Mercy abounds in the Diocese of Fall River

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

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CUMBERLAND, R.I. — As The Anchor continues to recognize this Year of Consecrated Life, the Sisters of Mercy quietly toil away in the Fall River Diocese, from schools to hospitals to parishes to nursing homes — for more than 180 years, motivated by the Gospel of Jesus and inspired by the spirit of their founder Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy have responded to the continually changing needs of the times. The Sisters sponsor and serve in more than 200 organizations that work with those in need in the U.S., Central and South America, Jamaica, Guam and the Philippines.

Born on Sept. 29, 1778 in Dublin, Ireland, Catherine McAuley, found herself an orphan by 1798. By 1803, she was a household manager and companion of an elderly, childless and wealthy Protestant home. When the couple passed away — the wife in 1819 and husband in 1822 — McAuley became the sole residuary legatee of their estate and much of their savings. 

In 1824, McAuley took her inheritance and built a large house in Dublin as a school for poor girls and a shelter for homeless servant girls and women. Named the House of Mercy, the doors opened on Sept. 24, 1827.

As the number of lay co-workers increased at the home, critics began to question why the women looked like a religious order but did not abide by the normal regulations of religious orders.  By 1830, McAuley and her co-workers realized that the stability of the works of mercy they performed, including visiting the sick and poor in their homes and hospitals, and their continued appeal to co-workers, called for a revision of their lay community. On September 8, McAuley and two other co-workers entered the Presentation Convent in Dublin to begin formal preparation for the founding of the Sisters of Mercy.

On Dec. 12, 1831, McAuley and the other two women professed their religious vows as the first Sisters of Mercy, thereby founding the congregation. They returned to the House of Mercy where seven more women received the habit on Jan. 23, 1832, including McAuley’s niece, Mary Teresa Macauley. 

McAuley founded nine additional autonomous convents of Mercy in Tullamore (1836), Charleville (1836), Carlow (1837), Cork (1837), Limerick (1838), Bermondsey, London (1839), Galway (1840), Birr (1840), and Birmingham (1841), and branch houses of the Dublin community in Kingstown (1835) and Booterstown (1838). 

McAuley traveled with the founding parties by stagecoach, canal boat, steam packet and railway, humorously enduring fatigue and inconvenience such travel entailed, and remained at least a month with each new community. She was anxious to “begin well,” so the poor could be immediately served, claiming, “God knows I would rather be cold and hungry than that the poor in Kingstown or elsewhere should be deprived of any consolation in our power to afford.”

A two-year controversy over the appointment of a chaplain to serve the House of Mercy began and a lawsuit was unfairly settled against her for the cost of building a poor school in Kingstown. By then she had lost two nieces and two nephews to illness. In the midst of these sufferings, she chose to embrace the “Cross of Christ,” and wrote hundreds of affectionate letters to the Sisters in the new foundations, along with submitting to the officials in Rome her proposed Rule and Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy. 

By May 1841, McAuley was almost 63 years old, and was beginning to get worn out and was “tormented” by a persistent cough. Pope Gregory XVI confirmed the Rule and Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy on June 6, 1841. McAuley received the document three months later, and continued with her duties. By September 21, a physician declared her right lung “diseased,” but McAuley made light of his diagnosis but did delegate some duties to others, though in her letters to fellow Sisters she scarcely mentioned her illness.

At the end of October she became bedridden, and was Anointed on November 8, ultimately dying on November 11 after making one last request of a Sister to tell the community to “get a good cup of tea — I think the community room would be a good place — when I am gone — to comfort one another, but God will comfort them.”

Sisters of Mercy (www.SistersOfMercy.org) continue to respond to a call to serve people in need and commit themselves to follow Jesus Christ. They profess lifelong religious vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and service to people who are poor, sick and uneducated.  To this end, they serve God’s people through education, health care, social services, and ministries that further social, political, economic and Spiritual well-being. 

A number of Sisters of Mercy are part of the parishes, schools, hospitals, and other ministries and organizations in the Diocese of Fall River, including Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in New Bedford, Christ the King Parish in Mashpee, St. Vincent’s Home in Fall River, Steward Morton Hospital in Taunton, and many others. The late Sister Patricia Harrington, who was a staff member at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro for 45 years, was a Sister of Mercy. 

In 1833, Mother Frances Warde became the first Sister of Mercy to be professed by Catherine McAuley. In 1843, Frances Warde and her six companions established in Pittsburgh, Penn. the first foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. Frances was responsible for four foundations in Ireland: Carlow, Naas, Wexford and Westport. During her 41 years in the United States, Frances spent the longest periods of time at the foundations she established in Pittsburgh  (1843), Providence, R.I. (1851), and Manchester, N.H. (1858). From these foundations she established nearly 100 others.

