The Institute of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary was founded on February 24, 1849 when a group of women gathered together to form a community dedicated to the works of Father Jean Gailhac, a priest in Béziers, France.
The desire of the community to make God known and loved led them to focus their eyes on other shores. An initial attempt to establish a community in Callan, County Kilkenny, Ireland, failed because of a dispute between the parish priest and his bishop. The sisters were undaunted, however, and soon made their first foundation outside of France in Lisburn, near Belfast, in Northern Ireland. That foundation in 1870 was followed by a decade of expansion in Europe and North America.
As the institute grew foundations were established in other parts of Europe and in Africa.
On February 24, 1849 the Institute of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary was founded to continue a shelter and an orphanage established by Father Gailhac in Béziers, France which had been in existence since 1834. After the founding of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in 1849 these works were gradually transformed and supplemented by a boarding school and a small dispensary in which both the children at the Motherhouse and the poor and outcast of Béziers were treated.
The orphanage, the preservation,(successor to the shelter) and the boarding school were three distinct institutions, the first two being considered social welfare works. The same spirit animated them, but each had specific educational aims according to the place that each group would hold in society. The orphanage accepted children between the ages of six and ten. They stayed there until they were twenty-one years of age or until some member of the family took them. The specific objective of the orphanage was to educate the children to be good Christians and devoted employees. The preservation accepted girls between the ages of eight and twenty, who, "for want of care or due to the behavior of their parents or because of the difficulties of their age, are exposed to various dangers." The aim of the preservation was to educate them in the practice of virtue and to provide the instruction appropriate to the position they would occupy in the world. The aim of the boarding school was two-fold: the Christian education of daughters of the well-to-do and financial help for the social welfare works.
Other foundations established in France include: Cambrai, Paris, Rennes, and Montpellier. Today in France the sisters are engaged in parish and school ministries and adult religious formation.
Ireland - 1870
Within twenty years of the foundation of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, Father Gailhac looked to Ireland as a place where its mission could be expanded. In 1870 ten religious, with Mother St. Thomas Hennessey as superior, left Béziers for Lisburn, a suburb of Belfast, which became the first foundation of the RSHM Institute outside of France. In Northern Ireland, Roman Catholics were a minority and poor. RSHM were invited by the parish priest and by his bishop to establish a school for girls and young women "of the poorer sort of people." Within months the sisters had opened a poor school and a paying school at the convent, and were teaching religion classes on Sundays to children, young girls and women of all ages.
Sacred Heart of Mary Convent Community
They opened a boarding school for young women, and offered night classes three times a week for the poor women employed in the factories. Most of these women had left school at about nine years of age. In 1879 the sisters were asked to begin a school in Ferrybank, Waterford. Other foundations followed in Ireland in Dublin and Belfast.
Today sisters in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are engaged in primary and secondary school and college education. They also serve in parish ministries, prison ministry and with homeless people.
England - 1872
The first English foundation of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary was made in response to an invitation from Fr. Thomas Kelly, parish priest of St. James, Bootle, Liverpool, who was looking for a community of women religious to help him to found parish schools where children could be instructed in the Catholic religion. A group of sisters was sent from Béziers to Liverpool in 1872.
Sister Eugène with pupils at Marsh Lane School, Bootle, Liverpool
Work got under way quickly and prospered, expanding to several other places: Barrow-in-Furness, London, Carlisle, and Cromer. One group that profited most from the presence of the RSHM in England was the Catholic children from ages five to thirteen for whom the Education Act of 1870 made schooling compulsory. Throughout the Liverpool area, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary staffed numerous parish schools and, over the years, taught thousands of students.
Early days at the school in Seaforth, Liverpool, England