Ellen Maher, called in religion Mary Cecilia Maher, was the founder of the congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, Auckland. She was born probably on 13 September 1799 at Freshford, County Kilkenny, Ireland, the daughter of Adelaide Maher and her husband, John, a wealthy farmer. Ellen Maher was drawn to the religious life while young, but deferred her plans until she had helped to rear and educate the children of her father's second marriage. On 8 September 1838 she entered St Leo's Convent, Carlow, to become a Sister of Mercy. This religious order had been founded in Dublin in 1831 and in 1837 had been established in Carlow. Ellen Maher received the religious name of Cecilia and made her vows on 8 January 1840. She soon demonstrated outstanding gifts of character and maturity: in 1842 she became novice mistress, and the following year, superior.
In April 1849 the first links between Mother Mary Cecilia Maher and New Zealand were forged when Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier, the first Catholic bishop of Auckland, visited St Leo's to seek Irish nuns for his diocese. He succeeded in obtaining the services of Mother Mary Cecilia and seven other sisters from Carlow. Pompallier and his party, which included priests and seminarians, left Antwerp on 27 August 1849 on the Océanie, a Belgian vessel of 533 tons. During the long and tedious voyage to New Zealand Pompallier taught the sisters Māori, which some came to speak fluently. Mother Mary Cecilia and her companions landed in Auckland on 9 April 1850. They were the first women religious to arrive in New Zealand.
After taking possession of their first home, a small convent and school on the site of the present St Patrick's Cathedral in Wyndham Street, Auckland, the Sisters of Mercy set about their work. Under Mother Mary Cecilia's direction they took over the school, with about 60 girls, as soon as they arrived. Before the end of the year they had taken charge of an infant school with about 30 pupils. The following year, on the same site, Mother Mary Cecilia set up a 'select school' for young ladies whose families could afford tuition in French, music, fine arts and basic education. Later a boarding school division was opened. All the schools were open to other denominations and the religious beliefs of non-Catholics were respected.
Mother Mary Cecilia and her sisters also undertook the usual work of the order among the poor, ill and deprived. They cared for the sick in their homes, visited prisons, and took in orphans, eight of whom were handed over to them on the day of their arrival. The number of orphans soon increased, and the Sisters of Mercy ensured that they were both educated and prepared for earning a living in the future, usually in domestic service.
Mother Mary Cecilia planned care of the sick on a wider scale than casual health care and home visitation. As early as 1853 she was writing about a projected hospital. However, this aim was not achieved in her lifetime: the Auckland Mater Misericordiae Hospital (now Mercy Hospital) was not established until 1900.
Mother Mary Cecilia and her companions soon made contact with the Māori, and their knowledge of the language enabled them to establish a rapport with the young women who came to them to be instructed. Their concern took a practical bent: the setting up in the mid 1850s of a house of hospitality, where Māori women could stay for a few days when they came to Auckland to sell produce. In 1855 the Sisters of Mercy took charge of a school for Māori girls, St Anne's, on a site called Mount St Mary in Ponsonby. Seven years later this school was transferred to the care of French sisters of the short-lived Congregation of the Holy Family.
The work of the Sisters of Mercy continued to expand under the direction of Mother Mary Cecilia. Convents and schools were opened in Parnell (1862), Onehunga (1863), and Ōtāhuhu (1866). In 1861 three sisters went to Wellington to found another branch of the order, which was later taken over by Sisters of Mercy from Melbourne.
Meanwhile Mother Mary Cecilia realised her dream of a new convent for the Auckland Sisters of Mercy. In 1862 St Mary's Convent, a large Gothic-style building, designed by Edward Mahoney, was built on the Mount St Mary site in Ponsonby. Already the complex included a boys' school and seminary (the original St Mary's College), and the Māori girls' boarding school, St Anne's. In a few years it came to include a girls' boarding and day school (the present St Mary's College), and an orphanage. The schools were subsequently accommodated in other buildings, and the convent was replaced in the 1970s. Only the original chapel, opened in 1866, remains.
The years of the goldrush in Auckland province led to an increase in social problems. Quick to respond, Mother Mary Cecilia established a convent and school in Thames in 1874, which was taken over in 1911 by the Sisters of St Joseph. The Thames foundation was to be Mother Mary Cecilia's last tangible achievement. By 1878 she was in her late 70s, and had given 28 years of service in New Zealand. For all but six of these years she had acted as superior general of the Auckland Sisters of Mercy, bearing ultimate responsibility for all their works. In late 1878 she caught a chill, her condition worsened, and she died at St Mary's Convent, Ponsonby, on 10 October 1878. She is buried in the small cemetery in the convent grounds.
Her work, and that of her sisters, had an important influence on early Auckland. The Sisters of Mercy contributed to the growth and well-being of the community, particularly in the fields of education and social work where they met a vital need. The work of the order in Auckland continues today: Mother Mary Cecilia Maher built well.