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Mercy Sisters’ works of mercy transformed San Francisco

February 13, 2015
Sister Helena Sanfilippo, RSM
Sisters of Mercy

Catholic San Francisco is featuring one religious congregation from the archdiocese in each installment of this periodic column marking the Vatican’s Year of Consecrated Life.

If San Francisco needed anything during the fading years of California’s gold frenzy, it was not more gold – it was mercy. Observing conditions in his vast jurisdiction, Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany sent an emissary to Kinsale, Ireland, to beg for Sisters of Mercy. Under the leadership of 25-year-old Mary Baptist Russell, eight volunteers were chosen. After 8,000 miles and three months’ travel by ship, mule train and Nicaraguan natives’ arms, they arrived in San Francisco on Dec, 8, 1854. One sister wrote of what met them: “You innocent Irish Sisters ... if you only knew ....”

Despite opposition from a misinformed press and even lawless vigilantes, within a week the Sisters of Mercy began visiting the sick in the State Marine and County Hospital, where indigent poor were cared for by crude male orderlies. Mother Russell subsequently took over the hospital completely, naming it St. Mary’s, the first Catholic hospital west of the Rockies. It was the beginning of a series of works of mercy that would characterize the sisters’ approach to unmet needs in San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and Grass Valley – through orphanages, schools, a women’s employment agency to help ward off trafficking, a home for the aged, visitations to the county jail and San Quentin and to the poor of the waterfront and, years later, a tent hospital for soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War. Mother Russell became known as Mother of the City.

Throughout the 20th century the sisters continued the pattern of discerning the signs of the times – starting San Francisco’s first free clinic in 1922, parish schools, nursing schools, girls’ high schools, parish and retreat work and a mission in Peru. Spiritual ministries found a permanent home when Mercy Center opened in 1981 in Burlingame for retreats and educational programs. Here, training of spiritual directors became a worldwide phenomenon by the creation of Spiritual Directors International in 1990, with programs throughout the United States and such far-flung arenas as Lithuania, Kenya, Australia, Singapore, Korea, Ireland and Canada.

In 1969, sisters began work with thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” arriving in San Francisco, while hardy sisters moved directly into refugee camps in the Philippines and Thailand. SVdP’s Catherine’s Center was founded in 2003 by Sister Marguerite Buchanan and Sister Suzanne Toolan with the St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide a home and support for women leaving prison. The most recent international work for the poor and uneducated is Mercy Beyond Borders, which operates schools for girls in South Sudan and Haiti. In 1981, the formation of lay collaborators into Mercy Associates spread the mercy of God still further.

Health care, too, expanded throughout the century, incorporating additional hospitals in California and Arizona, and in 1986 forming Catholic Healthcare West, now known as Dignity Health, the fifth-largest hospital system in the United States. Housing needs and services are provided to thousands throughout the U.S. by another collaborative effort, Mercy Housing.

There is more to come. Throughout the past 160 years, the community has moved forward with faith, and the future of Mercy is bright with hope.


Sisters of Mercy

Name: West Midwest Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Founding: Founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley

Arrival in the Archdiocese: 1854

Original ministry: Health care, soon followed by education, prison ministry, ministry to women

Current ministries: Education, spirituality, housing, health care, pastoral ministry, liturgy, justice ministry

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