Mother Frances Warde

A biography written by Bob Keenan

Born into a comfortable and respected family (her father was a successful merchant), few people would likely have predicted that Frances Warde would grow up to become an extraordinarily influential and prolific religious pioneer.

Fanny, as she was known in childhood, was raised in a devoutly religious household; her father, John, was known for his piety and sense of charity. That Frances’ family was somewhat well-to-do was itself an anomaly among Catholic families living in Ireland during the final years of the Penal Laws.

Frances was born in the town of Abbeyleix, in County Laois, probably in 1810; the Warde family lived on an estate named Bellbrook. The daughter of John and Mary (Maher) Warde, Frances was the youngest of their six children. Her mother fell ill and died shortly after Frances was born, and the four youngest siblings were raised by a maternal aunt.

After the death of his wife, John Warde left Frances and two of her sisters in the care of family as he set out to find work in Dublin in 1819. The years following were marked with loss: her brother John died in 1824 while studying for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, followed only months later by the death of her sister Helen from tuberculosis, and then their father later in the same year. Grieving, Frances moved to Dublin, at the age of 16, to live with family friends.

Described as lively, stern, charming and queenly (even regal), Frances enjoyed a vibrant life as a young adult in the fashionable circles of Dublin. This was also a time, however, of spiritual growth. Within a year of arriving in Dublin, she became a friend of Mary Macauley, the niece of the woman who would alter the course of Frances’ life, Catherine McAuley.

Frances and the House of Mercy on Baggot Street

Catherine and Frances first met in 1827, the same year that Catherine opened the House of Mercy on Lower Baggot Street to serve the poor. Frances was seventeen and Catherine nearing fifty. Despite their differences in age and personality, Catherine and Frances quickly became close. By 1828, Frances was working daily at Catherine’s side.

When the decision was made that the women at the House of Mercy would formally found a new religious institute, the Sisters of Mercy, Frances stayed at Baggot Street to help manage the ministry while Catherine, Anna Maria Doyle and Elizabeth Harley left in September 1830 to receive their religious formation with the Presentation Sisters on George’s Hill, Dublin.

Catherine and the two others professed their vows on December 12, 1831. Upon their return to the House of Mercy, Frances and seven other women began their own novitiates. On January 24, 1833, Frances became the first Sister of Mercy to profess her solemn (final) vows in the Baggot Street chapel, followed by Sisters Mary Angela Dunne, Mary Clare Moore and Mary de Pazzi Delany.

As Mercy spread throughout Ireland over the next several years, Frances remained a trusted companion and valuable assistant to Catherine, and assumed some of Catherine’s duties when she was away establishing new foundations. In 1837, Frances became the superior of the Carlow Community, the third Mercy foundation Catherine established in Ireland outside of Dublin. On April 10 of that year, Frances and novice Sister Josephine Trenor left Baggot Street, accompanied by Catherine and several others, to open St. Leo’s Convent.

The Foundation at Carlow

The Carlow foundation quickly became one of the most successful new Mercy foundations; from there, Frances established Mercy communities in Naas (1839), Wexford (1840) and Westport (1843). It is worth noting that Frances was the only other Sister of Mercy to establish new foundations during the lifetime of Catherine McAuley. In the decades that followed, she would go on to found more convents than the founder of the Sisters of Mercy herself.

In the same year that Frances opened the convent in Westport, County Mayo, events were transpiring hundreds of miles away in Rome that would come to have a profound impact on her and six other sisters then living in Carlow.

On August 11, 1843, the Diocese of Pittsburgh was canonically erected from territory of the Diocese of Philadelphia; four days later, Michael O’Connor was consecrated as the first bishop of this new diocese. The new bishop knew he needed to recruit women religious to minister to the Catholic immigrant population and firmly believed that the Sisters of Mercy were the women best suited to the tasks ahead. He visited St. Leo’s Convent to share the great need for religious sisters in the United States and 35 of the 36 sisters in the Carlow Community volunteered to go, with Frances leading them.

Of the volunteers, seven sisters went to Pittsburgh, with Frances as superior. They left Carlow on November 4, 1843; less than a week later they set sail for New York Harbor aboard the Queen of the West.

First Motherhouse, Pittsburgh

The “First Seven” Sisters of Mercy Arrive in Pittsburgh

Frances and the six other sisters—Josephine Cullen, Elizabeth Strange, Philomena Reid, Veronica McDarby, novice Aloysia Strange and postulant Margaret (later Agatha) O’Brien—landed in New York City on December 11, greeted there by Bishop John Hughes of New York and William Quarter, newly-consecrated as the first bishop of the Diocese of Chicago. Bishop Quarter immediately made known his hope that Frances would establish the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago after Pittsburgh. Frances would eventually fulfill Bishop Quarter’s request, in 1846 founding the Mercy Community in Chicago.

