Sisters of Mercy Mark 90 Years

A Reflection by Sister of Mercy Sheila Carney

A historic marker at 800 Penn Avenue tells us that when the Sisters of Mercy reached Pittsburgh they “began at once” to do the Works of Mercy. In truth, even the five-week sea voyage from Liverpool to New York hadn’t offered a respite from what Catherine McAuley called “the business of our lives.”

As the Queen of the West crossed the Atlantic, the sisters ministered to the passengers in steerage, attending to their physical needs and teaching them the truths of their faith. In the Mercy tradition, they noticed a need and used the resources at hand—their own energy and dedication—to meet it.

This pattern, typical of Catherine McAuley and the community she founded, became a hallmark of the sisters in Pittsburgh. Educational needs were met with the creation of schools, orphans were housed and cared for, and sickness and disease led to the founding of the world’s first Mercy Hospital. Today, concern for the abused has led to the slogan “See something? Say something.” For these sisters, the mantra was “See something? Do something!”

Our university was born from just such a spirit. When in the 1920s the need for Catholic higher education for women became evident, the sisters, without buildings, resources or charter, began Mount Mercy College. In the face of need they were quick to act. The details, such as the small matter of state authorization, could be dealt with later.

The history of the university tells of many such moments. When soldiers desirous of utilizing the GI Bill found that there were not enough institutions to serve them, this all-women’s school welcomed them and the sisters “winked” at the smoking and card playing in the garage. When a teacher shortage reached crisis proportions, the cadet program, an accelerated degree in education, was created. When women in the Hill District needed extra support to begin baccalaureate education, the Carlow Hill College provided on-site preparatory classes and child care to assure their success. Weekend college soon followed, catering to the needs of working adults by providing accelerated programs leading to degrees. More recently, online and hybrid formats are responding to the complicated lives of our students. The new College of Professional Studies promises, “We’ll make this work for you” as the university commits itself to ongoing transformation in the face of changing needs, new challenges and eager learners.

Jan Geason, RSM, a Sister of Mercy from Australia, has written “Fidelity to our past helps us to develop new life in the spirit of the original vision.” The sisters who founded Mount Mercy College to serve the educational needs of Catholic women could never have envisioned the diverse and dynamic university we know today. But they would easily recognize the living spirit of the original vision—response to the present need.

As we mark 90 years of fidelity to their dream, we celebrate this defining characteristic of the university – that our deep rootedness in our Catholic/Mercy heritage, rather than confining us, provides the bedrock of stability for an environment in which transformation is expected and embraced. Grateful for our past from which the dynamic present has emerged, we welcome the future confidently and with renewed commitment to our founding spirit. ­­­