Catherine McAuley, a popular young heiress in Dublin, Ireland, felt called to reach out to the poor. Country women employed in Manor Houses of the upper classes were often abused by the men of these homes. Catherine used her inheritance to build a large house on Baggot Street to provide a shelter for these women. A few friends joined herin this endeavour. Together they began teaching their residents literacy and sewing. Extending into impoverished areas of Dublin, they fed the hungry and cared for the sick.
In 1831 Catherine founded the Sisters of Mercy. With a charism to minister to the needy, sick and uneducated, the congregation spread to all English speaking countries. The Sisters of Mercy were invited to South Africa in 1898 to establish schools. Later they became involved in social work, nursing and providing shelters for the homeless.
In 1965 Coolock House - named after the house Catherine inherited in Dublin - was opened by Sr Patricia Kelleher in KwaZulu-Natal. Originally it served as a holiday house and retreat centre for religious sisters. The Sisters of Mercy later opened Coolock’s doors to anyone in need of a rest, retreat or holiday.