Almost 176 years ago, Ellen Whitty professed her final vows as a Sister of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland. It is not recorded how Ellen first encountered the work of the Sisters of Mercy and their founder, Catherine McAuley. Born in March 1819, Ellen was the daughter of a farmer, William Whitty, and his wife Johanna. William’s farm and orchard were prosperous enough for the family to send their seven children to private schools in Dublin. William was determined that his four sons would receive college educations, while Ellen was sent to Miss Finn’s academy in Hardwick Place, Dublin to study music, embroidery, French and other ‘accomplishments’ considered suitable for a young woman in the early nineteenth century.
Ellen probably became aware of the Sisters of Mercy during her time as a student in Dublin. In the city, the contrast between the wealthy and the poor was much starker than in the small farming community in County Wexford where Ellen grew up. From her school, Ellen would have observed the Sisters of Mercy traversing the streets of Dublin to aid the poor, and provide education to young, working class women. On 6 January 1839, two months before her twentieth birthday, Ellen presented herself to Catherine McAuley at the Baggot Street convent to seek admittance to the Sisters of Mercy. That night, Catherine wrote to her friend Francis Warde:
‘… a new Sister was concluded for this day from Co Wexford. She comes in a week … She will not be 20 till next week. Very pleasing and musical’.
Ellen entered the Sisters of Mercy with the last group of novices to receive their preparation and training directly from Catherine McAuley. Intelligent and lively, with pale olive skin, dark eyes and expressive features, Ellen was quick to make friends with her fellow novices, some of whom had travelled from Birmingham and Liverpool to make their preparations for profession. Her potential as a future leader was recognised early by the Baggot Street superiors, who delegated her small responsibilities. For example, Ellen was placed in charge of training the choirs who performed to large crowds at churches in Dublin and Birr. Ellen also arranged the choirs’ musical arrangements.
Ellen took her final vows on 19 August 1841, and her first year as a professed Sister was eventful. She was appointed by Catherine to be Mistress of Novices, and worked closely alongside Catherine until the founder’s death on 11 November. Ellen was at Catherine’s bedside during her last days. For the rest of her life, she provided a living link to Catherine’s teachings and her vision for a more just and equitable world.
Ellen Whitty’s letters were published by the University of Queensland Press in 2014. To purchase a copy or to learn more please contact us.