American bishops came to Ireland in the early nineteenth century in an effort to recruit nuns to look after the interests of Irish women emigrating in vast numbers to their dioceses. The first order to respond were the Ursulines in 1812 and 1834, followed by the Sisters of Mercy from 1843 and the Presentation Sisters from 1854. From then on, American-based nuns came to Ireland from time to time, visiting Child of Mary sodalities and girls' schools trying to recruit Irish girls for their orders.

Nuns founded sheltered accommodation in America for homeless immigrant women.

During the first year that the [New York] House of Mercy operated (1849-50), over 1,200 Irish women were placed in jobs and the number of women actually living with the sisters and receiving food and clothing from them averaged 200 a night. By 1853, 7,356 'were placed in respectable situations.' Hasia Diner, Erin's daughters in America, Baltimore, 1983, p.135.

Nuns also ran schools, hospitals, Magdalen asylums and cared for the sick in their homes in many parts of the world besides America. Irish Sisters of Mercy worked alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War in dreadful conditions when medicines were scarce and surgery carried out without anaesthetics. Over 1,900 young women trained at the missionary school run by the Sisters of Mercy at Callan from 1884 to 1958 before leaving for convents in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, America, Africa and Asia.

Nuns in Melbourne
Irish Sisters of Mercy, Melbourne
Early 20th century


  1. Nuns founded refuges in America for ______ immigrant women. They also ran schools, _____, _____, asylums, and cared for the _____ in their homes.
  2. How did nuns differ from other emigrants?
  3. List the types of work Irish nuns did abroad?


  1. Write an imaginary letter from a nun in America urging her sister to emigrate and join a convent in America.
  2. Compose an advertisement requesting Irish Catholic girls to consider joining a convent in America.
  3. Interview a woman who has worked abroad as a nun.
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