In September, the Religious Sisters of Mercy marked their 150th year in the Diocese of Harrisburg. With just six community members currently serving within the Diocese, one might say, “No need for fanfare.” Yet, in response to their fourth vow of service to those who are poor, sick, and in need of education, for 150 years the Sisters of Mercy have touched the lives of students, families, orphans, immigrants, refugees – generations of people within the Diocese. There is a story to be told.
The Mercy story in the Harrisburg Diocese began with Jeremiah Shanahan, its first bishop. To address the needs in the new diocese, Bishop Shanahan wrote to his two aunts, both Sisters of Mercy in the Chicago community, imploring them to ask their Mother Superior for help. Later, he traveled to the Windy City to state his case in person.
On September 1, 1869, six Sisters of Mercy arrived in the Diocese by train. Since the promised convent in Harrisburg was not ready, Mother Clare Grace, two professed Sisters, two novices, and a postulant first resided at St. Mary’s Convent in Lebanon. After a short time, when the Sisters returned to Harrisburg, two members of the founding group went back to Chicago and the postulant left the community.
The Sisters’ first convent in the capital city was a rented house on State Street; then, in 1871, Sylvan Heights Home became the Motherhouse. The Sisters had no sooner settled in when it was taken over for use as a Theological Seminary. (Later, when Sylvan Heights became an orphanage, the Sisters returned to operate it).
“Next, Mother Clare finally bought a $10,000 property at Maclay Street with only $10 in the bank,” Sister Mildred Ludes, who entered in 1908, recounted. “There they prayed for coal and food, especially bread. The tombstones bearing the ages of young Sisters who died of tuberculosis…is proof of the poverty they suffered.”
Times were hard. Sister Mary Gertrude Wierick, a native of Littlestown and the first new member, entered in 1870 but vocations to the community came slowly, for Catholics were in the minority. Facing people’s bigotry and fear, the Sisters were ridiculed on the streets. Nevertheless, they went from house to house, visiting the sick and breaking down walls of prejudice that intimidated Catholics from sending their children to Catholic school. With no payment for services rendered, fees for music lessons and tuition from a few “select” schools sustained the Sisters.
By 1929, there were 10,000 Sisters of Mercy across the country in 60 independent motherhouses, with “branch houses” stemming from each. In response to Rome’s request to amalgamate, the Harrisburg Sisters were among 39 motherhouses whose members voted to form the Sisters of Mercy of the Union. Numbering 112 professed Sisters and six novices, they became part of the Union’s Province of Scranton, with headquarters in Dallas, Pa.
To meet the varied needs of the growing Catholic population, more and more Sisters came to the Diocese from all parts of the Scranton Province (which included the Dioceses of Scranton, Harrisburg, Altoona-Johnstown, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Rockville Centre, and Georgetown, Guyana). At their Centennial celebration in 1969, almost 150 Sisters, including 40 retired members, served throughout the Diocese.
Opened in 1955 for the retired Sisters and those teaching at Bishop McDevitt High School, Mercycrest Convent had space for retreats, meetings and relaxation. It also housed Mercycrest Kindergarten, which prepared hundreds of children for school.
With a Catholic population of seven percent in the late 1950s, Harrisburg was still considered a mission diocese. However, increased and resultant need for workers, especially in Lancaster County, attracted many Latin American families to the area. Thus, by the 1960s, much of the school population at St. Mary’s in Lancaster was Spanish-speaking. Several Sisters learned the people’s language and various cultures, preparing them to teach the children and minister to families in their homes. It was a proud day in the late 1970s when the Sisters sent St. Mary’s first Latino students to enroll at Lancaster Catholic High School. In 1975, the Sisters of Mercy also worked at Indiantown Gap, assisting newly-arrived refugees from Vietnam.
Most of the women from the Harrisburg Diocese who entered the Sisters of Mercy over the past 150 years were educators at all levels, but some served in social work, health care, Province Administration, parish ministry, and so forth. Sister Mary Concilia Moran, a Bishop McDevitt graduate, was elected to serve as Scranton Province Administrator, then Mother General of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union.
One might say that the Sisters of Mercy gave much to the Diocese of Harrisburg, but families within the Diocese did likewise: they gave the Sisters of Mercy and the People of God their daughters. Sixteen Mercy Sisters from the Diocese are still living: Sisters Miriam Butz/Lancater, entered in 1939; Mary Canisia Hockensmith/McSherrystown, entered 1943; Paula Mary Aumen/Gettysburg, 1947; Marise Fabie/York, 1949; Marie Genevieve Mannix/Harrisburg, 1950; Maria Goretti Kubala/Marticville, 1951; Kathleen Marie Carroll/Harrisburg, 1955; Alice Marie Sanders/Gettysburg, 1955; Katherine Brennan/Williamstown, 1958; Jeanne d’Arc Salinger/Harrisburg, 1958; Dorothy Marie Reaver/McSherrystown, 1961; Carol Rittner/Camp Hill, 1962; Regina Werntz/Shamokin, 1962; Mary Ellen Fuhrman/Steelton, 1965; Kristina Knott/Gettysburg, 1966; and Joan Henkel/Lancaster, 1989.
In 1991, 160 years since their founding in Ireland by Venerable Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy of the Union and almost all U.S. independent Mercy communities formed The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. They, and Mercy Sisters worldwide, serve in more than 40 countries. Today, as in 1869, the number of Mercy Sisters in the Diocese Harrisburg is back to six: is God calling any woman within the Diocese to be a Sister of Mercy?
By Sister Regina Werntz, RSM, Special to The Witness
Ministries in the Diocese of Harrisburg
1869 – St. Mary’s, Lebanon
1871 – Select Day School, Brant’s Castle, Harrisburg
1872 – St. Genevieve Academy, Harrisburg
1873 – St. Patrick School, Harrisburg
1876 – St. Joseph School, Renovo
1887 – St. James School, Steelton
1890 – St. Joseph School, Danville
1894 – Mercy Home for Business Women, Harrisburg
1897 – St. Clare Infirmary, Harrisburg
1901 – Sylvan Heights Home for Orphan Girls, Harrisburg
1902 – Carlisle:
St. Katharine Hall (Gov’t School for Native Americans)
St. Patrick’s Parish, school for white children and school for children of color
1903 – St. Mary School, Lancaster
1906 – St. Mary’s School, Lykens
1906 – Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, Harrisburg
1907 – Sacred Heart School, Williamstown
1909 – St. Francis School, Harrisburg
1913 – Immaculate Conception, New Oxford
1914 – St. Joseph School, Shamokin
1918 – Catholic High School (Bishop McDevitt), Harrisburg
1919 – Sacred Heart School, Harrisburg
1920 – St. Francis Xavier, Gettysburg
1921 – St. Aloysius School, Littlestown
1924 – St. Anne School, Lancaster
1925 – St. Andrew School, Waynesboro
1928 – Lancaster Catholic High School
1935 – St. Peter School, Columbia
1940 – Delone Catholic High School, McSherrystown
1948 – St. Theresa School, New Cumberland
1955 – Mercycrest Kindergarten
1958 – Our Lady of Lourdes High School, Coal Township
1963 – Trinity High School, Camp Hill