Agatha O’Brien and the Sisters of Mercy: A Community of Nuns in Early Chicago
By: Suellen Hoy
This article is a brief encapsulation of the life of Sister Agatha O’Brien—an Irish-born woman who immigrated to the United States along with her convent in the mid-1840s. This was a bold decision for her to make, as the Protestant-dominated United States became an increasingly hostile environment for Catholics. It discusses the early stages of her convent work, her move westward to frontier Chicago, and her work and activism once she arrived there.
Agatha was born to a poor family. When she decided to enter the convent, she did so as a "lay sister"—a cooking/cleaning position relegated to women who possessed no "dowry" upon entrance. This did not prevent her ambitions, however; in her early twenties, she became one of the first Sisters of Mercy volunteers to move to the U.S. for missionary purposes in the early 1840s.
Once in her original post at Pittsburgh, she was granted a promotion to "choir nun" by Bishop Michael O’Connor in recognition of her skills and abilities. He recognized that Agatha had potential to do great work for the Catholic church, and that she possessed important leadership qualities. With her new position, Agatha left Pittsburgh in 1846 to move westward, with four other sisters, to frontier Chicago.
Though it had only a modest population at the time of her arrival, Chicago began to attract increasing amounts of Irish immigrants. Since many of these immigrants were driven out of Ireland by famine, Agatha and her colleagues began to recognize the social needs of this new population. Her convent began to provide schools, hospitals, and orphanage—all the while increasing the number of sisters in their convent.
Hoy compared Agatha’s institution to Hull House—both were groups of single women, who were able to "live among the neediest" while providing valuable social welfare programs. Hoy also compared Agatha’s work and activism in the Catholic faith to prominent Protestant women reformers of the time. Protestants such as Catherine Beecher expressed admiration for the Sisters of Mercy, but were almost intimidated by the successes of Catholic women of the frontier.
This success of the Catholic sisters was important, not just because of the services they provided, but because they also provided a "powerful example of how single women might live useful, Christian lives"—according to Hoy. Life and activism in the convent was a favorable option for young women who did not wish to marry and have children. Eventually, there sprung up a great demand for Agatha’s guidance in starting new social institutions all around the Chicago area.
Though Agatha’s life work came to an end as she died at age thirty-two during a cholera outbreak in Chicago, her efforts were not forgotten. Following her death, the remaining Sisters of Mercy named a school in her honor, "St. Agatha’s". Hoy provided three main legacies of the importance Agatha’s work and activism. First, she provided a "dramatic personal example" of the life-changing experience of her devotion to religion. Second, her work helped to tame the harsh anti-Catholic sentiments of society by standing as an influential and well-loved figure. Finally, her work—as well as her many other Catholic sisters—lives on in some of the social institutions that can be found today (i.e. schools, hospitals). In short, Sister Agatha O’Brien used the opportunities of her religion, her gender, and her location to both benefit her society as well as advance positive views of her gender and faith in her society.