29 July 2021, The Tablet

Ireland’s Religious life – in search of an ending

Ireland’s Religious life – in search of an ending

The last of Ireland? Nuns walking at Tramore in Co. Waterford
Photo: Alamy, Rob Ryan


Religious congregations were once a powerful force in Ireland. But, now that vocations have fallen away, a leading religious sister asks if they have entered their final phase

Apostolic religious life in Ireland is at a crucial crossroads. The known past is yielding to an uncertain present and an unknown future.

Research shows that in 1800, there were 11 convents with 120 religious sisters from six different congregations in Ireland. By 1900 the numbers had grown to 8,000 sisters living in 368 convents representing 38 congregations. In 1965, when Paul VI signed the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae Caritatis, there were just under 30,000 priests and Religious in Ireland.

The Council for Research and Development, established by the Irish bishops’ conference to report on every aspect of religion in Ireland with a view to pastoral planning, found in 1971 that “the peak in membership had been reached”. I, along with three companions who had just joined the Sisters of Mercy (RSM), the apostolic religious congregation founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, was among those 29,984 women.

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