"Going West on the Journey," Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

this land blessed with immense and primitive Beauty is where our story begins it’s a story of courage charity and a hope born of suffering between 1843 and 1894 ten groups of Sisters of Mercy 62 individual women in all left their beloved homeland to serve the poor sick and uneducated in the Americas they set out with hope and a willingness to serve they endured the hardships of travel and braved the unknown with these last glimpses of beauty and serenity they set their sights on new lands without a doubt the great Irish emigration of the 19th century plays an important role in our story shaken by extreme poverty many Irish began leaving their land as early as 1815 by 1844 more than 1.5 million almost 20% of the Irish population had emigrated but it was the terrible potato blight of 1845 to 1847 that caused mass Irish Exodus by 1855 another 2 million Irish with the heartache of abandoning both family and country had left their motherland for good most of them went to America normally a week is not a very sorrowful occasion in Ireland and as there’s a tragedy there because they come together and they really make merry tell stories and they even dance before the end of the night but these American wakes were different but the whole feeling was that’ll just despair really because they felt that they would never again see this member of the family and if anyone went to America they couldn’t see a foresee that there would ever be a return so it was really a death and yet the reason that the whole experience was bearable both for those who were staying behind in those who were coming to the United States was this belief this hope that they would find a better life on the other side of the Atlantic but emigration to the new land did not always mean a better life the Americas North Central and South were still wilderness unsettled and predominantly non Catholic in the u.s. ignorant and destitution prevailed throughout the immigrant populations Catholics were feared because of that climate the primary concern of the church at that point was in providing services for the immigrant community who were its parishioners and helping them to become assimilated into mainstream American life throughout America cries for help from Catholic Bishops were sent to Ireland to the women the bishops firmly believed could help make a difference women religious were far better educated than the average immigrant indeed than the average American in many ways they were also unencumbered by family ties and family responsibilities which was very unusual for women they were committed to the kinds of services that the immigrant population needed education health care and well today we would call social work by 1843 the Sisters of Mercy had already gone to England and to Newfoundland and at this stage were seasoned missionaries for 51 years from 1843 to 1894 the journey of mercy looked westward from Ireland and England and responded to the challenges of service in new lands and foreign cultures we should be like the compass that goes round its cycle without stirring from the center our center is God

Katrin McCauley even today at the thought of we going to America it’s a bit frightening what must have been a hundred fifty years ago when there was no chance of them ever coming back again to their dear country most of the Sisters of Mercy who left the various convents in Ireland and England were under 30 years old many were recently professed some yet novices and postulants their lives were as varied as their personalities their spirits were rich with the desire to serve but despite their youth dedication or the excitement of the mission ahead there was one thing that never came easy leaving home iris O’Connor’s mother was very upset she had 10 children now her eldest daughter was dying and the youngest daughter was going to New York and for what she could understand she may never see her again well Michael O’Connor Bishop of Pittsburgh rose first of all the sisters in Carlo they didn’t take any notes of his letter at all they weren’t that interested but then he attended the obsequies of the president of Carlo College and when the sisters heard him chanting one of this one of the Psalms he had a magnificent voice and he was very handsome and of course that was that clinched the whole thing he came in the next day presented himself in the commercial and he won the day in November 1843 a group of seven sisters from Carlo said goodbye to pastoral beauty dear friends and with happy memories began the journey of a lifetime groups from other convents followed quickly sometimes they had second thoughts the last year were heart-rending and it was only when the long narrow vessel began to move out a size of motherland that some of the sisters realized what the sacrifice involved one of them exclaimed in a burst of anguish Oh father I can ask cannot go the bishop whose own eyes were swimming affected to be amused and to distract them from their grief called out hello captain turned back here are people who declare they cannot go on stop the vessel this made everyone laugh after a while the grief of the basses and all renewed the sacrifice of themselves to God from the leaves of the annals sometimes they were just lucky and the story is told of the sisters who set out front can sail for San Francisco they