A biography written by Joan Freney rsm
Frances Warde was born in 1810 at Bellbrook House in Abbeyleix, County Laois, Ireland. She was the youngest child of John and Mary Maher Warde. From her earliest days, Frances (Fanny) knew the pain of loss. Her mother died shortly after Frances’ birth.
Her maternal aunt came to Bellbrook to care for Frances and her siblings, Daniel, William, John, Helen, and Sarah. The loss of Bellbrook in 1819 resulted in the break-up of the family. The girls went to live with their uncle, William Maher in Killeany. By the time Frances was 15, her father, her favourite brother, John and her sister, Helen had died.
Frances moved to Dublin in 1825 and it was there that she was befriended by Mary Teresa McAuley. When Mary Teresa introduced Frances to her aunt, Catherine McAuley, it was not a chance encounter but rather one that would change the course of history for the Sisters of Mercy and countless others to whom and with whom they have ministered in Ireland and the Americas.
By 1828, Mary Teresa, Frances and their friend, Elizabeth Harley were living at the House of Mercy on Baggot Street and ministering to the poor of Dublin. Each young woman has her own story. In 1833, Frances became the first Sister of Mercy to be professed by Catherine McAuley at Baggot Street. In that same year, her sister Sarah (Mother M. Josephine Warde) entered the Sisters of Mercy. In 1843, Frances Warde and her six companions established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the first foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States.
Frances was responsible for four foundations in Ireland: Carlow, Naas, Wexford and Westport. During her forty-one years in the United States, Frances spent the longest periods of time at the foundations she established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1843), Providence, Rhode Island (1851) and Manchester, New Hampshire (1858). From these foundations she established almost one hundred others.
One of the greatest crosses in Frances Warde’s life was that she was not called to Baggot Street in November, 1841 to be with her dear friend Catherine as she lay dying. They would meet again but only after Frances’ death in Manchester on September 17, 1884.
What a joy even to think of these two great women of Mercy meeting in Heaven!
You have heard parts of my story during this conference and I’m sure you have read about me in the printed information you received and so I invite you to join me in Manchester, New Hampshire in 1883. It is one year before my death in 1884.
The sisters here at Manchester have been making such a fuss over me. I keep reminding them that this is not just my Golden Jubilee year but also the Silver Jubilee year of this foundation. Aren’t I blessed to be spending my last years here? Indeed, I believe this will be my final resting place.
January 24, 1833 … It seems like yesterday. So much has taken place since that day when I pronounced my vows in the chapel at Baggot Street. How privileged I was to be the first Sister of Mercy professed by our beloved Mother Catherine. Neither of us knew what the future would hold but we both rejoiced that we were God’s for time and eternity. With Mother Catherine’s gentle and loving reassurance I was able to cast myself into the arms of God’s loving Providence with a lively and unlimited confidence that has sustained me through all these years.
Jubilees bring to mind so many wonderful people and events. Sometimes in later years memories fade but I have had the opposite experience in recent weeks. In my mind and heart I have relived so many events of the past fifty years and sometimes I even dream about them. If you can bear with the musings of an old lady, I’d love to tell you what happened last night. I had a dream that was so vivid it was difficult to separate the real from the unreal.
“My dearest child, how I longed to have you by my side when I was dying but it was not in God’s providential plan to give either of us that consolation. Do you remember what I used to tell you? ‘Bless and love the fatherly Hand which has hurt you. He will soon come with both Hands filled with favours and blessings.”The year was 2003 – imagine! I had returned to the House of Mercy on Baggot Street and who was standing outside the front door but Catherine herself. She led the young woman who was with her inside and made certain that her needs were met. Catherine then returned, took me by the hand and led me through the house to the enclosed garden. We stood by the grave that was there and the sadness that has rested deep in my heart for more than forty years was suddenly gone. Peace flooded my soul as Catherine spoke. “My dearest child, how I longed to have you by my side when I was dying but it was not in God’s providential plan to give either of us that consolation. Do you remember what I used to tell you? ‘Bless and love the fatherly Hand which has hurt you. He will soon come with both Hands filled with favours and blessings.”
We walked slowly to the chapel recalling as we went the many times we had made that same walk until the day in 1837 when we left to make the foundation at Carlow. I longed to renew my vows in Catherine’s presence but then an amazing thing happened. When we entered the chapel, there were thousands of women there. As Catherine stood before us we professed our vows in unison. I could hear foreign languages and many very peculiar accents. But when we vowed to serve the poor, sick and ignorant there was no doubt in my mind. We were all Sisters of Mercy. I will never forget Catherine’s expression or the words she uttered so gently: “It commenced with two …”
From there it was like walking the road to Emmaus with Catherine. She was so delighted that Carlow had given birth to Naas, Wexford and Westport and that they, in turn, were able to establish foundations in Ireland and beyond. “Hurray for foundations,” Catherine kept repeating. I told her a story you already know about Westport. Carlow gave birth to Westport in 1842 and Westport gave birth to Ballinrobe in County Mayo in 1851. Ballinrobe sent our dear Mother Patricia Waldron to Manchester when I needed a Mistress of Novices here in 1860. You probably remember she was actually Sister Patrick Joseph but I always preferred the feminine form of names and she was happy to change to Patricia. Before I digress too much … A year after Mother Patricia Waldron arrived at Manchester, I had to ask her to establish the Philadelphia foundation. Sister Gertrude Ledwith who was to establish that foundation was delayed in England. All in God’s providential plan … I heard Catherine say.
