A house of hospitality and heritage

Sarah Kelly takes a tour of the Mercy International Centre in Dublin

What do Florence Nightingale and Sir Conan Arthur Doyle have in common? Would you believe that their common denominator is the Sisters of Mercy?


Catherine McCauley’s house of Mercy is located on Baggot St, Dublin. Established in 1827 to be a safe house for women, young girls and children living on the Dublin streets, Catherine’s intention was that the poor could be visible to the rich. Her house of Mercy was therefore the crossroads between the affluent and the destitute. Sr Mary Kay Dobrovolny says that Catherine intentionally wanted the rich to see the poor and wanted to locate a place where the girls could seek employment in a protective place.      


Catherine was a woman ahead of her time. In terms of her thinking, her strong will and her determination in the face of all the odds which were stacked firmly against her. She defied a social logic of the time which viewed women as second class citizens. When Catherine opened the house, it was at the very end of the Penal Laws in Ireland. No system for the education of children, namely the poor Catholics was yet in place. Catherine went to France to study teaching techniques for teaching large numbers of children and she brought back this technique and implemented it in her work. In addition to the house on Baggot Street being the first Mercy school, it was also the first teacher training facility in Ireland for women.           


An interesting note is that Catherine participated actively in the construction of the house, and even signed the blueprint which can be seen hanging on the wall beside the Irish oak spiral staircase. Another remarkable detail that deserves to be mentioned is that Catherine never actually intended on establishing a religious order, but God’s will was truly at work.


Bronze statue

Today, the house still stands, and can be clearly recognised from without by the marvellous bronze statue of Catherine, hands outstretched welcoming you as you enter the premises.  Immediately, there is a sense of homecoming. Greeted with such friendly staff and guide, one cannot but feel they are in a sacred and special space.


The house still retains its magnificent Georgian detail, which allows the visitor to become part of the history of Mercy. The tour commences with a fantastic video documentary detailing the life and mission of Catherine McCauley. The story is simply impressive. As you meander through the great and spacious rooms, it is hard to imagine that this house once accommodated for the education of 200 young Dublin street children.


Bathed in natural light from two great Georgian windows, Catherine’s room is filled with a real sense of peace and serenity. Leading a guided tour Sr Mary Kay says much of Catherine’s presence is alive in this room as “in the midst of renovating the house, it’s the only room that has retained its original features”. Even “the floor boards are still intact,” she says. Sr Mary Kay feels extremely connected to Catherine in this room because she’s hearing the same noises that Catherine would have heard, “feeling the texture, knowing the same sounds that Catherine would have felt or heard”.



One of the most prominent features of this room is the wooden statue of the crucified Jesus. “Catherine really found in the image of the crucified Christ the pain and suffering of the Dublin poor,” says Sr Mary Kay. For her it really connected with her and helped focus her perspective. Catherine was often found in front of this statue in floods of tears. Catherine also knew a tremendous amount of pain and grief in her own life confides Sr Mary Kay. While she was establishing her house of Mercy she was the legal guardian of nine children, seven of whom were relatives, and two who were street children she found in the slums of Dublin who had been abandoned. She also looked after an older adult woman with various problems.


In 1994, the house on Baggot Street was established as a house of heritage. From the outside, one could be mistaken in assuming that this building is merely like the other Georgian houses around it. 


The tour provides the visitor with an optic experience that rivals none. It provides guests with the opportunity to see how Mercy spread worldwide. Sometimes it isn’t enough to read about it. You actually see how far and wide this religious order, which was established in Dublin, spread throughout the world. “It is remarkable to think what one woman from Dublin achieved,” says Sr Mary Kay. This tour provides the visitor with a rare glimpse into the person of Catherine. But not only into a distant memory, but rather as someone who is very much alive. Especially when you consider that the guide is in fact one of Catherine’s spiritual daughters, a Sister of Mercy.



So, if you want to find out what Florence Nightingale and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have in common, then a visit to the Mercy Centre is a must. The Mercy Centre provides visitors and guests with great hospitality, a time for refreshment, renewal and a good cup of tea. Along with their remarkable tour, they also have a heritage room, a chapel, a range of programmes relating to Catherine McCauley, conference facilities, a gift shop, and accommodation which can cater for 19 people. The house is located within close proximity to the city and Dublin Bus provides an excellent service on the 39A, or if you’re feeling active, a brisk 15 minute walk from Trinity College will suffice.



Tours of the Mercy International Centre are conducted by appointment at 10am Mondays to Fridays. A tour takes approximately 2 hours and includes tea and scones. Cost €5 per person. For more information contact the Mercy International Centre on 01-661 8061 or email: info@mercyinternational.ie