traveled to Dublin whereupon they discovered that there wasn’t space for them on the ship they were due to sail on which was the Arctic so they took advantage of this delay and they traveled to Derby which is one of the concealed foundations to visit the sisters there and afterwards they booked passage on the Canada from Liverpool and on their arrival in New York on Friday October 6th 1854 they discovered that the Arctic heading that collided in fog and all on board had been lost every time people went to Queenstown it reminded them of the finality of leaving their country and leaving their families if leaving brought cause for morning there was little time for it for the carlo group during the first ten days at sea the queen of the west struggled through terrible storm Thursday November night 1843 out of the village owned evening the ship eased as the chairman remaining nearly on one side of the night sea very rough the sisters very sick it’s in the diary of Elizabeth strange in Pittsburgh beyond storms and sickness there was also time for service the sisters considered themselves to be sisters of mercy no matter where they were so they moved all over the ship and advised the people and the steerage and everywhere Irish women I think were particularly adaptable for for a couple of reasons first of all of course they spoke the language which was a big help secondly they were so used to dealing with adversity and dealing with very very difficult situations whether it was the famine life in Ireland or the travel by very primitive kinds of boats to the US early groups came by sailing ships later ones by steamer almost invariably travel did not end when they docked coming to the new world introduced new hardships the first few days often had harsh realities travel beyond the East Coast had its own perils once they arrived in New York the sisters traveled by boat to Nicaragua there in Nicaragua

they were introduced very rapidly to the rigors of the new world that they had come to first they had to take wagons across the isthmus and that was very very vigorous once they finished crossing the Isthmus they had to board the Cortes but that was no easy task because it was out in the bay and the custom was for the natives to carry the passengers out to the boat and that they were indigenous peoples and their custom was to be unclothed so this was quite a shock to European women so father Gallagher arranged for the natives to wear pantaloons and they essentially picked the stirs up and walked them out to the votes and there they were deposited upon the Cortez where they would stay 450 for 13 days as they sailed up to San Francisco to get to Arkansas firmness would have been quite a challenge as well ordinarily it would take a month by both but the this journey took two months because the sisters that boat was blown off-course about eight hundred miles the sisters went almost all the way to Scotland when they finally did arrive in New Orleans they still had a five-day boat trip up the Mississippi before they’ve reached Arkansas seeing Arkansas would have been quite a challenge for them as well because the flatlands were not the green hills of Ireland that would have been a stark reality for them to face despite all of these difficulties and inconveniences the sisters of mercy continued to come to the Americas clothed in the spirit of their beloved founder mother Catherine McAuley the spirit of Catherine McAuley was one of deep compassion for the poor she was revolutionary in that she wanted her sisters to be the walking nuns free from the restrictions of enclosure the sisters adapt themselves readily to the cultural needs of the area in which they found themselves and responders in every way they could to the needs of the poor while we place all our confidence in God we must act as if all depended on our effort Catrin McAuley pittsburg welcomed 33 year-old Francis Ward and six young sisters of mercy on a cold December evening with gusts of smoke roaring from the iron furnaces steamboat bells clanging on the rivers and wagons hauling loads of goods through muddy streets a great contrast to the green land they had left behind yet scenery and climate mattered little for the sisters began their mission almost immediately the day after they arrived here the sisters established themselves in a rented home at what was then 800 Penn Street they established the school almost immediately but at once they became part of the social and economic development of Pittsburgh everybody knew them immediately when I was working on some of the studies of this nativist period I read through copies of a paper that was published in Pittsburgh in the 1840s under the name of the Presbyterian advocate and in that paper there were interesting stories about how the Sisters of Mercy were establishing this hospital in Pittsburgh so that they could get Protestants on their deathbeds and convert them they felt that was the purpose for this new ministry Francis Ward started so many communities but she had one tactic that she pursued every time which I found fascinating she almost always took along at least one or two postulants and novices when she started a new foundation so that within a couple of months of the woman’s arrival there could be a large reception or profession ceremony that would be open to the public in the community and this would give the priest or the bishop who was in charge of the ceremony the opportunity to explain to the people what religious life was all about despite the nativist environment into which the sisters came the school’s the hospitals the social services kinds of organizations which the established so effectively met the needs of people that it gradually overcame the fears that were originally there in the early convent schools it would always have been true that a large percentage of the enrollment would have been daughters of the Protestant leaders of

