Sisters mark 150 years on mission of mercy


The city's Sisters of Mercy will blow the dust from their history this weekend and show off a trove of artifacts to mark their 150th anniversary in Baltimore.

At a celebration in Mount Washington tomorrow afternoon, they'll display their hand-written letters of incorporation, a 19th-century grade book and a shovel from one of their dozens of groundbreakings. But perhaps the most recognizable artifact will hang uncomfortably from the shoulders of their archivist, Sister Paula Diann Marlin.

"It's lovely to pose in. It's difficult to work in," said Marlin, who will model the order's traditional habit. It includes the starched collar, the white, tight-fitting headpiece, a floor-length black skirt and a stifling double veil.

For many with roots in Baltimore, that Sisters of Mercy habit will evoke a memory or two. Maybe they gave birth at Mercy Medical Center, were taught to read by a Mercy sister, graduated from Mercy High School or were counseled at a Mercy women's center.

Dozens of sisters still work, sans habit, in the city's Catholic schools, in social services and in health care. On St. Paul Street, the green hospital sign recalls the sisters who turned a dilapidated city hospital into a local institution.

"Mercy has been an anchor in downtown Baltimore and a great contributor to the health of our citizens," said Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Dixon, who will be part of the anniversary celebration along with Cardinal William H. Keeler and Mayor Martin O'Malley, recalled that before her brother died in 1986, Mercy's hospice service cared for him in his last days. "They did an extraordinary job," she said.

Retired Archbishop William D. Borders was full of praise for them as well, talking from his home in a Timonium retirement community co-sponsored by the Mercy Sisters. He said the nuns not only taught generations of local students to read "but also gave the pupils an understanding of the responsibilities they have in their lives."

The international order was founded in Dublin in 1831 by Catherine McAuley and soon spread across the Atlantic. At the behest of a Baltimore priest, four Pittsburgh-based Mercy Sisters moved here in 1855.

The charge of those original sisters was to educate the children of the swelling Irish Catholic community in the city. But they soon expanded their ranks and their mission.

The Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester and a church historian, said the order has never been the largest in the area. The School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Daughters of Charity have historically been larger. But, he said, because Mercy Sisters concentrated their work within the city, it made them a formidable and visible presence.

The artifacts offer a glimpse of that reach. There is a visitation basket that Mother Alphonsus Atkinson, who oversaw the sisters' takeover of the city hospital in 1874, carried when she visited the sick.

There's an 1888-1895 leather-bound grade book from Mount St. Agnes Academy recording the progress of some of the young women educated there.

The academy later evolved into an elementary school for girls, a high school and a college. Those schools were eventually phased out or merged, but the sisters have kept a focus on women's education.

In 1993, they opened the Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for women. In 2004, with partners, they opened the Sisters Academy, a tuition-free middle school for girls in Southwest Baltimore.

There is also a pile of old Mercy High School yearbooks and copies of The Shield, the school newspaper, dating back to the school's opening in 1960. There is a shovel used at the 1978 groundbreaking of Stella Maris' St. Elizabeth Hall, part of the sisters elder-care facilities. There's a framed roster of sisters who in 1982 created the women's support center Marian House.

"There are thousands and thousands and thousands of people whose lives we touched," said Sister Barbara Wheeley, president of the Sisters of Mercy Regional Community.

The order has decreased over the years and now has fewer than 100 sisters, about half the number of the 1960s. Of those, 90 are healthy enough to gather for the celebration tomorrow. Some will be traveling from the elder-care facilities where they live.

In the face of the limited vocations and aging population, the sisters have consolidated their work in recent years. They now focus on their major ministries, including oversight of their high school and hospital, and look for partners before they launch new projects. Still, Wheeley said, the anniversary is meant to be more than a celebration of the past.

"The fact that we've been here 150 years says something about our longtime commitment to the city," she said. "It's not like we're folding up our tents and going away."

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