Sisters of Mercy
When the Sisters of Mercy came to Chicago in 1846, they came as educators with an established reputation for quality. Their initial endeavor in the city was Saint Francis Xavier Academy for Females, the forerunner of Saint Xavier University. The faith-inspired compassionate service and educational practice derived from their Irish beginnings blossomed into works of mercy throughout the Midwest, while the work of other Sisters of Mercy carried the community’s mission of compassion and service around the world.
The Sisters of Mercy Begin in Ireland
The leadership and vision of Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, who began educating girls and young women in Dublin, Ireland in the 1820’s, paved the way for succeeding generations of Mercys to establish highly recognized institutions of learning throughout the English-speaking world. Catherine McAuley raised the status of women through education and training, giving them the necessary skills to earn a living and to provide for themselves. Saint Xavier University is a living testament to Catherine’s vision, practical wisdom and commitment to excellence.
Catherine McAuley was a single woman approaching her fiftieth birthday when an unexpected inheritance made it possible for her to realize her dream of assisting the poor of Dublin. She used her inheritance to construct a sizable building on Baggot Street in a fashionable section of the city. She wanted to connect the rich and the poor by establishing a center where, with a few similarly concerned companions, she could provide education for girls and young women, safe shelter for young women seeking employment, and outreach to the sick in their homes. When her center opened on September 24, 1827, the feast of Mary, Mother of Mercy, she agreed to call it the House of Mercy.
Catherine’s dream of assisting those in need led her beyond anything she could have imagined. Most immediately, her work led to controversy. Who were these women, working under their own management, seeming like nuns, but -- unlike nuns, who belonged behind walls in the cloister -- walking into all kinds of neighborhoods to gather students, offer shelter, tend the ill and even solicit funds to support their work?! Controversy didn’t deter Catherine and her companions from the dream they’d come to share, but it did lead to a surprising conclusion. Surprising most of all, perhaps, to Catherine herself.
When some priests and then the bishop suggested that Catherine and her companions should become sisters -- nuns -- she was uncomfortable with the idea. While the little community that had gathered at Baggot Street shared life and prayer, dressed simply and spent themselves in works of mercy, Catherine was keenly aware that convent life would mean being cloistered. It would mean giving up the work to which she felt called. Catherine wasn’t looking to leave “the world”; she wanted precisely to be in “the world” and of service to those in need, the kinds of people to whom Jesus had responded to with such gentleness and mercy.
Three years after the House of Mercy opened, however, Catherine and her companions came to the decision she’d never foreseen: For the sake of the work -- to lend it stability and to quell criticism -- they would become sisters. Her decision relied on the promise of the Archbishop of Dublin that he would help her secure Church approval for a new form of religious life for women -- as sisters, they would remain free to continue the works of mercy in the outgoing style in which they had begun. Accordingly, Catherine and two companions went to the Presentation Sisters for training as sisters while the work at Baggot Street continued under the care of the other women serving there. On December 12, 1831, Catherine McAuley, Elizabeth Harley and Mary Ann Doyle professed the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at the Presentation Convent in Dublin and hurried back to Baggot Street where others were waiting to begin their own journey into religious life.
Thus the House of Mercy became home to the Sisters of Mercy, a new congregation of women religious who, in time, added a fourth vow -- a vow of service -- to their lifelong commitment to Christ and to his sisters and brothers in need of education, health care and relief from poverty. As they continued to walk among those they served, the Sisters of Mercy experienced the transformation of early criticism into an admiring nickname -- the “walking sisters.”
Practical and realistic, as well as visionary, Catherine McAuley quickly recognized that education and religious instruction, care for the sick, and a merciful response to poverty were needed in places far from Dublin and even beyond Ireland. When asked to send sisters to respond to such needs, she did so as often as possible. The result was the quick spread of the Sisters of Mercy through Ireland, to England, and shortly after Catherine McAuley’s death in 1841, to America.
Frances Xavier Warde
The Sisters of Mercy Come to the United States
In 1843, Mother Frances Xavier Warde and six sisters braved the Atlantic Ocean to establish the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. This band of pioneers was enroute to Pittsburgh, a city that became a well-spring from which the Sisters of Mercy spread to many regions of the young nation. Hidden in the future and certainly beyond Frances Xavier Warde’s imagination as she first stepped onto American soil was the fact that by the time of her death in 1884, she would have established over 82 Mercy convents, schools, hospitals, orphanages,and other works of mercy in some 20 cities across nine states.
