|Sister Mary Ann Smith, RSM, who is retiring at the end of this school year, is the last Sister of Mercy still teaching at St. Bernard Academy, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy 150 years ago. Photo by Theresa Laurence|
St. Bernard Academy, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1866, has always had at least one Mercy Sister on staff. That will no longer be the case after this month.
Sister Mary Ann Smith, RSM, the only Mercy sister still teaching at the school, is winding down her final year there, and will soon say farewell to her students and fellow teachers.
“To me, this has been a special place,” said Sister Mary Ann. “I’ve loved teaching and working with young people.”
But, with her passion for teaching waning, she said the time has come when she’s ready to say, “Lord, I’ve given it my all. It’s time to slow down.”
Sister Mary Ann, who celebrated her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy in 2013, has taught at St. Bernard for 38 years, the majority of her educational ministry. She has seen many changes in the school over the years.
When Sister Mary Ann started out as a young teacher, St. Bernard Academy elementary school was still located in the old red-brick Mercy convent, located in front of what was then the still-operating St. Bernard Academy High School. Sister Mary Ann recalls that there were five Sisters of Mercy teaching there at the time, including the principal.
Since then, she has seen the high school close and the lower school move into the high school building; she has seen the school transition from direct ownership by the Mercy Sisters to being run by a parent-led non-profit foundation. She witnessed the school building undergo a major renovation in 2004, and is living through another major expansion today.
On a recent weekday, Sister Mary Ann was teaching religion class to fifth level students in a former computer lab in the library. Every spare nook in the school has been repurposed this year as construction continues on a $3.2 million, 18,000-square-foot expansion that will be ready in time for the St. Bernard’s 150th anniversary celebration next school year.
As the school grows and moves into a new phase without any Mercy Sisters regularly present on campus, Sister Mary Ann is confident that the spirit of the Sisters will live on. Head of School Chuck Sabo “is very determined to keep the Mercy presence and charism alive here,” said Sister Mary Ann. “The vision of Catherine McAuley continues to be a hallmark of the school.”
Located in the heart of the school’s main floor is the Catherine McAuley Chapel, named in honor of the Sisters of Mercy founder. The school celebrates Mercy Day every year on Sept. 24, the day Mother Catherine McAuley opened the original House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland. Mercy Day “is a big deal at St. Bernard, and the children are aware from an early age of who Catherine McAuley was,” said Sister Mary Ann.
St. Bernard students stay connected with the local Sisters by volunteering at the Mercy Convent at Pennington Bend, earning their service hours by cleaning and sprucing up the property.
Sister Mary Ann says she will still visit St. Bernard, and was asked to serve on the board, but will take some personal time off before making a decision about that commitment.
While the St. Bernard community is disappointed that there will be no more Sisters working at the school, Sister Mary Ann said that having fewer sisters to staff Mercy schools is just the reality today.
When Sister Mary Ann made her vows as a Sister of Mercy in 1963, the order was enjoying peak membership levels. Since then, the numbers have dramatically declined; many active Mercy Sisters are nearing retirement.
“When I entered, it was education or hospital work,” as the options for ministry, said Sister Mary Ann.
With more opportunities for women both within religious communities and in society as a whole, there are fewer Sisters teaching in schools. “Women are using their gifts in other ways,” said Sister Mary Ann.
Women joining the Sisters of Mercy today often come to the order with previous professional experience and careers. They can continue working in those fields after making their vows, Sister Mary Ann said. “A lot more are working for systemic change,” she said, like advocating for immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, or lobbying for social justice causes.
As a smaller Sisters of Mercy membership spreads its talents beyond education and hospital work, they leave behind an important legacy in those fields.
“There’s a great responsibility on us to maintain the Sisters of Mercy charism,” said Sabo. Just because Mercy Sisters will no longer be present at the school, “it doesn’t change our philosophy or mission,” he said. “The Mercy mission is so ingrained in the culture of the school.”
Sabo assures that the 340 St. Bernard Academy students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade will continue to be “inspired by Mercy.”
“Their legacy is in good hands and they’ve created quite a legacy,” Sabo said. “I feel lucky to be part of that tradition and history.”