Friday, February 08, 2019 - Updated: 3:32 pm
During a recent vespers service in the Mercy sisters’ convent chapel in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, Sister Pat McDermott looked out at sisters, Mercy associates and guests gathered to celebrate the arrival of seven sisters in Pittsburgh 175 years ago.
“We gather to celebrate a rich, engaging and profound story of pioneer-like commitment, courage and fierce love ... a love focused on responding to need and embodied in our (founding) sisters,” said Sister Pat, president of the Mercy Institute leadership team.
She described the founders — Sisters Josephine Cullen, Veronica McDarby, Agatha O’Brien, Philomena Reid, Aloysia Strange, Elizabeth Strange and Frances Warde — as “uniquely suited for an extraordinary journey that drew from each of them personally and communally, an emergence of gifts and skills paralleled with spiritual depths that, I am sure, exceeded their own imaginations.”
From Carlow, Ireland, they crossed the Atlantic on a ship, Queen of the West, traveled from New York to Philadelphia to Chambersburg by train, and then by coach across the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh, arriving Dec. 21, 1843.
“They were seven in number, ‘the picking choice of the Carlow community,’ and Frances Warde was their leader,” wrote Sister Sheila Carney in an article about the founders. “She was 33 years of age and had already founded convents of Mercy, schools and orphanages in Carlow, Naas, Wexford and Westport.”
Sister Frances carried with her a zeal for service to the poor, the sick and the uneducated, and a particular concern for women, Sister Sheila wrote, similar to that shown by Catherine McAuley, an Irish laywomen who opened the first House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827.
Established as a place to shelter and educate women and girls, McAuley’s intention was to assemble a lay corps of Catholic social workers. The archbishop of Dublin advised her to establish a religious congregation, which occurred three years later in 1831. McAuley and two companions became the first Sisters of Mercy.
The association between the Mercy sisters and the Diocese of Pittsburgh began in 1843 when Bishop Michael O’Connor, the first bishop of Pittsburgh, visited their convent in Ireland and sought volunteers for work in his new diocese. The first Mercy convent in the United States was located at 800 Penn St. in Pittsburgh.
In 1846, the sisters assumed management of St. Paul Orphanage. The orphanage later relocated to the Crafton area and served the needs of countless children until the mid-1960s. The orphanage property is now the site of St. Paul Seminary.
When the sisters opened Mercy Hospital on New Year’s Day in 1847, they founded the first temporary hospital in western Pennsylvania and the first permanent Mercy Hospital in the world.
The order grew rapidly in the Pittsburgh area. Mother Warde led the drive for a new motherhouse that opened at 800 Webster Ave. at Tunnel Street in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood in 1850.
In 1926, the Mercy sisters established the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. Three years later, they opened Mount Mercy College (since renamed Carlow University) in 1929.
The event attracted sisters and others from all areas of the local community, as well as from other Mercy communities. Sally Randa, activities director at the Convent of Mercy, provided a joyful portrayal of Mother Frances Warde complete with an Irish brogue.
Historical photos and artifacts near the chapel caught the attention of guests.
Following the vespers service Dec. 21 in Pittsburgh, Sister Nancy Hoff of the Mercy transitional coordinating team spoke to the “oneness” of the celebration.
“Our 175th was truly an institute celebration with sisters and associates from around the institute gathering in Pittsburgh, our first foundation, to commemorate the beginning of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. It was a wonderful experience of our oneness in Mercy.”
Loncki is regional communications director for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, New York, Pennsylvania, Pacific West.