Foundresses of the Sisters of Mercy United States
A biography written by Teresa O'Connell rsm
Not to be aware of the past, is to remain forever a child" We, in the United States Province, are very much aware of our past. When the information came about this conference on 'foundresses', I thought we could not possibly single out one, more than another, in all the brave 'Reverend Mothers', as they were then called, who sent Sisters of the United States in the 'Fifties' and the 'Sixties'. In consultation with Marianne Cosgrave, who knows our reality, we decided that the story of how we became one province should be told, instead. This is my task.
It all began in Ireland when the winds of change blew throughout the country in the early 'fifties to the 'sixties. I recall, clearly, my years as a novice and young sister in my convent, which was an independent unit with a Reverend Mother and Council - the norm in those days. At the time, it seemed to be the accepted way for communities to live. We were totally integrated in the parish structure: involved in ministries that were 'mercy' based - the service to the 'poor, sick and ignorant,' answering the needs as perceived by the local clergy, very familiar with the poor in the local area, generally respected and supported by the town's people.
Looking back, now, I can see how comfortable I had become. While there were difficult days, it was the comfortableness of security, regular life, assigned prayer time, meal time, recreation, bed time. As Spencer Johnson says in Who Moved My Cheese "If you do not change, you can become extinct." Some major changes were ahead.
First, there were the foundations in the 'fifties and 'sixties - responses to requests to open schools in the United States, to send sisters to the mission fields in Africa, - even to Iceland. What a challenge that brought! For those going, the fear of the unknown; for those at home, the loss of many of the youngest and best; and for all, the mind expansion that took place as world vision opened up.
On a personal note, I came to California in the early 'sixties. As a Carysfort Graduate, I thought I knew it all, but, I discovered a whole other culture and way of life, met other congregations who shared the church's mission in education, health services and care of the poor. I thank God for those years of broadening of vision.
Meantime, here in Ireland, the winds of change continued to blow and Diocesan Union was the result. This brought its own traumas, local customs and traditions were challenged, movement of sisters within a given diocese was now possible, the exchange of ideas and spiritual benefits of renewal, conferences, workshops and gatherings, gradually became the norm. The advantages far outweighed the painful adjustment of movement to the larger reality. The step from there to Mercy Ireland seemed inevitable and the struggle to unite began. Here, I must mention, Sister Regina Kelly of Mercy Ireland Leadership, who kept us, in the United States, informed, regularly of the 'progress' towards unification. Invitations came to attend meetings of the team leadership. At one such meeting, I heard Sister Saint John Enright request that South Africa be accepted as a province. Ideas were born and brought back to the United States.
Meantime, we, in the west and east, had been holding regular meetings to share ideas and information, hopes and dreams for our future. We had Sister Mary Waskoviak of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, now, President of the Burlingame Region, throughout this process, from late 'eighties till our Chapter in 1995. We had a cross regional team of six to work with her. During that period, we had a few meetings in Ireland during summer. They were opportunities to get East and West talking together and sharing ideas. At that time, we honoured the Rockies - as the dividing line between East and West. Bonnie Brennan RSM and the TCC kept us in close touch with the progress on the Irish scene, leading up to Chapter in 1994.
Finally, it became apparent to us that we had to change our reality in keeping with the unification at home, here. This caused much anxiety and tension as the transitions loomed and traditions were threatened. In the United States, it involved individual units, separated geographically, many of which were still attached to a local Irish Unit, on whom they depended for replacements. Some had been in the same place for many years, some even from the foundation in the 'fifties. Highly successful ministries were the norm, so, why change a successful mode of doing things? Many proposals came from our membership; e.g. two regions in the east; two in the west; two provinces (one East, one West); networking. Various other configurations were discussed, accepted, or discarded, according to the people presenting and those present. Finally, at one very memorable meeting, the thought of having one province emerged. After much prayer and discernment, (aided by Mary's excellent, gentle, but, determined facilitation), we were ready to vote.
The result, while not unanimous, was overwhelmingly for One Province. That was in 1993. The next task was to choose delegates to the First General Chapter of the Irish Congregation held in 1994. We chose one sister from the east and one from the west. Sister Anne Brady from the east and Teresa O’Connell from the west and also Maura Feeley. So, we had a total of three delegates. Attendance at Tallaght in July of 1994 was an awesome experience. Seeing the jars of water from each Diocesan Unit being poured into the central fountain was symbolic of the reality of unification and its attendant difficulties and calls for letting go. Diocesan security was being poured out, as it were, and what next?
Chapter 1994 followed in Saint Pat's Drumcondra. At that Chapter, we petitioned that; “We, the Irish Sisters of Mercy, in the United States, be accepted as a Province of the Congregation of the Irish Sisters of Mercy.” Again, much prayer and discernment led to a unanimous vote in favour of our acceptance. Work began in earnest, stateside, to prepare for our First Chapter in June of 1995.
Even though one Province had been agreed to, the reality of it all caused numerous tensions all across the twelve states. In many ways, this was as traumatic a change as had been experienced in the Irish scene at the time of Diocesan Union, but, on an even larger scale, geographically. Mary Waskoviak worked with the coordinator and transition team: to inform and motivate the membership; to set up pre-Chapter meetings; to elicit responses from the sisters; to coordinate same and finally, to arrange place and time for Chapter. Simpson Wood, Atlanta, was chosen. Rules for participation, presence at Chapter were agreed upon and promulgated to the membership. The first task of this Chapter was to elect a Provincial and team. Mary Jo Sheehy of the Central leadership team was present at this Chapter. Because of our total membership of 170, we were allowed a team of four; a Provincial and three council members. Because this was brand new, the members had many ideas regarding the location of the first house, finally, agreeing to leave it up to the team.