As she and her companions disembarked in New York in December 1843, however, Frances Xavier Warde’s attention was fixed on the moment and on those waiting on the dock to meet her and the sisters. Among those present was Bishop William Quarter, recently appointed to the newly created diocese of Chicago. An educator himself, Bishop Quarter wasted no time asking Frances Xavier Warde to send sisters to his frontier diocese to open schools for children and young women. Frances Warde urged patience, but she didn’t forget.
Patience, and Bishop Quarter’s renewed requests, brought the Sisters of Mercy to Chicago in 1846. Mother Frances Xavier Warde accompanied the group of five she’d chosen to serve in this western outpost. Among them were Mother Agatha O’Brien, superior; two novices still in training to be Sisters of Mercy; and two young women just joining the community. All were under age 25. Only one -- Agatha, who’d come from Ireland with Frances Warde -- had made her vows. They were young and inexperienced but also zealous and capable.
The Sisters of Mercy Thrive in Chicago
Within three weeks of their arrival, the first five Sisters of Mercy in Chicago had opened Saint Francis Xavier Academy for Females, named to honor Mother Frances Xavier Warde and her patron, Saint Francis Xavier. Chartered by the State of Illinois on February 27, 1847, the fledgling Academy was granted the power, among other rights, to “confer on such persons as may be considered worthy, such academical or honorary degrees as are usually conferred by similar institutions.” It was a charter that would see the institution into an unimagined future.
Though education, including establishment of the first parochial schools, was their first service to Chicago, the Sisters of Mercy were soon engaged in other works of mercy. They visited the sick in their homes and the inmates in the city jail. They nursed in temporary epidemic hospitals and cared for the children orphaned by the waves of cholera and typhoid that swept the city. By 1852, the sisters had built Mercy Hospital and Orphan Asylum, the city’s first permanent general hospital. As in Dublin, the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago provided safe shelter for working women or those seeking employment and held night school classes to help laborers become literate and grow in understanding their Catholic faith. From Chicago, Mother Agatha O’Brien and those who succeeded her responded to requests from other dioceses and parishes, sending sisters to other locations in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Sisters of Mercy Serve Around the World
The original endeavors of Catherine McAuley in Ireland, of Frances Xavier Warde in the United States, and of Agatha O’Brien in Chicago are now carried on by sisters and associates and colleagues in over 40 nations on all the continents except Antarctica. The original House of Mercy on Baggot Street in Dublin is now the International Centre of the Sisters of Mercy, a place that welcomes Mercy-related visitors from all over the world. The original Chicago Sisters of Mercy are now part of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, with sisters serving in
Argentina, since 1856
Chile, since 1965
Guatemala, since 1971
Honduras, since 1959
Panama, since 1959
The Philippines, since 1954
Belize, since 1883
Guam, since 1946
Guyana, since 1894
Jamaica, since 1890
Peru, since 1962
The United States, since 1843
Closer to home, their early endeavors in Chicago continue to characterize the Sisters of Mercy and their service in the greater metropolitan area today. Saint Xavier Academy for Females grew and thrived, becoming today’s Saint Xavier University and Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School. Mercy Hospital and Orphan Asylum is today’s Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, serving Chicagoans from its main campus near McCormick Place and from satellite clinics in many central city and southside neighborhoods. Care for orphans segued through the decades, becoming care for physically and mentally handicapped children in the early twentieth century and continuing in a more expanded form at today’s Misericordia Home on the far northside. The early concern about safe and decent housing continues today through Mercy Housing Lakefront, which manages more than 1,400 service-enhanced family and single occupancy housing units in the Chicago metropolitan area.
More important than the multiple ministries of the Sisters of Mercy, however, or their spread to locations around the world, is the reality that Catherine McAuley’s original vision, Frances Xavier Warde’s amazing zeal, and Agatha O’Brien’s practical generosity are now shared by thousands of Mercy colleagues who take the works of mercy into the world, offering education, religious instruction, care for the sick and a merciful response to poverty wherever need calls out for justice and compassion.