Russell, Mary Baptist (1829-1898)
Mary Baptist Russell (1829-1898)
Sister of Mercy. By doing what seemed typical for a woman of her time and place, Mary Baptist Russell lived an extraordinary life. She was born at Newry, County Down, Ireland, on 18 April 1829, baptized as Katherine. She entered the Sisters of Mercy convent at Kinsdale in November 1848. The next year she helped nurse victims of a cholera epidemic, an experience that was useful later. She received her habit on 7 July 1849, and with it the name Mary Baptist. She made her final profession of vows in August 1851, and for the next three years she taught at the convent school.
San Francisco. Meanwhile, an ocean and a continent away, Bishop Joseph S. Alemany of San Francisco was feeling the effects of Irish immigration and also of the California gold rush. Rapid population growth fueled by visions of quick wealth meant some people would fall to poverty, crime, or disease. Alemany wanted to extend Christian charity to the unfortunate, but he lacked the means to do so. Hugh Gallagher, Alemany’s agent in Ireland, recruited religious communities to do some of the work, and one community that responded to his call was the Sisters of Mercy. Mary Baptist was appointed superior of the eight sisters chosen to start the mission in San Francisco, and received the title of Mother. The pioneer sisters arrived in New York City in October 1854 and reached San Francisco on 8 December. They considered the date of their arrival an auspicious sign; it was the same day as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holiday honoring Mary, who was the model for the sisters’ life and work and from whom they all took their first names.
Community Service. Mother Mary Baptist’s experience with treating cholera soon came in handy. In 1855 there was an outbreak of the disease in San Francisco, and Mother Mary Baptist volunteered her sisters as nurses at the public hospital. The sisters worked so well that city officials signed a contract with Mother Mary Baptist whereby the sisters would staff all the public hospitals in San Francisco. The income from hospital work allowed the Sisters of Mercy to open their own institutions. In 1855 they started a House of Mercy for San Francisco’s unemployed young women, and within a year the sisters were teaching in Catholic schools. Bishop Alemany wanted the nuns to take the examinations given to public schoolteachers; if they passed, then the Catholic schools of San Francisco could have a share of the tax money spent on education. Mother Mary Baptist decided not to let the sisters take the examination; even though she would lose the income from the tax money, she would have a freer hand in running her schools.
Catholic Charities. When nativists began to protest the next year, Mother Mary Baptist terminated her contract with the city. She then opened Saint Mary’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital on the Pacific coast. She went on to organize in 1861 in San Francisco the first Magdalene Asylum, an institution for prostitutes. Like most people at the time, she regarded prostitution and sex outside marriage as a sin. However, she also realized that it was more than just a moral issue; young women without skills had few job opportunities, and their most common employment, domestic service, put them in situations where men could harass them with relative impunity. The Magdalene Asylum taught women skills so that they could find other jobs. In 1872 Mother Mary Baptist founded a home for the aged and infirm.
Finances. Regular income for the sisters came from the donations of Catholics, particularly women. In 1859 Mother Mary Baptist founded the Sodality of Our Lady. Women who joined the sodality paid dues and made other charitable contributions to the Sisters of Mercy, prayed for them and their work, and organized fundraisers to attract contributions from the larger San Francisco community. Although the city did not provide regular income for the Sisters of Mercy’s work among the needy, it could provide occasional bonuses. In 1868 Mother Mary Baptist and her sisters entered the city’s hospitals again, this time to nurse smallpox victims at the pesthouse. As a token of gratitude, the city gave the Catholic nuns $5,000 in 1870.
Legacy. Almost as soon as she arrived, Mother Mary Baptist expanded the Sisters of Mercy beyond San Francisco and established a convent and school at Sacramento. Thanks to the work of this Catholic nun, California by the 1890s had a system of charitable care to match that of other states in the Union. Mother Mary Baptist continued her good works until her death in 1898.
M. Aurelia McArdle, California’s Pioneer Sister of Mercy: Mother Mary Baptist Russell (1829-1898) (Fresno, Cal.: Academy Library Guild, 1954).