When the Merion Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas celebrated its 150th anniversary in the Philadelphia Archdiocese on Sept. 25 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, they weren’t far from where it all began. The Cathedral, where Archbishop Chaput celebrated the 2 p.m. Mass, is only a mile or so away from the former Assumption B.V.M. Church, the site of their first mission in Philadelphia.
Mother Patricia Waldron and nine other sisters arrived at Assumption on Aug. 22, 1861 to teach at the parish school. The congregation itself was just 34 years old at the time, founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, on Sept. 24, 1837, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. The first American convent was established by Mother Frances Warde in Pittsburgh in 1843, and the congregation quickly spread to other areas.
Although they did not remain at Assumption long, they became firmly established at St. Malachy, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Mother of Good Counsel, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Matthias, St. Thomas of Villanova and many other schools and academies as well as service in diocesan high schools and ultimately Gwynedd-Mercy College.
The education ministry was by no means their sole focus; from the very beginning the sisters visited the sick in their homes and even the inmates of Moyamensing Prison.
Their presence in Merion really stems from the insistence of the congregation’s physician that they establish a house in the suburbs where ill sisters could recuperate.
Some things have changed over the years, for example, how the sisters dress, but the core mission is pretty much the same as that envisioned by Catherine McAuley.
“We are all Sisters of Mercy, responding to God’s call,” said Sister Patricia Vetrano, president of the Merion-based Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Prior to 2007 there were 25 U.S. regions for the Mercy Sisters, but now they have been consolidated, with five of the former regions coming together as the Mid-Atlantic Community, said Sister Patricia, who is originally from New York.
Although 150 years ago, when the Mercy Sisters arrived in Philadelphia, the critical need was for elementary school teaching sisters. That’s what most became and it continued up until recent decades.
“I don’t think any of us imagined the changes that would take place,” Sister Patricia said, adding when she entered, “I thought I would forever be a teacher.”
Teaching is certainly still an important ministry with the sisters, and there are many others. Whether it is health care, neighborhood ministries, working to serve immigrants or the poor, working against violence, it all comes back to the same thing, “the inspiration given to us by Catherine McAuley, our foundress,” Sister Patricia said. “I’m optimistic for the future.”
Sister Dorothy Freal, at age 97, is the oldest living Sister of Mercy in Philadelphia. She joined at age 19 in 1933, which means she has been a sister for almost half the 150 years of the congregation in Philadelphia.
Like most sisters of her generation, Sister Freal spent her active career in the education apostolate, rising to become principal at Annunciation B.V.M. School in Havertown, Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Philadelphia and Holy Cross School in Springfield.
Thinking back she said of her entrance, “it was the happiest day of my life.”
And although she has seen many changes, Sister Freal said, “Over the years the sisters have become more involved in the parishes and the local communities. Our founders had great foresight, and we continue that legacy today through prayer and service to others in need.”
At 37, Sister Cathy Manderfield is the youngest Mercy Sister in the Archdiocese, and is a case worker at Women of Hope.
“Our history calls us to be attentive to those most vulnerable,” she said. “My hope for the future is that the Sisters of Mercy will continue to listen to where God calls us to serve and recognize mercy in the world, reverence it and then give that gift to others.”