured soldiers to the hospital, and many doctors and nurses travelled to the frontlines to provide medical aid.[19]  The Mater Hospital remained open and played a role in World War Two in evacuations and emergency services. In April 1941, during the Belfast Blitz, the Crumlin Road Convent south-east school wing was struck by incendiary bombs, which burned the uppermost floor and most of the school equipment and furniture. The Sisters attempted to control the fire until help could arrive. After the April air raids, the Sisters of Mercy helped to coordinate the evacuation of the children who attended their schools. The Mater Hospital had partially evacuated after the air raids in April so that they had space for emergency services in case of future attacks. This decision became vital in May 1941 when the second Blitz occurred.[20]

The Mater was the first hospital to care for British soldiers in Northern Ireland in October 1969, at the onset of the Troubles.[21]  The schools, hospitals, and convents linked to Sisters of Mercy were frequently attacked during the Troubles.  The north Belfast convent schools were sites of frequent arson and bombing attacks.[22] The Mater Hospital was one of the primary hospitals to treat and care for victims of bombings and attacks during the Troubles, regardless of background.[23] Much of the 1980s saw the gradual removal of the school and buildings surrounding the convent so that land could be added to the growing hospital. The Sisters of Mercy in Belfast and Downpatrick decided to come together to form one group in 1981 and by 1984, just 12 Sisters of Mercy remained working in Mater Hospital. [24] By 1990, all novices and postulants were at Downpatrick Convent, while older nuns remained in Belfast.[25] The last building to be handed over to the expansion of the hospital was St. Paul’s Convent itself, which transferred hands in December 1992.[26]

More recently, in March 2020 the Mater Hospital was chosen by the Belfast Trust to function as the designated Covid-19 hospital. The hospital and their emergency department initially accepted all admissions of respiratory ambulances in order to handle all Covid-19 cases and medical staff from other hospitals within the Belfast Trust were sent to Mater to assist with the higher patient intake.[27] Throughout the conflict and up to the present day, the Mater Hospital continued in its quest to provide care for all, regardless of creed, continuing to operate on its site on the Crumlin Road, North Belfast.

Footnotes:

[1] Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland. p. 211.

[1]https://www.mercyworld.org/newsroom/a-founding-story-sisters-of-mercy-belfast-164/

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘The Mater Infirmorum Hospital’, J. A. Verzin, The Ulster Medical Journal, Volume 56, Supplement, pp.565-571, August 1987.

[4] Marie Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2010) p.40-42.

[5] Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland. p. 205, 208.

[6] Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland. p. 211.

[7] ‘The Mater Infirmorum Hospital’, J. A. Verzin, The Ulster Medical Journal.

[8] Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland. p. 209.

[9] ‘The Mater Infirmorum Hospital’, J. A. Verzin, The Ulster Medical Journal.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Martin, Peter. “‘Why Have a Catholic Hospital at All?’: The Mater Infirmorum Hospital Belfast and the State, 1883–1972.” Healthcare in Ireland and Britain 1850-1970: Voluntary, Regional and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Donnacha Seán Lucey and Virginia Crossman, University of London Press, London, 2014, pp. 101–116. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv512xkg.11.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Martin. “‘Why Have a Catholic Hospital at All?’: The Mater Infirmorum Hospital Belfast and the State, 1883–1972.”

[14] ‘The Mater Infirmorum Hospital’, J. A. Verzin, The Ulster Medical Journal.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland. p. 293- 295.

[21] ‘The Mater Infirmorum Hospital’, J. A. Verzin, The Ulster Medical Journal.

[22] Duddy, The Call of the North: A History of the Sisters of Mercy, Down and Connor Diocese, Ireland. p. 386.

[23] Ibid, 412.

[24] Ibid, 413-416, 419.

[25] Ibid. 465, 505.

[26] Ibid, 416.

[27] https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/belfast-news/coronavirus-northern-ireland-mater-hospital-17965987

Members Involved

YEAR: 1833

Location: Antrim Road

YEAR: 1815

Location: Donegal Street