The Sisters, associates and companions of the Northeast Community based in Cumberland, R.I., are active social justice advocates on all issues relating to women and children, and have most recently focused on immigration reform, climate change, and healthcare. The Northeast Community has taken corporate stands calling for the recognition of the fundamental human right to water, for action in response to climate change, for the repeal of the death penalty and, in March 2014, for the abolition of human trafficking.

Originally from New Bedford, Sister Maureen Mitchell, RSM, went to Holy Family High School and at the time, all the teachers were Sisters of Mercy “and every year they would have some of the postulates come and talk to us about their life,” she said, “so it was something at that time — I was only 18 — that I felt I needed to at least try. I couldn’t say I felt a strong calling but there was something in me that said I needed to explore this more.” 

The current vice president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Northeast Community, Sister Mitchell entered in 1962 right after high school, a common occurrence back then “but nowadays we wouldn’t take someone that young, but in those days they took people right from high school.

“A vocation is a funny thing, it isn’t like one day,” she said. “The process we went through involved a lot of discernment. We were postulates for a year, then we took the step of being received, then after the three years we took our temporary vows as a way of exploring deeper. We were always receiving Spiritual guidance, and after eight years of entrance we could ask to take our Perpetual Vows. 

“You took them believing you were called to this life and knowing it would always require recommitting yourself, so at different times in your life you recommit. It’s the same as being a Catholic; you were born a Catholic but at different times you decide if you’re going to remain a Catholic. It’s not just blind faith; it becomes a recommitment over and over.”

Sister Mitchell said she always wanted to be a teacher, and being raised in a strong Catholic family helped shape her path. Being part of a religious community that vows to serve God’s people through education has given Sister Mitchell a very fulfilling life.

“It has been a continuous discernment and continuous recommitment,” she said. “As a child I always wanted to be a special-needs teacher; I had a cousin who had special needs. I watched my aunt teach my cousin and at that time public schools didn’t always take special-needs students. I always felt that teaching was my commitment and doing it with the motive that we’re all God’s creatures and worthy of dignity, that was my motivation and I think is what drew me. There were times it was difficult; we went through many changes. With every loss, there was a recommitment. It’s very hard to capture a Spiritual journey, but I can say now I am where I should be.”

Sister Eileen Fitzpatrick works at the Diocesan Health Facilities skilled nursing center, Our Lady’s Haven in Fairhaven, and she felt the call around 12 years old.

“I was in grade school and I just felt very drawn towards religious life,” she said. “I continued my education with the Sisters of Mercy in Galway, Ireland. During that time I felt an even stronger calling and Mercy was the order that I was very drawn to because of the goodness of the Sisters in the school system at the time. They had a great love for the Lord and their prayer life inspired me.”

She entered Tullamore Mercy Convent, one of the original convents founded by McAuley, in 1970. Three years later she went to Dublin and trained in childcare, returning to Tullamore after her training. She made her final vows in 1976.

She spent 27 years in Ireland as a Sister, and then she felt she needed to take a sabbatical and chose to come to the United States and spend some time at the Genesis Spiritual Life Center in Westfield, that was run by the Sisters of Providence. She spent 15 months there, and during that time she discerned what would be the best thing for her to do. She ultimately trained in interfaith healthcare ministries in Providence, R.I., and started working at Our Lady’s Haven in Fairhaven in March of 2003.

“I love it here,” she said. “I love the residents and staff; I just feel so fulfilled at the end of the day.” 

During a normal day she checks in with the front desk, asking if there are any changes “like, did anyone pass during the night or did we get any new admissions?” she said. “Did anything happen in the facility that I need to know? Then I go to the Sacristy and set up for Mass, which starts at 9:30 a.m. If we have residents who are not doing well, I’ll go see them.”

Though a Catholic diocesan health facility, Our Lady’s Haven takes care of everyone regardless of his or her faith. “Everybody is welcome, there’s no distinction,” said Sister Fitzpatrick. “A lot of residents come here principally because there is a religious presence here, and we have a chapel and Mass every day. They know they’ll receive the Sacraments and for them, this can be a great consolation. It’s also very comforting for family members to know that there’s someone who keeps that extra eye on things. I’m always available to family members and residents to talk or discuss anything.”

During a resident’s end-of-life, “we keep a watchful eye and gentle presence with that person,” said Sister Fitzpatrick in her gentle Irish lilt. “I have to say the staff is just wonderful in that area. They go in and out to take care of that person; nobody dies alone. It can be a frightening moment in the dying process, so it’s always nice to have somebody there who can hold your hand and touch your brow. Presence is so important.”

Forty-five years in religious life, and Sister Fitzpatrick said she never had any major doubts about her decision: “Thank you God for the gift of this wonderful calling,” she added.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts