|The Sisters of Mercy will celebrate the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Nashville with a Mass and reception at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. Mercy Sisters, from left, Jeannine Curley, Lauren Cole, Suzanne Stalm and Judith Coode were all taught by the Sisters before they joined the community. Photo by Andy Telli
In Dublin, Ireland, during the early 19th century, Mother Mary Catherine McAuley dedicated her life to bringing the compassion and mercy of Christ to the poor, the sick, the uneducated, the orphan, and all in need.
Her example drew other women to her, inspired to make her mission their own, and she formed the Sisters of Mercy in 1831. The need for these sisters was great and people around the world called for their help.
One hundred fifty years ago, when the wounds of the Civil War were still raw, the Sisters of Mercy followed one such call to Nashville where Bishop Patrick Feehan invited them to open a Catholic school attached to his Cathedral.
In the decades since, the Mercy Sisters have touched every corner of Tennessee with their compassion and dedication to service, teaching in schools, caring for the sick, comforting young mothers battling drug addictions, shepherding new Catholics into the Church, accompanying people on their journey of faith.
After 150 years, the Sisters of Mercy are still carrying the mission of Mother Mary Catherine to the people of Tennessee.
|Sister Jeannine Curley, RSM, who taught at Catholic schools throughout Tennessee for 48 years, sorts the mail at Room In The Inn every week. She also volunteers at Alive Hospice on a regular basis. Tennessee Register file photo by Theresa Laurence
“When you consider the number of people touched by Mercies, it’s amazing,” said Sister Jeannine Curley, who was educated by the Sisters of Mercy as a child and joined the order as a Sister in 1957. “We stand on some broad shoulders.”
The Sisters of Mercy will celebrate the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Nashville and all their work in the service of others with a Mass and reception at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on Sunday, Oct. 30. The Mass, to be celebrated by Bishop David Choby, will begin at 2 p.m. and will be followed by a reception in the Cathedral’s Fleming Center. All are invited to the Mass and reception, which is being planned “in the Irish tradition after our Irish foundress, Mother Catherine McAuley, which is tea and scones,” said Sister Suzanne Stalm.
Just like the first women to join Catherine McAuley, today’s Sisters of Mercy continue to follow the example of their foundress.
“Catherine McAuley loved all children of God,” said Sister Lauren Cole. “She did it because Jesus did it. It all goes back to Jesus. She’s just trying to get us to do what Jesus did.”
|Sister Maris Stella Mogan, left, and Sister Mary Gemma Marlowe exchange the sign of peace during Mass at the Mercy Convent Chapel. The Sisters of Mercy moved into their current convent on Pennington Bend Road after selling the old St. Bernard Convent on Hillsboro Road, their home for nearly a century. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio
While most women’s religious orders of the time were contemplative, Mother Mary Catherine had other ideas. “She wanted you to get out there and do something,” Sister Jeannine said. She sent her sisters out among the people, serving those in need.
Her community grew, and eventually new communities were established in the United States.
Soon after arriving in Nashville, Bishop Feehan began looking for an order of religious sisters to establish a parochial school. At his request, six Sisters of Mercy from the foundation in Providence, Rhode Island, arrived in Nashville on Halloween 1866. The next morning the bishop celebrated a Mass at St. Mary’s of the Seven Sorrows Church in downtown Nashville, which was then the Cathedral, to welcome them to their new home.
After Mass, the Sisters got to work and formally opened the new school in a building across the street from the Cathedral. That school eventually led to St. Bernard Academy, which celebrated its own 150th anniversary earlier this fall.
The school, and the Mercy Sister’s impact on the Catholic community, grew quickly. Within a year, the school had 400 students, and in the years that followed, young girls who had been educated and formed in the faith by the Sisters began to join the community.
|The first six Sisters of Mercy arrived in Nashville on Halloween 1866 to open a school in the Kirkman Building, top photo, which was located across the street from St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows Church, then the Cathedral for the Diocese of Nashville. Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, above, founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 in Dublin, Ireland.
