Sister Mary Teresa Farrell

A biography written by Mary Jeremy Buckman rsm

Alicia Farrell was born in the 1820's to Christopher and Marianne Farrell in Naas, Ireland, about 30 miles from Dublin. the capital of Ireland. According to Ramos (1989) in the Arkansas Frontiers of Mercy, Alicia's father was a "wealthy merchant" of the town. Following her education, Alicia entered the Convent of Mercy in Naas (founded in 1839) on July 2 1841. As a postulant, she had the privilege of meeting Catherine McAuley during Catherine's visit to Naas in 1841, about four months before Mother McAuley’s death.

Alicia Farrell is described as a tall, fair, and well built woman, with large blue eyes and a pleasing personality. However, we have no picture of Mother Mary Teresa Farrell before or after she entered the convent.

She received the habit of the Sisters of Mercy and the name, Sister Mary Teresa at Naas on October 2 1841 and was professed on September 17 1843, the same year that the Little Rock Diocese was founded and only seven years before being chosen superior of the Arkansas foundation.

In 1844, Bishop Byrne took over his new diocese in Arkansas which included 117,048 square miles of mostly unsettled territory in which 98 of 100 residents lived away from settled towns. Agriculture was the pioneer family's chief means of survival

In 1850, Bishop Byrne went to Ireland in search of Catholic families and Sisters to work in his diocese. He was searching for sisters who had witnessed physical deprivation and suffering and who were accustomed to prejudice and oppression; women who could see God in the poor, were totally identified with the life of the Catholic Church and its people and who would survive. Soon after his arriva1 in Ireland, Bishop Byrne visited Baggot Street and met with Mother Mary Vincent Whitty. While Mother Mary Vincent could not consider sending any sister to make the foundation, she was so impressed with Bishop Byrne, that she recommended that he visit Naas.

Although Bishop Byrne lost no time in going to Naas, Mother Mary Vincent had arrived before him to encourage the sisters to be open to his request. Her recommendation carried weight with the Naas Community and the Bishop was known for his power of persuasion. All sisters in Naas Community volunteered by secret ballot for the new mission in Arkansas but only four sisters would be permitted to go with Bishop Byrne. These sisters were: Sister Mary Teresa Farrell (O’Farrell) superior, Sister Mary Agnes Green(e), Sister Mary de Sales Keefe (O'Keefe) and Sister Mary Stanislaus Farrell (O'Farrell). Three of these sisters had the privilege of meeting Catherine McAuley. Sister Mary Teresa Farrell had received the white veil from McAuley in Naas. Sister Mary Agnes Green(e) received the postulant cap at Baggot Street and the white veil of a novice in Carlow from McAuley. It has been said that Sister Mary de Sales Keefe (O'Keefe) had several pleasant chats with McAuley at Naas during which Keefe concluded that her postulant outfit was too stylish. An account in some unpublished material in Fort Smith, Arkansas, states that E1iza Keefe sat upon the lap of Catherine McAuley while some of the crepe trimmings on her postulant outfit were ripped off.

Five postulants joined the four professed sisters on their journey from Naas, Ireland to Little Rock, Arkansas in the United States of America. These were Anne Healy (cousin of Bishop Byrne), Charlotte and Jane Nolan (biological sisters), Mary Farrell (biological younger sister of Sister Mary Teresa Farrell) and Alicia Carton (she may have been a friend or distant cousin of Bishop Byrne).

They started their journey from Naas, Ireland, to Little Rock Arkansas soon after the Bishop’s visit. The first lap of their journey took them to Dublin. During the time the sisters were at Baggot Street, they made hand written copies of the Holy Rule of the Sisters of Mercy, meditations and sacred music to use at the new foundation. According to Jane Ramos (1989) Arkansas Frontiers of Mercy, the copies made by the early sisters, were used for generations by the Sisters in Arkansas.

On November 30 1850 most of the sisters and many of the 300 other passengers left their relatives and homeland forever aboard a boat named the ‘John O’Toole.’ The parting was bittersweet. During the day, the sisters taught the children and in the evening held classes for the adults. This trip was not without danger and they prayed for deliverance during a major storm. All were happy to arrive in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 23 1851.

After 12 days of rest at the Ursuline Convent (the oldest foundation of a religious community in the United States) Bishop Byrne and the sisters boarded the steamer ‘Pontiac’ on February 2 1851 in New Orleans, Louisiana and arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas on February 6 1851.

