Sisters of Mercy

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The title Sisters of Mercy (RSM) pertains to a number of religious congregations of women which were founded by and embrace the charism of Catherine McAuley (1778 to 1941) and whose constitutions can be traced to the original (1841) Sisters of Mercy Rule and Constitutions. With one exception, the Diocesan Sisters of Mercy of Portland, Mercy congregations are of pontifical jurisdiction. Characteristic of the Sisters of Mercy is their fourth vow of service to the poor, sick and ignorant. The three principal groupings of Sisters of Mercy in the United States are:

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas (Official Catholic Directory #2575); Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan (Official Catholic Directory #2519); Diocesan Sisters of Mercy of Portland, Maine (Official Catholic Directory #2655).

Historical Foundations

The Institute of Our Lady of Mercy was established in Dublin, Ireland, on Dec. 12, 1831, by Catherine Elizabeth mcauley; in the 20th century her followers formed the largest English-speaking group of religious women in the world, embracing various unions and independent congregations of Sisters of Mercy.

Institute of the Sisters of Mercy (RSM). As early as 1822 Catherine McAuley had worked out a successful system of distributing food and clothing to the needy, of instructing and training poor girls, and of performing other works of mercy. In 1824, on a site in south Dublin, she planned a center for her charitable endeavors, which, designated by Archbishop Daniel Murray as the House of Mercy, opened on Sept. 24, 1827, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Although its personnel consisted mainly of women of means who felt an attraction to the religious life, Miss McAuley herself had no desire to be a religious. She did, however, place her estate in a trust, with the proviso that the Baggot Street property should be under the control and management of the archbishop of Dublin.

Moreover, for the sake of economy and uniformity, she sanctioned the adoption of a uniform dress and the observance of a horarium modeled on that of religious communities. Some of the clergy and laity of Dublin opposed this charitable organization as unorthodox and regarded it as an unfriendly rival of the Irish Sisters of Charity, an institute founded by Mary aikenhead. As prejudice and opposition to her House of Mercy mounted, Miss McAuley expressed her willingness to turn the institution over to the Sisters of Charity. In an effort to resolve the situation, Archbishop Murray insisted that she either embrace the religious life or determine to continue the work along secular lines.

Despite her personal antipathy to the idea of starting a religious congregation, Miss McAuley finally selected the Presentation Convent at George's Hill, Dublin, as the place where she and two companions would receive their canonical training in preparation for the founding of a new institute. Her choice was influenced by the fact that Nano nagle, foundress of the Presentation sisters, had held ideals similar to her own with regard to work among the sick poor. After 15 months of preparation, during which the future foundress of the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy was subjected to many trials, the first three Sisters of Mercy pronounced the simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on Dec. 12, 1831. Returning to the House of Mercy, Mother Catherine McAuley, Sister Elizabeth Harley, and Sister Anne Doyle were welcomed by the seven women who had continued the work of serving the poor in their absence and who in turn were eager to receive the religious training that would qualify them to become Sisters of Mercy.

Rules and Constitutions. In drawing up the rules and constitutions for the institute, the foundress used the rule of the Presentation sisters, which was based on that of St. Augustine as adapted by St. Thomas of Villanova. She composed two original chapters that dealt with the visitation of the sick and the care of distressed women. Since the Presentation sisters' rule adhered to the monastic form, it was necessary to make some modifications with regard to enclosure. Gregory XVI approved the institute on March 24, 1835; he gave final confirmation to its rule in June 1841.

Growth. Mother McAuley personally directed the establishment of 12 convents in Ireland and two in England, where uniformity of observance was practiced. After her death on Nov. 11, 1841, however, each house became independent. The first overseas foundation was

made from the Convent of Mercy, Dublin, in 1842, when Sister Frances Creedon, a native of Newfoundland, and two other sisters left Ireland to begin work in Newfoundland under Bishop Michael Fleming. The following year Mother M. Francis Xavier warde and six companions from Carlow made the first foundation in the United States at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Within the next 15 years other foundations were made at New York (1846) from the parent house, Dublin; Little Rock, Arkansas (1851), from Naas; and San Francisco, California (1854), and Cincinnati, Ohio (1858), from Kinsale. These, together with the foundation at Middletown, Connecticut, made from Ennis in 1872, were the centers of subsequent American growth.

