A woman capable of making a nation

The Irish nun who left a legacy of social provision in 19th Century Chicago

Sitting in the Archdiocese of Chicago archives, I stumbled upon a woman who would become a leading light 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 band 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 Sisters of Mercy US archives are held, far from the diocesan archives where I first met her.

Mother Agatha O’Brien lived a short yet full life that was likely a far cry from what she expected from it. 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 in the Convent of Mercy in Sligo when she joined St Leo’s Convent of Mercy in May 1843 as a lay sister. In the nineteenth century, girls and women entering the convent without a dowry could expect a life of household labour, while those entering with a dowry could hope to become choir sisters, with opportunities to teach, nurse, and travel. Margaret caught the attention of Michael O’Connor, Bishop of Pittsburgh, who, according to an early biographer, declared “That woman was capable of making a nation, and why should the Order be deprived of the services she could render it because her father a poor man in Ireland”.

In early 1843, there was a call for Irish religious orders to go out to the United States to minister to the increasing numbers of Irish Catholic emigrants arriving. Margaret volunteered and soon travelled with Frances Warde to Pittsburgh. On landing in New York City on December 11, 1843, they were greeted by Bishop John Hughes of New York and William Quarter, recently appointed Bishop of Chicago. Quarter and O’Brien’s lives would henceforth be entwined.

Soon after her arrival 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. Four months later, O’Brien became the first Superior of the newly established Sisters of Mercy foundation in Chicago.

On September 23, 1846, O’Brien set out for the rapidly expanding city of Chicago. Originally a trading centre for Potawatomi Native Americans and Quebecois fur traders, Chicago had become a thriving city from the 1830s thanks to the growing Illinois & Michigan Canal and expanding rail lines.

Between 1840 and 1850, Chicago’s population increased by 570 per cent - from 4,500 to 30,000. Irish-born people made up at least 20 per cent of that number. The newly established Diocese of Chicago was in dire need of personnel, and Bishop Quarter’s decision to separate parishes into ethnic strongholds meant that Irish parishioners needed Irish nuns. The Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy were his first port of call. 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 set up social care provision in the young, rapidly expanding city.

The Sisters got to work quickly, establishing a school from their base at the Bishop’s house and tending to the sick at the City Dispensary. Alongside their parish school and nursing, they established a fee-paying school for girls, named after Frances Ward (Mother Francis Xavier), to help fund their works which, from 1850, included an orphanage.

From 1849, Sisters worked at the newly established Illinois General Hospital of the Lake. By 1851, they had taken charge, renaming it the Mercy Hospital. In a letter to Sr M Scholastica Drum, O’Brien noted that “This is a great undertaking… I am fearful and uneasy because an Hospital is such an arduous undertaking, but if Heaven aids us all will be right”. Under O’Brien’s leadership and mindful of both their vows and their position as women in a male-dominated city, the Sisters sought to quickly establish their rights. The Mercy Hospital and Mercy Orphan Asylum was chartered and incorporated under their legal leadership in June 1852, remaining autonomous from the machinations of bishops and priests.

Agatha O’Brien died aged 32 during an outbreak of cholera in Chicago in July 1854, along with three of her Sisters. With her death, only Sister Vincent McGirr survived from the original six who established the Chicago community. O’Brien’s emphasis on the community’s autonomy waned after her death and the Sisters of Mercy were plunged into debt to the Diocese. However, her influence and the work that she began would have lasting effects on the 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 improve the lives of others in a rapidly changing society.

Dr Cooper will give a free to register talk about Agatha O'Brien on Zoom and it will be streamed to EPIC's YouTube Channel on Thursday 20 January 2022, 6.30pm.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article 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 was produced in association with EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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