the community and that became true in the hospitals as well and in other kinds of social services how grateful we were as Montezuma led anchor in New York Harbor and made the 14th it is 46 the eight of us had braved the rigors of the Atlantic Rutan for 28 days the Sisters of Charity arrived to welcome us on behalf of the bishop and they provided hospitality for us for two weeks at their convent on East Broadway mother Agnes O’Connor the sisters who traveled from Dublin to New York found that housing had been arranged and after two weeks moved into their own home but furniture was scant they made known their plight to the Bishop’s representative in the following verse please Reverend Father sent a Sutton and where’s an order us home a dozen had shares of sisters we seven of chairs we have six so one is left often in a very great fix the Grace and good humor reflected by all the Foundation’s in the face of early and conveniences sustain them through the more serious trials to come the sisters did start their work right away as soon as they moved and there was a great deal of illiteracy and people were in prison and these sisters started a library to instruct and also to visit the sick and and eventually they had access to the hospitals and to the prisons so that they could go very freely to these places to do their works of mercy in New York during 1846 sister Mary Agnes O’Connor with exceptional composure and the heartiest disposition led her group to rescue young immigrant girls here the sisters took girls directly from the ship taught them valuable skills and put them in advantageous situations thousands benefited the work of the Mercy’s during the 50 years of its founding made a profound impact on not only Catholic history in America but also on the social and economic history of the country as well Catherine McAuley was herself a woman of the middle class and I think the values of the middle class the upper-middle class really pervade the sisters of Mercy’s towers and from the outset but she was not an elitist she was a firm believer that others could be elevated and that these values could be taught by example and by direct teaching I also think that Catherine McAuley saw women as particularly important in this process of moral and social uplift and that’s one of the reasons why I believe she focused her own ministry and her community’s ministry on women because it was through the mothers and through the families that this progress could occur this was a very appealing vision to nineteenth-century America after a turbulent two months journey at sea four sisters of mercy from mace arrived with Bishop burned to their new home the frontier land of Little Rock Arkansas the immediate welcome was devastating the bishops right-hand man father O’Donoghue had died suddenly with him died the bishops plans for the 300 Catholic immigrants who had arrived earlier houses for the new colonists had not been built shelter was nothing more than huts most of the immigrants moved on and had left before the bishop and his group arrived when the sisters arrived they must have been surprised at the mix in the population because there would have been frontiersman there would have been Indians there would have been slaves and there weren’t very many Catholics since the settlement had not

succeeded as the bishop had hoped that must have been a startling thing for them and yet they saw needs of the people to be met and they rolled up their sleeves and started meeting him this disheartening welcome did not stop the group from building a successful diocese with Bishop Bern within a few weeks they opened a school organized a Sunday school began visiting the sick and poor and began planning and organizing future ministries altogether there were eight foundations matron can sail one of these was to San Francisco in 1854 where mother Baptist Russell was appointed Superior marry Baptist could never say no to anyone in need and I think what illustrates this most is her response to the major health crises that came up through her ministry one came right away in 1855 with the cholera epidemic and it was widespread no one knew what to do with it but she had already learned that in Ireland she had nursed through the cholera epidemic there the Ministry of the California pioneers did not go unnoticed one article in a San Francisco newspaper reflected that recognition they did not stop to inquire whether the poor sufferers were Protestant or Catholic American or foreigners but with noblest devotions applied themselves to their relief one sister would be seen bathing the limbs of a sufferer another chafing the extremities and a third applying the usual remedy for the disease while others with pitying face were calming the fears of those who were dying California had what they called a sick for rent policy where care of the sick was given to the lowest bidder many