Although the convent was not completed at the time of the sisters’ arrival, Bishop Byrne offered his residence for the sisters to use until a house became available. The Bishop moved in with some local parishioners. On February 7 1851, the sisters began visiting the sick and giving instructions to adults.

Within a few months after the sisters’ arrival, Bishop Byrne purchased a house which was used as a school and convent. The sisters and postulants opened their first Day School with an enrolment of 35 students who were mostly non catholic, organized a Sunday School and began regular visitation of the sick and poor. The school grew so rapidly that it was necessary to expand to a larger building. The Bishop obtained property and it has been said that the large inheritance of Sister Mary Stanislaus Farrell was used to build the first St. Mary's Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas has the distinction of being the only foundation (out of eight) initially made from Ireland in the St. Louis Regional Community.

The first postulant to arrive at the new foundation in 1852 was Margaret Fitzpatrick from Portarlington, Ireland. She was called in religion, Sister Mary Aloysius Fitzpatrick. During these early years the academy filled with students, but the number of sisters did not increase as rapidly. There are accounts of Bishop Byrne and Reverend Mother Teresa Farrell returning to Ireland in search of young women to enter religious life.

In 1853, just two years after the sisters’ arrival in Little Rock, Arkansas the Bishop asked the sisters to start a foundation in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The sisters divided into half, with the following sisters leaving to open St. Anne's Academy: Rev. Mother Teresa Farrell and Sister Mary de Sales O'Keefe (Keefe) with novices: Sister Mary Alphonsus Carton, Sister Mary Vincent Healy, and Sister Mary Xavier Nolan. It is recorded that six of the most interesting students at St. Anne's Academy for Girls in Fort Smith in 1859 were Indian Princesses - three Cherokee and three Choctaw.

In 1858, five years after opening the foundation in Fort Smith, the sisters were again approached to open a foundation in Helena, Arkansas. Documentation has been lost regarding the numbers and names of the sisters who made this foundation, but it is thought that the following sisters went to Helena: Rev. Mother Teresa Farrell, Sister Mary Ignatius Nolan, Sister Mary Aloysius Fitzpatrick and Sister Mary Joseph Byrne (niece of Bishop Byrne). St Catherine's Academy grew rapidly in this prosperous community.

The sisters changed their ministries from teaching to nursing during the American Civil War (fought between 1861-1865). The schools were turned into hospitals where the sisters provided nursing care to both the Union and Confederate soldiers. The children were sent home to be with their parents. During the Civil War, Arkansas became known as a Confederate State; however, like many other Midwestern states there was divided loyalty between the north and south. Throughout the entire period of the war (and many years thereafter), Union supporters and Southern sympathizers argued, often bitterly and violently, in support of their positions. Of the three Mercy Communities in Arkansas, the sisters in Helena suffered the most from this war. The town of Helena was levelled and there were insufficient resources to rebuild.

In 1862, Bishop Byrne returned to die in Helena. Arkansas. He and Rev. Mother Teresa Farrell had developed a bond of mutual respect and true friendship over the years. He was consistently a great benefactor of the Sisters of Mercy.

On January 23 1868, St Catherine's Academy was closed in Helena and all the sisters returned to St. Mary's Convent in Little Rock, Arkansas. However, Rev. Mother Teresa Farrell and several sisters soon left for St. Anne's Convent in Fort Smith where the need for sisters was greater.

On January 23 1915, after eight years of bitter struggle, the St. Anne's community sent Bishop Morris as letter stating that the officers of the St. Anne's Community of the Sisters of Mercy, Ft. Smith, Arkansas, "do hereby respectfully agree to the amalgamation of this community with that of the Sisters of Mercy in Little Rock, Arkansas". (Ramos p. 154).

The sisters in Arkansas would join the amalgamation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union of the United States of America in 1929. At that time they became part of the St. Louis Province. And in 1991, the sisters of the St Louis Province became part of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas - St. Louis Regional Community.

  1. Carroll Sister Mary Teresa Austin (1889) Leaves of the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy Vol. III The Catholic Publication Society Co., 9 Barclay Street, New York.
  2. Muldry, RSM; Sister Mary Hermenia (2003) Oral History
  3. Ramos, Jane (1989) Arkansas Frontiers of Mercy - The Sisters of Mercy in Arkansas. St. Edward Press, Fort Smith, Arkansas.