Travelling by rail and stagecoach, the sisters reached Pittsburgh on the evening of December 20; the next morning they gathered to hear Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul, marking the official founding of the Pittsburgh Community.

The sisters began at once with visitations of the sick and prisoners, and provided religious instruction for both children and adults. In the months and years that followed, they opened schools, and began caring for the children at St. Paul’s Orphan Asylum, a ministry they would run for more than a century.

Even as Frances and the others were immersed in service to the people of Pittsburgh, she couldn’t help but recall her conversation three years earlier with William Quarter. On September 23, 1846, she set out for Chicago with Sisters M. Ellen O’Brien, M. de Sales McDonnell, M. Vincent McGirr, M. Gertrude McGuire and M. Agatha O’Brien, who would become the first superior of the Chicago Community. Frances spent two months working to establish the mission in Chicago, a place even more challenging than Western Pennsylvania. When it came time for her to return east, she embarked upon a journey so arduous it nearly cost Frances her life.

Once back in Pennsylvania, Frances resumed planning for what was to become one of her greatest achievements there—the founding of Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh. With the support of Bishop O’Connor, the hospital opened its doors on January 1, 1847. Still in operation today as part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, it was the first Mercy hospital anywhere in the world, as well as the first permanent hospital, religious or secular, west of the Allegheny Mountains.

In 1850, Josephine Cullen assumed leadership of the Pittsburgh community, allowing Frances to accept the invitation of Bishop Bernard O’Reilly to pursue a new foundation in Providence, Rhode Island in 1851.

Foundations in New England

Frances and others – Sisters M. Josephine Lombard, M. Paula Lombard, M. Camillus O’Neill and M. Johanna Fogarty – traveled in secular dress to avoid arousing anti-Catholic sentiment in what was then a still-largely Puritan New England. They arrived on March 11 and, as in Pittsburgh and other cities, at once began meeting the physical, educational and spiritual needs of their new community.

The Mercy Community in Providence would prove to be the first permanent congregation of women religious in New England since anti-Catholic mobs crushed attempts by other congregations to settle there.

In March 1855, Frances and her convent became the targets of anti-Catholic threats. Rumors of illicit conversions and forced detainments in the convent abounded in the wake of the entrance of Rebecca Newell, a recent convert who had been received by the sisters as a postulant.

Placards broadcasting the false accusations began to appear around Providence, and on the evening of March 22 a mob assembled to march on the convent. As Frances and the other sisters stood their ground inside, a group of several hundred men, mostly Irish immigrants themselves, arrived to shield the building and protect the sisters inside. Never again was the Mercy Convent in Providence so threatened.

After seven years in Providence, during which time she established numerous foundations throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island, Frances again answered the call to move to a new city: Manchester, New Hampshire, at that time part of the recently-erected Diocese of Portland. Traveling with Sisters M. Philomena Edwards, M. Gonzaga O’Brien, M. Agatha Mulcahy and M. Johanna Fogarty (one of the sisters who had accompanied Frances from Pittsburgh to Providence in 1851), they founded the Manchester Community on July 16, 1858.

Manchester was to be Frances’ home for the remainder of her life. From Mount Saint Mary Convent, she continued to found new communities, including New Dover, New Hampshire, and Portland and Bangor in Maine; she also sent sisters to establish three separate missions to indigenous peoples of Maine.

During her lifetime, Frances founded more than one hundred convents, schools, hospitals and other ministries throughout Ireland and the United States, more than any other Sister of Mercy in history.

“Visiting the Shrine of Saints”

Frances died at age 74, on September 17, 1884 in Mount Saint Mary Convent, which she had founded 26 years before. Attending her funeral were the bishops of Manchester, Providence, Springfield, Hartford, Burlington and Portland, along with more than 100 priests and Sisters of Mercy from across New England—a testament to the immense and lasting impact of her life and service. She was laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Manchester.

In 1885, the year after Frances died, Omaha Bishop James O’Connor, himself the younger brother of Michael O’Connor, who had invited the “first seven” to Pittsburgh in 1843, visited her grave. There he collected moss, which he later brought back to St. Leo’s Convent in Carlow, Ireland, Frances’ first convent and the place from which she and the other Sisters of Mercy had left more than four decades earlier. Greeting the sisters in Carlow, he spoke poignantly of the seven women who brought the Mercy charism to the United States. “When I look around this room and think that these holy women once occupied it,” he said, “I feel that I am visiting the shrine of saints.”