people misused this practice to make money the sisters enemies accused them of just that so when Baptist Russell received the contract to take over these hospitals in the hospital care it was not just care but in the eyes of those who were really bigoted it was a way of getting money and so they attacked her so much thought went to the grand jury and Baptist Russell had no fear because she knew that their level of Nursing was superb so she said good bring grand jury and and let him investigate us and that’s exactly what they did and then the grand jury and the medical staff defends the sisters and extolled their skill in Nursing on July 4th 1859 sister Frances Benson wrote to the sisters back home you innocent Irish nuns could never imagine the sinfulness we have to contend with here to describe the multitudes that have found shelter under st. Mary’s roof would be a difficult task I do not know of any country unrepresented of all religions we have members we have had perpetrators of every crime under advice instruction or care in truth the hospital is a world in itself sister Frances Benson Argentina with over 350 million acres of rich farmland attracted great numbers of Irish immigrants mercy came to Argentina in 1856 they came directly from Baggot Street evangelist to Fitzpatrick superior three professed sisters one novice and two postulants upon their arrival and elderly Jesuit said to them I know you expect the cross your life of self-denial carries that meaning but in South America the cost is much larger and heavier than elsewhere they started off very well simply gone well but just two years afterwards the yellow fever broke out and the heat was terrible there but they were they were getting on very well in the beginning things were going lovely and they they were need a lot more health and two more sisters came out from Ireland in spite of constant political turbulence in Argentina the little community flourished the sisters tended the sick they opened schools new members from among the local women entered the congregation and the sisters moved about the city involving themselves in many charitable works with the revolution of 1876 the sisters were recalled to Ireland in 1896 Sisters of Mercy returned to Buenos Aires and rekindled the tradition of Mercy

by 1858 the conceal community had already sent sisters to various parts of the world Sarah Peter Al a woman from Cincinnati asked them for a group for America Reverend Mother truth the Maher was not too favorably inclined towards ending sisters to Cincinnati because the preceding foundations had placed quite a strain on the personnel resources in kinsale and she really felt that concern could not afford to send any more from this town so however at the following morning her mind had quite changed and not only did she decide to send sister’s but she herself also volunteered to go when the sisters arrived in Cincinnati they stayed at the home of mrs. Peter a short time until they could rent a home and begin the work they came to do so the sisters began quickly to get into the work for which they came they were visiting the sick both in their homes and in work houses they also began a night school for women had as many as 200 women attending that school the infant boys from the st. Xavier College were brought over to them to teach in the basement of st. Thomas school they also began a number of sodality ‘s for women of almost every age and then in the catholic telegraph announced that the the sisters were operating a laundry and the purpose of the laundry was really to employ the the women who were in the house of mercy and other women who needed positions in addition to serving various human needs this young community also raised $60,000 and built the Church of the atonement to serve the spiritual needs of their neighbors we have ever confided largely in divine providence and shall continue to do so Katrin Macaulay the Sisters of Mercy had been in this country for less than twenty years when the Civil War began but they already had experience in responding to crisis they had responded to cholera and yellow fever epidemics already so when the Civil War began it was not a difficult decision for them to make to respond and to become nurses on the battlefield during the Civil War Pittsburgh New York City Chicago Vicksburg Cincinnati and Baltimore since sisters to either open their own facilities to care for the wounded or to go wherever they were needed to offer comfort and care sister Theresa Maher led the group that went to Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee at the care for the soldiers at the battle scene there they nursed them in tents and later cholera broke out at that location and the other women who were there assisting departed and left the sisters alone to care for the cholera victims there’s a neat little story one of the soldiers stole the cow from the school and sister Bridget marched herself right up to headquarters and said you’ve taken everything else but you can’t have our count we would have no milk for the children the general not only returned the cow but gave him a guard so that no one else would steal it one of the wars most poignant stories is that of sisters to fan award who had served in Baltimore volunteered for Vicksburg and was taken prisoner of war when the northern army was successful she was allowed to go back to Baltimore and she didn’t