In 1846 Mother Ursula Frayne (who had been one of the three to undertake the Newfoundland mission) arrived at Perth in western Australia with six sisters from Baggot Street to make a foundation in that newly developing country. Sisters of Mercy also reached New South Wales in the 1850s; they made foundations from Westport, Charleville, Ennis, Rochford Bridge, and Callan in Ireland, and also from Liverpool, England. From Perth a group was sent to Victoria in 1857, and three years later a group from Baggot Street under Mother Xavier Maguire sailed for Geelong. When additional sisters were needed in Victoria, the houses of Swinford, Carlow, and Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland, responded generously. After Queensland became a separate colony from New South Wales (1859), its capital Brisbane received a contingent of Baggot Street sisters under the able leadership of Mother Vincent Whitty. Others went from Athy, and London supplied many more. South Australia and Tasmania also benefited by foundations in their emerging urban centers. The bishops in the areas to which the sisters went, most of whom were Irish-born, were convinced that the growth of the Church was dependent on the education of youth.

The first foundation in Scotland was made in 1849 from Limerick under Mother Elizabeth Moore, but its growth was less rapid and extensive than elsewhere. In 1850 Mother Cecelia Maher and four sisters from Carlow made the first of several foundations at Auckland, New Zealand. In 1856 Mother Evangelist Fitzpatrick and eight sisters from Dublin went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they worked until they were expelled in 1880, only to be recalled a decade later. A foundation made at Barbados, British West Indies, by sisters from Middlesex, England, was relinquished in 1894 to the Ursulines, when the Sisters of Mercy went to Charlestown, Demarara, British Guiana. In 1883 Belize, British Honduras, welcomed its first Sisters of Mercy from the United States, when Mother Teresa Austin Carroll and five companions from New Orleans, Louisiana (founded in 1869 from St. Louis, Missouri, which had been established from New York in 1856), went to assist the Jesuit missionaries. Sisters from Bermondsey, England, opened a mission at Jamaica, British West Indies, in 1890; and in 1897 a group from Strabane, Ireland, went to Mafeking, South Africa.

The Sisters of Mercy from Pittsburgh took up missionary activities in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1941. In 1946 sisters from Belmont, North Carolina, inaugurated a successful apostolate on Guam, where native sisters soon extended the works of the institute. First among Mother McAuley's daughters on the continent of Asia were the sisters from Merion, Pennsylvania, who established Mater Misericordiae Hospital at Jamshedpur, India. Sisters from St. Maries-of-the-Isle, Cork, Ireland, and from Buffalo, New York, engaged in missionary endeavors in the Philippine Islands. In 1959 the province of Providence, Rhode Island, sent sisters to La Ceiba, Honduras, and a year later missionary activity, sponsored by the province of Chicago, Illinois, was initiated in Sicuani, in the Peruvian Andes.

Apostolate. Throughout the history of the institute, the Sisters of Mercy have undertaken a variety of works to extend the interests of the Church. The outbreak of Asiatic cholera in Ireland in 1832, and again in the 1850s in Ireland, England, and the United States, provided many opportunities for the sisters to relieve the afflicted. During the Crimean War (1854 to 1855), sisters from England and Ireland served in British military hospitals at Scutari and Koulali in Turkey and at Balaclava in Russian terrain, caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Sisters from communities in New York; Chicago, Illinois; Baltimore, Maryland; Cincinnati, Ohio; Little Rock, Arkansas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Vicksburg, Mississippi, ministered to both Union and Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). Many victims of the Chicago fire of 1871 were aided by the Sisters of Mercy, whose hospital became a house of refuge. During the Boer War (1899 to 1902), sisters at Mafeking, who diverted their efforts from education to hospital care, ministered to Boer and Briton alike.

