October 6, 2007
Sisters of Mercy celebrate 150 years
of service in state
Sisters of Mercy admire the memorial sculpture of their California foundress that was unveiled in Capitol Park in Sacramento after the the sesquicentennial Mass.
Cathy Joyce/
Herald photo
By Julie Sly
Herald editor

Nearly 150 years to the day that a band of dedicated and courageous Sisters of Mercy arrived at the Sacramento waterfront to spread their works of mercy, the sisters carrying on that legacy celebrated their roots and pledged to continue serving wherever they are called.

During a festive Mass Sept. 29 in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sisters of Mercy of the Auburn and Burlingame regional communities joined with Mercy associates, coworkers, volunteers and friends to recall the ministries begun by the earliest sisters in California and to envision a future where they will continue to respond to the needs of the day.

“We gather here in gratitude for the ministry, presence and witness of the Sisters of Mercy for 150 years,” said Bishop William K. Weigand, who presided at the Mass. He was joined at the liturgy by Monterey Bishop Richard J. Garcia and some 20 priests of the Sacramento Diocese.

“One would wonder what our diocese would be and what our faith would be in California without the Sisters of Mercy,” the bishop said. “We have so many reasons to have joy and gratitude in our hearts today because of the Sisters of Mercy.”

The sisters’ California foundress, Mother Mary Baptist Russell, and seven companions landed at the port of San Francisco on Dec. 8, 1854, after enduring a perilous month-long sea voyage across the Atlantic, a wagon trip across the Isthmus of Nicaragua, and another 13-day voyage up the Pacific Coast.

Within weeks they settled into their new home at Stockton and Vallejo Streets opposite the County Hospital and were nursing the victims of a cholera epidemic that gripped the city. That was the start of 150 years of ministering to the people of California and the West in health care, education, care of children without parents, parish ministry, retreat work, housing, prison ministry and other areas of service.

Three years later, on Oct. 2, 1857, five sisters under the guidance of Sister Mary Gabriel Brown arrived by steamer to begin a new community in Sacramento. Within three days they opened a school and began visiting the city’s sick in their homes. During huge floods that devastated Sacramento in December 1861 and January 1862, the sisters ministered to flood victims by boat from the third floor of their partially submerged convent and took on the work of caring for orphans.

Mother Russell also established a community of Sisters of Mercy in Grass Valley in 1863 to open Mount St. Mary Academy and later St. Vincent’s Orphanage. Later, in 1944, the sisters’ good will reached Shasta County and the northern part of the diocese in health care and other ministries that continue today.

The Mass at the cathedral served as a fitting conclusion to nearly three years of sesquicentennial events that began in San Francisco in December 2004, sponsored by the Auburn and Burlingame regional communities. The communities were originally one community until 1886 when Sacramento became a diocese separate from the San Francisco Archdiocese.

In a homily at the Mass, Jesuit Father Paul Crowley, associate professor in the department of religious studies at Santa Clara University, recalled the circumstances of the sisters led by Mother Russell, who embarked on a journey from Ireland to San Francisco under “unimaginably harsh conditions.”

The sisters’ sacrifice “is scarcely to be underestimated,” he noted. “They were largely middle-class women embarking on something that had been unimaginable to them even when they entered the convent, where they expected to be serving Ireland’s poor — not the poor of the world.

“…Once they arrived in San Francisco after that arduous journey, they were instantly plunged into ministering to the sick, to the homeless, to prostitutes and to children. No lofty missionaries from enlightened Europe, these women were immigrants serving immigrants, aliens in a strange land.”

The sisters “were women on a mission, and in doing the work of the Gospel, works of mercy, they were also proclaiming Jesus Christ,” he said. “For them, nothing could be more important. The two goals were linked through mercy: entering the worlds of the poor and serving Jesus.”

The mission of today’s Mercy Sisters “rests on the shoulders of these pioneer women who lived Gospel discipleship,” he concluded.

“The church needed such women then, desperately; the church needs such women and men now, even more desperately. Let us say it plainly: These were powerful women, women whose power rested in their unshakable faith in God, in the urgency of the Gospel’s call, and in what God could accomplish through them. That is why they succeeded.”

Addressing those attending the Mass, Mercy Sister Sheila Browne, president of the Auburn region, and Mercy Sister Anne Murphy, president of the Burlingame region, said they anticipate a future for the Mercy community “that will continue to respond to the needs of our time.”

The spirit of the pioneer sisters “lives on in the lives of thousands of people who partner with the sisters in the diverse and numerous works of mercy which are carried out in a caring and compassionate manner throughout Northern California,” they stated.

At the conclusion of the liturgy, Bishop Weigand presented the Sisters of Mercy with a papal blessing honoring their 150 years of service in California.

He also announced that the Sacramento Diocese would donate $25,000 to Cristo Rey High School in Sacramento for student scholarships in honor of the Sisters of Mercy, and that the lower level meeting room of the Cathedral complex would be named in honor of Mother Mary Baptist Russell.

Following the Mass, the Sisters of Mercy unveiled a memorial sculpture of their California foundress. The monument, sculpted by artist Ruth Coelho and located on the north side of Capitol Park, is a group composition illustrating some of the accomplishments of Mother Russell and her sisters.

One part of the sculpture depicts Mother Russell firmly guiding a worried mother and gravely ill child on a stretcher to the hospital. Another part is “a nurse guiding a young Chinese girl, similar to the girls coerced into prostitution and rescued by the sisters who provided a safe haven in which to heal,” according to Coelho.

Mother Russell in the late 1850s purchased the land that is now Capitol Park in order to build a school. The Sisters of Mercy owned the land until the Capitol Bill was passed in 1860, designating the grounds as a site for a new Capitol building.

“We are grateful that the state of California has allowed us to ‘reclaim’ a small portion so that the legacy of a very special pioneer woman can be remembered,” Sister Browne said.

Editor’s note: Some of the historical information included in this article was provided by the Sisters of Mercy for the sesquicentennial Mass and events.

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