Sitting in the archives of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I came across a woman who would become a leading figure in my research on the Irish in Chicago. A letter from Mother Agatha O’Brien requesting more funds to support the work of the Sisters of Mercy, a small group of women who had established the Chicago Foundation in 1846. My search for Mother Agatha, also known as Margaret O’Brien, sent me back to Dublin and then to North Carolina, where the American archives of the Sisters of Mercy are located, far from the diocesan archives where I first met her.
Mother Agatha O’Brien lived a short but full life that was probably far from what she expected. Born in Carlow in 1822, one of 17 children born to cooper John O’Brien and Elsie Costello, she was educated by the Presentation Sisters. At least one older sister was at Mercy Convent in Sligo when she joined St Leo’s Mercy Convent in May 1843 as a lay sister. In the 19th century, girls and women who entered the convent without a dowry could expect a life of domestic work, while those who entered with a dowry could hope to become choir sisters, with opportunities to teach, care for and to travel. Margaret came to the attention of Michael O’Connor, Bishop of Pittsburgh, who, according to an early biographer, said: “This woman was capable of making a nation, and why should the Order be deprived of the services which ‘she could give him back because his father a poor man in Ireland’.
Conscious of their position as women in a city dominated by men, the sisters sought to assert their rights
In early 1843, there was a call for Irish religious orders to come to the United States to deal with the growing number of arriving Irish Catholic emigrants. Margaret volunteered and soon traveled with Frances Warde to Pittsburgh. Upon their arrival in New York on December 11, 1843, they were greeted by Bishop John Hughes of New York and William Quarter, newly appointed Bishop of Chicago. Quarter and O’Brien’s lives would now be linked.
Shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh, Margaret took the veil as Sister Agatha O’Brien and on May 5, 1846, at the age of 24, she became the first Sister of Mercy to profess her vows in the United States. United. Four months later, O’Brien became the first superior of the new Sisters of Mercy foundation in Chicago.
On September 23, 1846, O’Brien set out for the growing city of Chicago. Originally a trading center for Potawatomi Native Americans and Quebec fur traders, Chicago had become a prosperous city beginning in the 1830s with the growth of the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the expansion of rail lines .
Between 1840 and 1850, Chicago’s population grew by 570%, from 4,500 to 30,000. Irish-born people made up at least 20% of that number. The new Diocese of Chicago was in dire need of staff, and Bishop Quarter’s decision to separate parishes into ethnic strongholds meant that Irish parishioners needed Irish nuns. The Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy was his first stop. Accompanied temporarily by Warde, sisters Agatha, Ellen O’Brien, de Salles McDonnell, Vincent McGirr and Gertrude McGuire established the first religious order in Chicago and took it upon themselves to establish social services in the growing young city. .
The sisters quickly got to work, establishing a school from their base in the bishopric and caring for the sick at the town dispensary. Along with their parochial school and nursing, they set up a paying school for girls, named after Frances Ward (Mother Francis Xavier), to help finance their works which, from 1850, included an orphanage.
Beginning in 1849, the sisters worked at the new Illinois General Hospital of the Lake. By 1851 they had taken it over, renaming it Mercy Hospital. In a letter to Sr M Scholastica Drum, O’Brien noted that “It is a great undertaking…I am fearful and uneasy because a hospital is such an arduous undertaking, but if Heaven help us, everyone will be right.” Under O’Brien’s direction and aware of both their vows and their position as women in a male-dominated city, the sisters sought to establish their rights quickly. Mercy Hospital and Mercy Orphan Asylum were chartered and incorporated under their legal direction in June 1852, remaining autonomous from the machinations of bishops and priests.
Agatha O’Brien died at the age of 32 during a cholera epidemic in Chicago in July 1854, along with three of her sisters. With her death, only Sister Vincent McGirr survived among the original six who established the Chicago community. O’Brien’s emphasis on community autonomy faded after his death, and the Sisters of Mercy became indebted to the diocese. However, her influence and the work she started will have lasting effects on social provision in Chicago.
Agatha O’Brien was a young woman who rose above what was expected of someone born to her position in life and sought to better the lives of others in a rapidly changing society.
Dr. Cooper will give a free conference upon registration Agatha O’Brien on Zoom and it will air on EPIC’s YouTube channel on Thursday, January 20, 2022 at 6:30 p.m.
This article on extraordinary emigrants was written by Dr Sophie Cooper, author of the forthcoming book Forging Identities in the Irish World: Melbourne and Chicago, c. 1830-1922. This article has been produced in association with EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, Dublin Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish have shaped and influenced the world.