The Sisters of Mercy bind themselves to observe the three simple vows of religion and the requirements of their constitutions. The characteristic works of the institute include the education of the young, the visitation of the sick in homes, the care of the sick in hospitals, the care of girls and of women, of the aged, and of orphans. The spirit of the institute is mercy, theologically defined as love in the face of misery; it permits such an extension of the works of mercy as human needs may necessitate. The importance of a collective approach through service was emphasized by Mother McAuley, who stressed also the careful observance of the constitutions so that her followers, nourished through the liturgy and private prayer, would express their love for Christ in His Mystical Body through service to everyone.

Sisters of Mercy of the Union in the United States. During the period of rapid growth and development, the institute was characterized by close adherence to its rule and spirit among the many scattered communities. Until the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, legislation promulgated by the then Congregation of Religious, particularly with regard to the training of postulants and novices, was not always followed; pioneer life frequently led to irregularities. In 1902 and 1905 attempts were made to urge the Sisters of Mercy in the United States to consider the adoption of general government as a means of more effective fulfillment of their religious purpose. In 1907 the Sisters of Mercy in Victoria and Tasmania amalgamated; they received approval of their revised constitutions in 1918. A similar revision, submitted by the sisters in the Dioceses of San Francisco, Monterey-Fresno, and Los Angeles, California, and of Tucson, Arizona, received approval in 1922. In 1929, under the guidance of Archbishop Pietro Fumasoni-Biondi, then Apostolic Delegate, 39 of the 60 independent motherhouses in the United States amalgamated to form the Institute of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of the Union in the United States of America, with Mother Carmelita Hartman as first mother general. The number of provinces grew from the original six to more than three times that number in the ensuing decades. In 1931 the generalate was located at Bethesda, Maryland (near Washington, D.C.). Revised constitutions were approved by Pius XI in 1931 and confirmed by Pius XII in 1940.

By the mid-1960s, more than 7,000 Sisters of Mercy belonged to the Union and there was almost an equal number attached to 17 independent motherhouses, each enjoying papal approbation. In the same period, the total world membership of the Sisters of Mercy was more than 27,000, including approximately 5,000 in Ireland, 4,000 in Australia, 2,500 in Great Britain, and 1,000 in New Zealand.

Developments since Vatican II

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Mercy Sisters, both in the United States and worldwide, have expanded the range of their ministries, most still connecting with both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The Sisters both promote systemic social change and respond in more immediate ways to current needs by establishing and/or staffing emergency housing shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, and centers for housing assistance, as well as developing ministries focused on persons with AIDS, chemically dependent persons, those in prison, and immigrants for whom English is a second language. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas sponsor ministries such as the McAuley Institute, an organization that provides technical assistance, advocacy, and funding for groups nationwide working to provide low-income housing. In 1971, the Sisters of Mercy established Mercy Action, Inc., as a funding resource corporation. Its purpose is to empower people in ministry with the poor to carry on the works of mercy that improve the quality of life, effect positive changes in attitudes, and change structures that perpetuate inhuman and unjust conditions.

Many of the congregations have members ministering in developing nations: the Irish, in several African and South American nations; North Americans, in the Caribbean, Central, and South America, and the Pacific; Australians and New Zealanders, in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Catherine McAuley's preferential concern for women continues to motivate the Sisters of Mercy as they strive to promote the dignity of women and their full participation in both Church and society.

Amalgamation and Consolidation. Although the Mercy congregation was founded as a pontifical institute, because of the social and ecclesial considerations of the times Catherine McAuley established new foundations as autonomous houses with direct ties to local diocesan bishops. This practice prevailed throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century wherever the sisters went. During the early twentieth century, because of the perceived need for a stronger organization, more uniform discipline, regularized novitiates, and a higher quality leadership, Church authorities and many congregational superiors encouraged unification on diocesan and eventually national scales.