As the number of Mercy Sisters in Nashville grew, so did their responsibilities. They took on the administration of more schools. During their time in Tennessee, the Sisters of Mercy have taught at 36 schools in Memphis, Jackson, Dayton, McEwen, Elizabethton, Knoxville, Loretto, Lawrenceburg, Johnson City, Columbia, Kingsport, Springfield, Alcoa and Nashville, including their own St. Bernard Academy, the old St. Joseph, which was located where the Nashville Electric Service building now stands, St. Patrick, the former Cathedral School, St. Ann, Christ the King, St. Edward, Holy Rosary and Father Ryan High School.
Among their students was Bishop Choby.
“I’ve been around the community since the beginning of my first years in grade school,” said Bishop Choby, who attended school at St. Patrick, St. Edward, the Cathedral of the Incarnation and Father Ryan while growing up in Nashville. “My whole elementary and secondary education took place in schools that were either run by the Sisters of Mercy or had the Sisters of Mercy on the faculty.”
“I have great and fond memories of individual teachers in my life who were members of the community,” added Bishop Choby, who had relatives who were Sisters of Mercy. “They expressed a wide range of gifts and abilities and personalities, but I enjoyed them all.”
There are no longer any Mercy Sisters teaching in schools full-time, but their legacy still lives. St. Bernard Academy in Nashville and Immaculate Conception Cathedral School in Memphis still proudly celebrate their Mercy histories.
When the Sisters passed control of their schools to their lay successors, they also passed along the Mercy charism and ministry. “We make an effort to instill the spirit and qualities of Catherine McAuley,” said Sister Lauren, who grew up in Mercy schools at Christ the King and St. Bernard Academy and later served as the principal at St. Bernard when it was an all-girls high school.
“The Mercy spirit lives on even though we’ve left,” Sister Jeannine added. “A lot of our former students are now teachers. Hopefully they are carrying on the charism of Catherine McAuley.”
Celebrating 150 years
The Sisters of Mercy
will celebrate 150 years of service
to the people of Tennessee
with a Mass and a reception at the Cathedral of the Incarnation
n Nashville on Sunday, Oct. 30.
The Mass, which will be celebrated by Bishop David Choby, will begin
at 2 p.m. Msgr. Owen Campion
will be the homilist.
Following the Mass, there will be a reception in the
Cathedral’s Fleming Center.
The public is invited.
One of those students who became a teacher was Sherry Timmons Woodman, the principal at Christ the King School.
“All the amazing teachers I had along the way were an influence,” said Woodman, who can still tick off the names of all the Sisters who were her teachers at St. Edward and St. Bernard Academy. “Those women were so accomplished and educated. … That was really an inspiration for the girls.”
The Sisters were strict but friendly, Woodman recalled. “I felt very at home (at St. Edward), and I did at St. Bernard too. … At St. Bernard they worked on us growing up to be ladies but also being strong in our faith and to achieve the highest education level that we could.”
After graduating from college, Woodman’s first job as a teacher was at St. Bernard Academy, teaching first and second graders. She was hired by the principal, Sister Mary Melanie Boyd. “I remember she was so organized and she was very forthright. She had high expectations of the teachers, but she would help you meet those expectations. She was a very good first boss to have.”
Sue Hailey Higdon, the director of professional staff development for the Catholic Schools Office, is another product of Mercy schools, having graduated from Christ the King and St. Bernard before becoming a teacher.
“They were really good to me,” said Higdon, who had four aunts who were Sisters of Mercy. “They were just very good and very kind.”
“We grew up with lots of sisters in the school,” Higdon recalled. “The feast days were very important. The sacraments were celebrated often.” Her family lived three houses away from Christ the King. “The school and home were one,” she said.
The Mercy Sisters did more than teach. They also have a strong history in caring for the sick. During cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Tennessee during the late 19th century, the sisters left their schools and convents to care for the sick and dying.
