Mary Lyons, Governance Structures of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. Becoming One,The Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, 2005.

Mary Lyons, Governance Structures of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. Becoming One,The Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, 2005. $109.95 / £ 69.95, ISBN 0-7734-6186-8 (hardcover), pp. xiii +264. 

Reviewed by Dr. Joos van Vugt, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands


The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy was founded in Ireland in 1831 to attend to the poor and the uneducated. Its founder Catherine McAuley was one of those wealthy, pious and enterprising Catholic women the nineteenth century abounded in. Her creation was a great success, expanding all over the English-speaking world and beyond. Today, the Sisters of Mercy number over 10,000 and serve in 21 countries all over the world, including, of course, Ireland. Although McAuley’s sister community received papal approbation as early as 1841, its development was not typical of a papal congregation. In the early nineteenth century the model of a congregation with a central council, a motherhouse and filial houses, and autonomy vis-à-vis local church authorities had not yet matured. The distinction between diocesan and papal status was obscure for many, as was the fundamental difference between contemplative and ‘active’ religious life. Founders were often eclectic in their spiritual and organizational preferences and many of their creations were rather hybrid accordingly. This was also the case with the Sisters of Mercy. Because McAuley was primarily focused on smooth cooperation with local bishops, she felt that her sisters should work under their authority and direction. Although she tried to keep in touch with all convents, she did not insist on any centralized leadership. Therefore, as it expanded, her congregation dissolved into numerous small diocesan congregations. The drawbacks of this fragmentation very soon became apparent: the lack of central direction, the inability to reassign sisters from one house to another as their work demanded, and the lack of a sound central noviciate.

Mary Lyons, a canonist and herself a Sister of Mercy, recounts how this fragmentation was partially rectified in the course of almost a century by means of diocesan and national (con)federations, unions and new amalgamated institutes. In most cases, this process was not initiated by the sisters themselves but thrust upon them by forward-looking bishops or by the Vatican with its increasing insistence on clear-cut juridical structures in religious life. In the 1960s, the sisters felt very much inspired by the summons of the Second Vatican Council to bring religious life up to date and to do away with obsolete structures.

Lyons’s book focuses on the rather sluggish development in Ireland where no less than 26 independent congregations, together with a South African offspring, at last congealed into one Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy (1994). However, she also describes developments in Australia and USA, where partial reunification was achieved a few years earlier. Worldwide, the Sisters of Mercy are nowadays mustered in eleven entities with varying degrees of centralization.

To reunite dozens of small independent sister communities must have been a grinding task, especially since canonical and democratic requirements had to be met throughout, even in the face of irrational objections. Not one sister could be left behind in the process. The author’s account of these developments is competent and clear, if at times inevitably a bit boring, especially where the last stretch of unification in Ireland is concerned. She pays attention to the role of the Vatican and sometimes mentions objections by bishops or by sisters (who feared, for instance, that in a united congregation they would be arbitrarily transferred from one place to another). However, because of her focus on governance structures and processes, she merely glances at the conditions which expedited or hampered reunification, and on the pros and cons of unification for the charitable activities and the private lives of the sisters. It would be interesting to know more about the reasons why the reunification proceeded so excruciatingly slow in Ireland and much faster in the United States. Also, why some bishops advocated unification and others opposed it (which would seem their natural stance). Finally, I wonder if the ageing of American and European sister communities played a part.

Within religious communities on the European continent, centralizing tendencies have been stimulated by the awareness that congregations must be ready to care for a growing number of elderly and ailing members. Has this awareness played a part in Ireland too? In the years to come, the lack of vocations in western countries will become a major worry for the Mercy movement. Even in Ireland sister communities do not take a very rosy view of their prospects, considering the sharply declining number of vocations. Mary Lyons appears nevertheless optimistic about the future of the Irish community, provided that it succeeds in further unification with the more vital parts of the Mercy movement abroad. She hopes her book will help to continue the unification process, and perhaps it will.