want to go to Baltimore she wanted to come back to Pittsburgh but to come from Vicksburg to Pittsburgh by herself was a terrible journey and she did it we still don’t know how she did it but she knocked on the door at the Pittsburgh convent one day in dirty old tattered clothes and nobody knew her and she reached in her dirty pocket and picked out the dirty old copy of her vows with her name on it and showed it to the sisters send me sisters with zeal piety and ability so at present I can promise those destined for Meriden little more than a shelter yes there’s Ellis pastor we’ll know how to provide for the development of the work and trusting in God there will be no fear of failure Bevan Thomas Walsh 1871 in 1872 eleven sisters of mercy from Anna’s journeyed to Connecticut seven went to Middletown and four to Meriden the Ennis community were a very independent community wanting to work in their way and I think

these attributes were part of what Agnes Healy and Theresa Perry brought to the United States with them there were not a fit freed to face difficulties they were pioneers they did not mind starting something new all they wanted was to accomplish the works of mercy in the footsteps of Catherine McAuley the meriting group according to the story had a neat little cottage on Liberty Street and within days they were teaching religious instruction and by September that year they had open to school for 200 children girls only the following year when there were when there was more space they added the boys the Middletown group was slower but just as steady by the end of the 19th century the church in the United States was solidly established a new sense of mission called the sisters from their homelands I suppose in the earlier earlier foundations they would be coming to their to their own to support and to build the church in Jamaica they were the wind primarily as missionaries to bring the faith to a heathen people all right so that would have been a big difference in 1896 Sisters of Mercy journeyed to a land vastly different from the cool serenity of Berman’s II England when the group arrived on December 12th 1890 they met conditions far different from the idyllic paradise the bishop had promised and they landed in Kingston of course they saw the natural beauty but they also met the heat the mosquitoes the fever and pretty I would say maybe poor sanitation all right so that was a disappointment for them I think they had been invited to assist in the operation of alpha a school founded 10 years earlier by Jesse repol Josephine Jimenez and Louise du jour the coming of the sisters offered to these Jamaican women a sense of support a hope for stability and the assurance of continuity for their educational ministry they came and supported Jessie in that orphanage but you know it numbers grow rapidly so before long they had like two schools one for the boys and one of the girls I think that how much the funding of the Sisters of Mercy in Jamaica paralleled the fonsella’s sisters in Ireland in that just a rapport who started the works of mercy ten years before the sisters came you know that like Catherine McAuley it was her passion for the poor her desire to a vision she had that women played an important part in the making of society those two factors played a great part in and just the founding of the Sisters of Mercy in Jamaica and the third thing is that she really had not thought of religious life at all and she was invited to become a sister of mercy and to just carry on that work you know in April 1894 the first three Sisters of Mercy responded to the invitation of Bishop Anthony Butler to work among the people of British Guiana as it was then known two years earlier Ursula green and Antonia chambers had journeyed from Sussex England to Barbados where they were joined by Gloria DeFreitas a native woman who became sister Pauline bishop Anthony Butler of British Guiana invited these three sisters to come to Guyana where the need for sound education was becoming increasingly vital no more than eight days after they arrived and settled into their convent in Charlestown the sisters established their first work of mercy in an adjacent building they opened a school for 125 girls from among the poorest areas of the city other schools and works quickly followed the inspectors report of 1897 for the grant-in-aid school read discipline and tone excellent and the results of the examination reflect great credit on the sisters in charge with

excellence and care the hallmarks of their service the Sisters of Mercy rooted deeply in Guyana the journey west can truly be marked as a mission of mercy in the 19th century with compassion endurance and determination the Sisters of Mercy founded communities throughout the Americas communities that benefited thousands communities that continue to expand over the years communities that laid the foundation for future generations of mercy from those last lovely sites from the green and rustic hills of the deer country they left behind they carried with them the spirit of Catherine McAuley they found new expression for its vitality and because of their courage today’s women of mercy can say all who were cause to mercy past present and future claim as their first blessing the knowledge that we are called to the same hope and that hope is not deceptive because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us