Here we will mention each unit by name: Ardagh & ClonMacnoise, Armagh, Cashel & Emily, Clonfert, Clogher, Cork & Ross, Dromore, Elphin, Galway, Kerry, Killala, Killaloe, Limerick, Meath, Ossory, Raphoe, Tuam, Waterford & Lismore. So, we were a Province, a leadership team of four: Maura Feeley, Carmel Crimmins, Maura Bane, Teresa O'Connell, with no blue print of how to start! We had no provincial house, as such as a base, from which to start. Three of us lived in California: Carmel Crimmins in the north, Maura Feeley in the south, Teresa O'Connell in the central coast area, and Maura Bane was in Florida. We held our first team meeting one very hot day in September, 1995, in Costa Mesa, California. The two sisters living in Saint John's large Convent, there, very kindly, offered us space and expected we would set up our office. There, the Pastor also welcomed us, but, his subsequent reassignment elsewhere caused us to pause.
Meantime we looked around in many areas for space available, proximity to an international airport close to Sisters, etc. Finally, we bought a house in Redlands, California, close to an already Mercy-owned one. It was January, 1996, before we could move in there. Then, we had to set up an office: fax; phone; computers, etc., buy household furniture. Only one of us, Maura Feeley, was familiar with the area, but, we all soon learned our way around. Together, we coped with the stresses of such a weak beginning. We lived together, also, and that called for more understanding of each one's background, customs, traditions and practices. We had a meal and prayed together, most days. We also took desert days and directed retreat days, periodically. We also had a lot of fun, together. We came from four different Dioceses: Waterford Lismore, Galway, Elphin and Killaloe. We also had to consider each one’s work styles, [one Ps; three Js].
From the start, we had a facilitator, Sister Faith Clarke of Los Angeles, California, who helped us, greatly. The first time, we stood in front of the map of the United States and saw the extent of our Province, was a moment of truth! We each took responsibility for a section: Northern, Southern California, Midwest and East, Florida. So, began the task of forming a unified, cohesive unit, across all geographic boundaries. In order to establish this new reality of Province, we decided that communication of all kinds was of utmost importance. We sent out monthly mailings as often as the need arose. Mercy Across the Miles was our Social Justice Newsletter. Our statutes state that the purpose of visitation is to promote unity among the sisters, so, we set about visiting each sister as soon as we could. These visits took us from the beaches of South Florida, as well as the snow-capped peaks of the Montana Mountain Range, to the streets of Chicago, Saint Louis, San Diego and places in between. Many frequent flyer miles were racked up and many cups of tea savoured. Meanwhile, many a time we recalled Catherine's words to her sister in 1840; "We have one solid comfort in all this tripping about that our hearts can always be in the same place, cantered in God, for whom, alone, we go forward, or, stay back". The highlight of all these gathering and visits was the camaraderie established and the cementing of relationships, east and west, in the Province.
We established commissions and area coordinators who helped keep the flow of information going. Our twice yearly provincial gatherings were held in places east and west. Sisters had the option of attending in either venue. The vast distances and the cost factors involved necessitated this approach. Only once in the six years, (that was mid-term), did we all assemble in Chicago to look at our evaluation findings and form future plans. As team, we attended many meetings with the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. These connected us with the larger, Mercy Family, stateside and beyond. Meetings with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, with the National Association of Treasurers of Religious Institutes, as well as the National Religious Vocation Committee were all part of our agenda. The Sisters of Mercy of the Institute were a wonderful support to us from the start.
As well as these frequent meetings in the United States, we attended the plenary conferences in Ireland and there, connected with Sisters in South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Peru, Canada and Ireland. We were very conscious of our Sisters in the 'third world' countries, and connecting the rich and the poor, became as much a priority for us, as it was in Catherine's time. Mindful of the mandate in our constitutions to set aside periods of retreat, we organized yearly retreats in the east and west, alternately. All were conducted by the Mercy Sisters of the Institute of the Americas. These retreats did much to cement the bonding, as well as deepen our Mercy roots and rich heritage. The high percentage of participation at our annual meetings, east and west, was commendable as well as the 93% response to the Weafer Report which was conducted throughout the Congregation in 1999. The coming together at regional level for discussions for weekends, offered by the Provincial Team, for retreats on both coasts, all of which brought a greater sense of cohesion to what had been individual units and certainly broadened the whole vision of Mercy.
Coming to financial agreements was a major hurdle. It was a challenge to urge Sisters to part with their own hard earned money, but, we had to consolidate funds, establish fiscal accountability and invest responsibly and justly. Sister Maura Feeley got that going in our second year and what an arduous task that was! In the long run, shared pooling of resources would benefit everyone. Sister Marie Therese Courtney graciously agreed to be our first Archivist. We started out with 170 sisters in 1995. By the year, 2001, we were 140; and today, I think the number is 126. Nine sisters have gone before us, marked with the sign of Mercy, to their reward. The most recent, Sister Paula Quinlan, on October 24, 2003. Thirty retired to the homeland, here. Two have left the congregation.
I'll end by quoting what one sister wrote me when she knew I was coming here to share our story. "My final thoughts are that 'The Province' has been a source of new life to all of us, at times, challenging, at other times supportive in personal difficulties, at all times a service to the Sisters, providing opportunities for personal renewal, change of ministry, change of residence; many times taken for granted but, hopefully, appreciated." I know that I personally, have been privileged to have been a part of the United States Province. Presently, Sr. Maura Bane is the Provincial with Eithne Lowther, Rosalie O'Connor and Susan De Guide on the Team. Their task is equally challenging as they face our present reality of diminishing numbers and retirement issues.
So, the story continues…
As told by: Teresa O'Connell, RSM, and First Provincial: 1995-2001