As noted above, the most comprehensive union prior to the Second Vatican Council occurred with the 1929 formation of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of the Union of the United States of America. It involved some 42 autonomous congregations, over two-thirds of the number of Mercy congregations then in existence in the United States.

The Second Vatican Council's decree on the renewal of religious life, Perfectae caritatis, exhorted religious institutes to rediscover the spirit of their founders; it further directed congregations belonging to the same family to form federations and possibly unions. This decree, together with the growing realization that the Mercy Sisters' trend toward autonomy in its foundations was not tied inseparably to Catherine McAuley's original inspiration but rather was the method that suited well the time of expansion, sparked worldwide movements toward restructuring.

Initially, in North America this renewed sense of commonality resulted in the 1965 establishment of the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, replacing the less inclusive and less structured Mother McAuley Conference formed some ten years earlier. The Federation strengthened bonds between the autonomous congregations of the United States and Canada and the Sisters of Mercy of the Union. The 1967 establishment of the non-governmental Conference of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia encompassed sisters in two other groupings: the Australian Union (formed 1953) and the Australian federation (formed 1957). In 1968, the establishment of the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of New Zealand encompassed that nation's four existing congregations: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Renamed as the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of Aotearoa New Zealand, these Sisters of Mercy serve in Aotearoa-New Zealand, Western Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vietnam, South Africa, Chile, Jamaica and Australia.

Comprehensive Restructuring Efforts. The experience of various national groupings of Sisters of Mercy during the late 1960s and 1970s and the rapidly changing demographics compelled leadership to initiate movement toward more comprehensive restructuring.

Great Britain. In 1976, a new religious Institute was formed, the Union of the Sisters of Mercy of Great Britain, comprised of the Birmingham Amalgamation (formed 1932) and the Westminster Amalgamation (formed 1922) and governed by a General Superior and Council. In addition to serving in England, Scotland and Wales, Union Sisters of Mercy served in Peru.

In 1983, the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy, with houses in England, Peru and Kenya came into existence with a governance structure comprised of a Superior General and a Council with four provinces. In 1996, the governance structure was altered with the provinces being dissolved and an Institute Leader and Leadership Team designated to govern the entire Institute. Over the years a non-governmental Federation type structure has also been attempted. The first Federation formed in 1969 yielded to a second formed in 1988 that presently is comprised of approximately 16 percent of the Mercy Sisters in Great Britain.

Australia. Between 1975 and 1980, the Conference of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia conducted extensive consultations with membership concerning the formation of a governmental structure to unite the Australian Union of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy (formed 1953) and the Australian Federation of the Religious Sisters of Mercy (formed 1957). On Dec. 15, 1981, with the convening of its inaugural chapter, the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia came into existence. This new entity, with each of the 17 congregations remaining autonomous, and with foundations in Papua New Guinea and Pakistan had membership extending to sisters in the Australian Aboriginal settlement on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and the Philippines.

The Australian governance structure includes several central but no centralizing bodies, i.e., the National Chapter, the National Executive Council (a national president and council) and the National Plenary Council (the general superiors of the member congregations and the National Executive Council).

The Americas. In 1981, as the Australians were inaugurating their new institute, the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas began to consider the topic of restructuring. Initial conversation included all autonomous member congregations, the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, and the Canadian-based Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland, whose joint members served in North America, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Guam, and the Philippines.

Between 1981 and 1985, the Federation's consultation with the membership and the Roman Curia's Congregation for Religious produced a governance structure that served as the basis for a decision-making process used by the Federation's United States congregations; because of geographic, cultural, and other concerns, the Newfoundland congregation decided to discontinue participation in the restructuring project.

On July 20, 1991, the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas came into existence with the convening of the First Institute Chapter. The founding members of this Mercy institute included the 16 former autonomous congregations and the former Sisters of Mercy of the Union with its nine provinces. The Institute's governance structure includes the Institute Chapter, the Institute President and Council, and the Institute Leadership Council comprised of the Institute President and Council and 25 regional presidents.

