On September 24, 1827, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, an Irish Catholic laywoman, opened the House of Mercy at Baggot and Herbert Streets in Dublin to provide safe shelter and education for young women who came from farms outside Dublin seeking employment in the city. When Catherine used her sizable inheritance to build the House of Mercy (now Mercy International Centre) she unknowingly planted the seeds of a new religious congregation.
Other women quickly joined Catherine in her efforts to serve those in Dublin, especially women and children, who were suffering from poverty, illness and a lack of education. Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, witnessing the wonderful work of Catherine and her companions, suggested to Catherine that she establish a religious community to continue the works of mercy she had begun. Although this was not her original intention, Catherine responded with characteristic generosity and trust in God’s wisdom and providence. On December 12, 1831, after completing a novitiate with the Presentation Sisters, Catherine McAuley pronounced her vows as the first Sister of Mercy. More than ten thousand Sisters of Mercy who minister to the poor, sick and uneducated on six continents celebrate this as their Foundation Day.
In 1843, two years after the death of Catherine McAuley, Mother Frances Warde established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the first of many Mercy foundations in the United States. In 1861, she agreed to send sisters to Philadelphia from the Manchester, New Hampshire foundation. The story of the Philadelphia (Merion) Sisters of Mercy began on August 22, 1861 when Mother Patricia Waldron and nine other sisters arrived at Assumption B.V.M. Parish at Eleventh and Spring Garden Streets to staff the parish school. Within a few days, the sisters were teaching not only in the parish school but also in the academy and night school for working girls which they opened in the convent. They began visitation of the sick in homes and hospitals and visitation of inmates at Moyamensing Prison.
Adverse circumstances, only hinted at in the early annals of the community, resulted in the withdrawal of the sisters from Assumption Parish in April, 1863. They were invited to St. Malachy Parish where they found shelter and a place to continue their ministries. In August, 1863 Mother Patricia was presented with the possibility of renting a house at Broad Street and Columbia Avenue. With five dollars at her disposal and the same trust in God’s loving providence that was so characteristic of Catherine McAuley and Frances Warde, she signed a six-hundred dollar annual lease. Her trust was not unfounded.
Eventually, seven houses were purchased at Broad and Columbia to house the sisters, the rapidly expanding Academy of the Sisters of Mercy and St. Mary’s Home for Working Girls. The academy was re-located to Gwynedd Valley in 1947 and is now called Gwynedd-Mercy Academy. Mercy Technical School opened at the Broad Street site in 1950. It was relocated in 1972 to 29th Street and Allegheny Avenues and re-named Mercy Vocational High School.
The Merion chapter in the history of the Philadelphia Sisters of Mercy opened in 1884 when Mother Patricia purchased a small house on Montgomery Avenue in what is now Merion Station. The community’s physician had insisted that the sisters should have a country house where they could go to recuperate from illness and get much needed rest. A few days after their arrival, the sisters began to teach the neighborhood children. St. Isidore’s Village School, precursor to St. Margaret School in Narberth and Mater Misericordiae Academy, forerunner of Merion-Mercy Academy and Waldron-Mercy Academy, were quickly established.
The Sisters of Mercy continued their ministry of education at St. Malachy Parish and expanded to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and other parishes in the city. They gradually assumed responsibility for parish schools in the Merion area. Among the earliest were Our Mother of Good Counsel, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Matthias, St. Thomas of Villanova and St. Denis. The Sisters of Mercy were among the first faculty members at the John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School and they have continued to serve in the archdiocesan high schools for almost a century. They established schools of nursing and Gwynedd-Mercy College to meet the needs of students seeking higher education in a Catholic environment. They were pioneers in special education at St. Katherine Day School. Sisters of Mercy continue to staff schools and provide religious education and many other parish services throughout the archdiocese.
It would remain for Mother Hildegarde Heuser to carry out Mother Patricia’s dream of building a Mercy hospital. In 1918, two years after the death of Mother Patricia Waldron, Misericordia Hospital opened its doors at 54th and Cedar Avenues. Today, as Mercy Hospital of West Philadelphia it is an essential part of the ever-expanding Mercy Health System. It is joined by Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, Mercy Community Hospital, Mercy Suburban Hospital, Mercy Diversified Services, Keystone-Mercy and many other components of the health system in offering compassionate care and service.
Mercy Hospice, Project Home, Bethesda, Women of Hope are a few of Mercy’s many collaborative efforts to provide housing and other basic necessities for those who lack them. Mercy Collaborative Ministries provides an after-school program, spiritual center and many other resources for the people of North Philadelphia. Siloam, which is located in the former rectory of Assumption B.V.M. parish, offers spiritual support services for individuals and families affected by HIV and related illnesses. It would seem to be more than coincidental that Sisters of Mercy are ministering once again where Mother Patricia Waldron began.
The Merion Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy serves in many other places in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in other dioceses in the United States, and in countries as far away as Peru and Namibia. Catherine McAuley’s charism continues to motivate the Sisters of Mercy, their co-workers and benefactors, Mercy Associates and Mercy Volunteer Corps members to reach out with tender courage and merciful compassion to anyone in need.