The dream then took us back to 1843 and Carlow. Catherine was having an animated conversation with a young priest by the name of Michael O’Connor who had recently been named Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “When I was in Rome,” Bishop O’Connor told Catherine, “I was asked to review the first rule of your Mercy Institute. I was deeply touched by the chapter on the vows, in particular, your fourth vow of service. That is what brought me here to Carlow for I believe no one is more suited to meet the needs of God’s people in Pittsburgh than the Sisters of Mercy.” Catherine smiled as her eyes met mine.
A sudden chill came over me as I stirred in my sleep. Then I realized that Catherine and I were standing on the deck of the ‘Queen of the West’ as it entered New York Harbour. It was a cold December day in 1843. My companions from Carlow were there: Sister Josephine Cullen, Sister Elizabeth Strange, Sister Aloysia Strange (a novice who would become the first sister to make her vows in the United States), Sister Philomena Reid (also a novice), Sister Veronica McDarby (a lay sister) and Sister Margaret O'Brien (a postulant who would become the first sister to receive the habit in the United States.) At age thirty-three I was old in comparison to these courageous young women.
“You may think your journey is coming to an end,” Catherine said, “but it is really just beginning. Immigrants from Ireland and other nations, Africans held as slaves, native Americans forced off their lands, the sick and the dying, the poor in cities and countryside, orphans and prisoners, children and adults longing for education, women in need of shelter will reach out for Mercy’s touch. You will not be the only Sisters of Mercy to come to the Americas from Ireland. Others will follow soon and your numbers here will increase rapidly. A young lady in Pittsburgh is already awaiting your arrival, Mother Frances. Eliza Tiernan is as desirous of serving the poor as you were in 1827 when I first met you in Dublin. Before long you will receive her vows as the first American Sister of Mercy.”
Catherine’s imaginary words did become a reality. What commenced with seven in Pittsburgh on December 21, 1843 has become an ever-widening circle of Mercy. In a matter of minutes, Catherine and I did a grand right and left through many of the foundations that have been made in these forty years: Loretto, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; Rochester, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Omaha, Nebraska; Eureka, California; Bordentown and Jersey City, New Jersey; Burlington, Vermont; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Manchester and so many others.
Catherine went with me from rail to stagecoach. We travelled over the mountains in snow and ice and boarded barges and canoes to traverse the lakes and rivers of the vast country. She was there on the battlefield with the sisters as they nursed the Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and was happy to know that President Lincoln himself had ordered that the sisters receive all the medical supplies they needed. I introduced her to Mary, one of the slaves whose freedom we had been able to buy and to the gentleman who had converted to Catholicism having once been part of the Know-Nothings, an anti-Catholic political group that threatened to attack the convent at Providence. The Indians in Maine were amazed to discover that I was not actually the first great mother as they had come to call me.
Catherine never seemed to tire as we visited hundreds of children in the orphanages, free schools and academies that had opened since 1843. The first Mercy hospital in the world had opened in Pittsburgh in 1847 and Catherine predicted that many more would bear the name Mercy. Catherine was truly delighted when she found out that the sisters were providing residences for women wherever they went and that every attempt was made to reach out to the poor even if it meant that the sisters themselves would be cold and hungry.
So often in real life when I moved from foundation to foundation I recalled Mother Catherine’s words: “You will have one solid comfort amidst your tripping about; your heart can always be in the same place, centered in God for whom alone you go forward or stay back.”
“Isn’t it wonderful that we can gather like this at the first House of Mercy? I flew from New York and it took me only seven hours.”Another turn and we were back at Baggot Street in 2003. Sisters of Mercy were gathered there from all over the world. We couldn’t recognize them by their dress but they were conversing over a cup of tea and we listened as they exchanged stories. “Isn’t it wonderful that we can gather like this at the first House of Mercy? I flew from New York and it took me only seven hours.” Catherine and I looked at each other in total disbelief … the sisters can fly now? God’s providence is truly amazing!
And then there were questions about Mercy Associates, Mercy Volunteer Corps members and the more than four thousand sisters in the twenty-five regional communities which make up the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. “Go to the web sites and you’ll find lots of information about the regional communities and their ministries,” one sister said. Another commented that e-mail is readily available. Catherine and I surmised that e-mail must be short for excellent mail. Why Americans grade their mail still puzzled us. Even more startling was the suggestion that information about Mercy ministries could be found on spiders’ webs!
We were both pleased to find ourselves in the garden again. A great chorus was singing the words of Catherine’s Suscipe. “We will all meet in Heaven,” Catherine assured me. “Oh, what a joy even to think of it!” She gently brushed a tear from my cheek and then I awoke.