Not included in this 1991 foundation were 12 Sisters of Mercy of Portland, who refused membership in the new institute and became the Diocesan Sisters of Mercy of Portland, and about 40 Mercy sisters, who comprised the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, a congregation that was formed after ten sisters terminated membership in the Sisters of Mercy of the Union in 1973.

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 1985, the national Assembly of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland (the general superiors and elected delegates from each congregation) formed an association, "Mercy Ireland," which was commissioned to explore the feasibility of the 26 Irish congregations becoming a single institute with canonical status. Between 1985 and 1990, Mercy Ireland consulted with membership to determine the type of governance structure desired. Overwhelmingly, the sisters opted to form a single institute as their United States counterparts had done. On July 14, 1994, with the convening of the first congregational chapter, the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of Ireland came into existence. The 26 former autonomous Irish congregations and one autonomous congregation centered in Johannesburg, South Africa, formed this single institute. The Sisters of Mercy of Ireland consists of four Irish provinces, a South African province and a United States province. Kenya is a vice-province; Canada, Nigeria, Peru and Zambia are regions; while Brazil, Dundee (S.A.), Peru and Rwanda and Zambia are mission areas. The 1994 governance structure included a Congregational chapter, a Congregational Leader and Team, and a Plenary Conference consisting of the provincial leaders and the Congregational Leader and Team.

Establishment of Non-Juridical Structures. In addition to the official governmental structures, the Sisters of Mercy have also supported less formalized structures to enhance the effectiveness of their mission of mercy and justice. In so doing, links were made over both congregational and national boundaries. For instance, in 1979, the United States-based Sisters of Mercy of the Union founded the Latin American Caribbean Conference (LACC) to enable its sisters serving in that geographic region to network among themselves. At the first meeting, the sisters voted to open LACC up to all Mercy Sisters in ministry in that part of the world regardless of countries/congregations of origin. LACC includes sisters serving in the Caribbean (the Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica), Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, Panama), and South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru).

Likewise, in 1989, the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of Australia and the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of New Zealand formed Mercy Pacific as a means to network the sisters working in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Australia. Similar structuresusually ministry-relatedhave been formed to provide networking opportunities for the sisters and their partners in ministry. Justice networks, e.g., the Mercy Justice Network of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the Australian Mercy Aboriginal Justice Network, and Mercy Refugee Service, provide mechanisms for the Sisters of Mercy to address social ills.

Mercy International Association. A unifying force for all Sisters of Mercy is the Mercy International Association (MIA) which is a group comprised of the leader of each of the Mercy Congregations, Institutes, or Federations worldwide. The purposes of MIA are to increase our awareness and experience of our interdependence and to foster unity of heart and mind among Sisters of Mercy; to facilitate collaboration for the sake of ministry and justice and to encourage and nurture the Mercy charism within the various cultures of the world. MIA sponsors two ongoing activitiesMercy Global Concern which is the Mercy presence at the U.N. and Mercy International Justice Network which is a network of sisters around the world working on justice issues.

Associate Members. Since the 1980s, most Mercy congregations have embraced some form of associate lay involvement through which non-vowed women and men share formally the mission of the Sisters of Mercy. In the United States alone, approximately 1,247 women and men are associate members of the Sisters of Mercy.

Founder Honored. On April 9, 1990, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared Catherine Elizabeth McAuley as venerable, the first step in the effort to advance her cause for canonization. In July 1994, the House of Mercy in Dublin, opened by Catherine McAuley on Sept. 24, 1827, was rededicated as the Mercy International Centre. This newly renovated facility is sponsored by Sisters of Mercy worldwide.

Conclusion. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Sisters of Mercy were instrumental in the shaping the systems of education, health care, and social services in various countries. In the United States today, strengthened by formation of health care systems and greater appreciation of the role of the laity in their institutions, the Sisters of Mercy are one of the nation's leading health care providers. In addition to hospitals and other healthcare facilities, they sponsor colleges and high schools, elementary schools and other centers of learning and childcare.

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[m. mc a. gillgannon/

c. c. darcy]