During the last two weeks of May, I had the privilege of traveling to Ireland with students, faculty and staff representing University of Detroit Mercy’s College of Health Professions & McAuley School of Nursing.
My role as the interim vice president for Mission Integration was to reflect upon how this trip, and ones like it in the future, can further UDM’s care for and engagement with the Mercy charism and spirituality.
The Sisters of Mercy are one of two religious sponsors of our University, the other being the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). We are the only university of its kind — sharing the gifts and heritage of each of these orders.
While traveling in Ireland, to the major cities of Dublin and Cork, the journey of Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley’s life began to unfold. It is clear in learning more about her that Catherine’s own struggles with suffering present a contemporary model for how women had to balance the desire to be their own agents while remaining faithful Catholics in a complex society governed by the church and government politics.
The more I learned about Catherine and reflected upon her life, I have no doubt that had she been born and raised in Michigan, Catherine’s ministry would have rooted her firmly in Detroit and it is this legacy that UDM has the unique position to carry forward into the future.
Catherine was raised in Dublin during a time of tremendous religious and political persecution. Her family was Catholic, and under the penal laws of the time, it was illegal for Catholics in Ireland to do many things including own land, worship in a non-wood building and be educated.
James McAuley, Catherine’s father, straddled this fraught landscape and was able to build a life for his wife and three children that included some access to financial resources and education. However, when he died, Catherine’s family splintered along religious lines. Her mother and two siblings converted to the Protestant tradition while Catherine remained Catholic. She moved in with other Catholics, to remain adherent to her faith, and struggled with them in their financial poverty to find enough food to eat and warm herself during the cold winter months.
A few years later, Catherine had the opportunity to work for a Protestant family, the Callaghans, as their house manager. This was no posh position — she worked long hours managing the affairs of the home and its many contracts: food service, staff and general operations.
The Callaghans were kind people who allowed Catherine to continue practicing her Catholic faith while in their employ. We know from letters written during this time of the mutual affection between Catherine and the Callaghans. As proof of their strong feelings, the Callaghans left her the bulk of their estate upon their deaths, equaling about $5 million dollars in today’s value.
With this money, over the next several decades, Catherine would establish a center to care for women and children in the dirty and chaotic streets of Dublin, providing for their housing, food, education and health. To ensure her ministry would continue with the support of the Catholic Church, Catherine would eventually take vows as a religious sister and then establish the Sisters of Mercy.
Why is it important to understand this background? The life and history of Catherine has been told many times, by many more learned women than me. But as a practicing clinical psychologist, I have deep respect for understanding that the roots from where we come shape the lives we live long into the future. I believe it is Catherine’s personal experiences of family separation and the tension of navigating the religious and political divides of her day that drove her to want to help women and children, who were the most vulnerable populations in that system.
Catherine’s actions, while planful and intentional, were also pragmatic. She did not attempt to change legislatures or doctrine; Catherine opted to take care of the basic needs. Almost 100 years later, American psychologist Abraham Maslow would support Catherine’s approach, suggesting his famous “hierarchy of needs” and encouraging care to be viewed as foundational steps, starting with the basic needs first.
Where does this leave us, at UDM, almost two centuries after Catherine’s initial outreach in Dublin?
I believe it provides ample inspiration to think about basic needs first, for our students, faculty and staff internally, but also for the basic needs of our city. Who are the most vulnerable in our city population? Who are the people that bear the brunt of unjust and unfair laws or social practices? There are many ways to answer this question, and as an institution of higher learning, we are also well positioned to research this question well and present answers that deepen our response to the current call of need.
I believe Catherine’s motivation to care for women and children would still be of tremendous value to our campus life as we educate our students to go out into the world, making the same difference Catherine’s strived for in her own life. We want to help our students find the resources and the community that will support their life-changing endeavors. And wouldn’t it be great if each of our schools and colleges take the mantle of Mercy upon themselves, thinking of ways to bring faculty and students together to martial their resources for those in our immediate city in need?
One of the many beauties of our Catholic faith is the ability to remember what has gone on before so it can become a living tradition for each new generation. We do that when we gather together for the sacrament of Eucharist at Mass, and we can do that within our campus experience as well.
Let us move into the 192nd year of the Mercy tradition, carrying forward the powerful example set forward by Catherine — by remaining faithful, we strive to care for those in greatest need. That challenge is equally before us in Detroit in 2023 as it was in Dublin in 1831.
This guest column was written by Carrie Nantais ’17, who served as interim vice president for Mission Integration in 2022-23. She is a fully licensed clinical psychologist in private practice.