McAuley was born to a happy, devout, wealthy Catholic family but her father died when she was seven. Her mother moved the three children from their country mansion to Dublin and converted to Protestantism, although she returned to the Catholic church just before she died a few years later.
Catherine was first fostered by a Protestant surgeon named Conway, then by the Armstrong family. Both families were well-to-do and both fell on hard times, but when she was 18 she was adopted by a Mr. and Mrs. Callahan, distant relatives, who were childless and wealthy. They, too, were Protestants, but McAuley converted both of them to Catholicism. When Callahan died in 1822 shortly after his wife, she was left his entire fortune.
She had long wished to do something to help poor women, and set about founding a religious order, the Order of Mercy, in 1829. The order has grown to be one of the largest women's orders in the church.
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