When Sister Jeannine was teaching in Memphis in the 1970s, she recalled that the Sisters could ride the bus for free, a show of appreciation for their heroic service to the city during the yellow fever epidemics of nearly 100 years earlier.
In 1930, the Sisters took on a new ministry when they opened St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital in Knoxville. The Sisters had no experience in running a hospital, so five were sent off to study administration, radiology and nursing. The hospital flourished under its first administrator, Sister Annunciata Dannaher, who served in that role for 33 years. St. Mary’s was an important Catholic institution in East Tennessee. The Sisters sold the hospital in 2011, but remain a presence there.
Over the last 40 years, the Sisters’ ministry has changed as new needs have arisen. “We started focusing on the needs of the time, outside education and health care,” Sister Suzanne. “That’s why we’re where we are today and that’s why we are who we are today.”
Among the Mercy Sisters’ ministries in Middle Tennessee today are:
• Parish ministry, including religious education, RCIA, facilitating retreats, spiritual direction and counseling.
• Mercy Convent on Pennington Bend Road in Nashville is home to 22 retired sisters who live there. “The Sisters here all have a ministry of prayer,” said Sister Jeannine. “They’re praying for you. And they take that seriously.”
• The Sisters bring Communion to people in hospitals, visit the homebound, lead prayer groups, volunteer at Room In The Inn, Alive Hospice and with adults with intellectual disabilities.
• Tutoring in several Catholic schools.
Since 2007, the Mercy Convent has been used for overnight and one-day retreats. The Sisters offer spiritual direction and directed retreats, said Sister Suzanne, who leads the Ministry of Spirituality at the Mercy Convent.
Various groups use the convent for retreats. “They love the place,” Sister Suzanne said. “They’re coming from very hectic, stressful lives and they come into this place that’s been a place of prayer for 25 years and it shows.”
The convent can accommodate up to 12 people for overnight retreats in private rooms with private baths, and accommodate groups of up to 25 people for a day-long retreat, Sister Suzanne said. To learn more about the retreats, visit www.mercyretreats.org.
‘God calls people’
For some of their students, the Mercy Sisters inspired their own vocation to religious life. “I always appreciated their kindness and their caring for us,” said Sister Judith Coode, who joined the order in 1955 after attending the Mercy run Cathedral School from first grade through 12th grade.
“We helped the Sisters, we saw who they were,” said Sister Jeannine, who also attended Cathedral School. “I wanted to be like them.”
Sister Suzanne came to the Mercy Sisters from her hometown of Memphis. As an eighth grade student, her mother took her to Immaculate Conception in Memphis to meet the principal, Sister Adrian Mulloy. “She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She didn’t walk up the stairs, she floated.”
Once at Immaculate Conception under the Sisters’ wing, Sister Suzanne flourished and discovered her own vocation. “The source of my vocation came through the fact that the Sisters took a personal interest in us. They would spend a lot of time talking to us. … They made us feel important.”
At their peak, there were about 120 Mercy Sisters in Tennessee, and they were at one time the largest community of religious sisters in the state. But, like other communities of women religious, their numbers started to fall in the 1970s.
But interest in the Sisters of Mercy continues, Sister Suzanne said. Throughout the Sisters of Mercy of the Americans, Sisters are working with women discerning a call to religious life, she said, and more than 20 are in formation.
There are several ways for lay people to share the Mercy mission. Mercy Associates commit to serving those in need through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in the context of their daily lives. And members of the Mercy Volunteer Corps include women and men who spend a year of full-time service to the poor and marginalized while living in community.
A Companion in Mercy is a woman or man who vows to live a life of prayer, community and service, while working in their chosen profession, in the spirit of mercy and the order’s founder, Catherine McAuley.
“There’s so many things that lay people can do” to serve the Mercy mission, Sister Lauren said.
What calls people to the Mercy life is the same as it’s always been, Sister Lauren said. “God calls people,” she said.
“That hasn’t changed,” Sister Suzanne said.