Mission of Mercy

Photo by Ross Mantle Mission of Mercy
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When UPMC health systems purchased Mercy Hospital last year, the future of one of Pittsburgh’s most historic institutions became assured just as new questions arose. With the sale, the Sisters of Mercy received a sum that, after expenses, totaled $88 million.


With their 160-​year affiliation with the hospital ending, members of the order asked themselves how they should use that money. In their deliberations, they kept returning to the question that governed their mission: “What is the need now?”

Part of their answer lies on a historical plaque, at Seventh Street and Penn Avenue Downtown: “Frances Warde and six companions from Carlow, Ireland, opened the first Mercy convent in the U.S. here. Founding date was December 21, 1843, and at once the sisters began to serve the city’s poor, sick, and uneducated. From here, Mercy convents spread across the U.S.”

Back then, the sisters had arrived to help Bishop Michael O’Connor establish the newly created Diocese of Pittsburgh. They assumed they’d be teaching. “Education was the logical ministry, along with visiting the sick,” said Sister Sheila Carney, now assistant to the president for Mercy Heritage and Service at Carlow University, “but when a typhoid epidemic broke out, they began to care for the sick people coming in on the ships and opened up their convent, at 6th and Penn to care for them.”

They were following the spirit of the Irish founder of their order, Sister Catherine McAuley, the “Walking Nun.” She and her controversial colleagues worked on the streets of Carlow, Ireland, helping the poor, elderly and sick. Catherine McAuley hadn’t intended to join or create a religious order, but the church persuaded her to institutionalize her work, so that it would last beyond her lifetime.

The leader of the group that came to Pittsburgh, Sister Frances Warde, stayed here seven years before leaving to establish over 100 schools, convents and social service agencies throughout the country. “Her biographer said the Church in the United States owes more to her than to any other single person,” said Sister Sheila. “And the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society named her one of the 10 most influential women in the history of the city. Part of that recognition goes to her as the founder of Mercy Hospital, the first hospital in Pittsburgh, and the first Mercy Hospital in the world.”Sisters of Mercy have three vows — obedience, poverty and chastity — that all communities of religious women take. The fourth is theirs alone — service to the poor, sick and uneducated.

As the Sisters were treating the sick at 6th and Penn, they were planning a new hospital, with fundraising help from the Brotherhood of St. Joseph at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1848, they opened the new building on Stevenson Street, the present site of UPMC Mercy Hospital. Typhoid and other fevers ravaged Pittsburgh in those days. The sisters rented a house on Locust Street to serve as a ward for the contagious and stayed with them day and night. They went on to serve as nurses in the Civil War and receive a commendation from President Lincoln.

They learned to be nurses by doing the job at hand and, according to Sister Cynthia Serjak, the method carried over to other work. “The young sisters entered the community, and the next day they were teaching first grade. They would go home at night and study, and on Saturdays, go to classes. It might be 20 years before they would get their degree.”

So it was for Sister Fidelis McDonough who entered the community in the 1940s, when their numbers exceeded 500. She learned, while teaching, to be a music teacher and was sent to Florence, Italy, to study Gregorian chants. “She came home to a church that said, ‘Oh, we’re not doing that any more,’ and she reinvented herself, many times over,” said Sister Cynthia.

Sister Fidelis became a community organizer in Tennessee and New York before returning to Pittsburgh. She now directs Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, which means, among other things, knocking on doors in the neighborhood “to make people feel more comfortable with us” and to learn neighborhood needs. And she has organized a group of elders, known as the WoWos — the women of West Oakland — who meet monthly at the Mother House.

In August 1966, the sisters changed from the long traditional habit to a short one. A month later, 18-​year-​old Sister Cynthia joined. Her mother assumed her daughter was safe and would be well cared for. “Two years later, when Martin Luther King was killed and people on the Hill got burned out of their houses, we took them in to live in the novitiate space,” Sister Cynthia said. “For the early sisters, that would have been normal, but for the way the community developed, it was like ‘Oh my God, what are we doing here?’ I remember at night, having to close the shutters, to block out the light, because there was gunfire in the neighborhood. We had to bail sisters out of jail when they got arrested in civil rights marches. I really grew up in the convent when the country, including the Catholic Church, was on the cusp of enormous change.”

The path to leadership

When it’s time to choose a leader, everyone in the community can invite people to consider leadership. Those who are considering it get together and talk for a weekend. “Sisters talk about our lives more than anyone I know,” Sister Cynthia said. “We talk about how we live our vows, how we are being true to our mission, what we need to be doing next. Then those who will run for the leadership positions have a dialogue with the rest of us. It’s an honest conversation. It would be as if the presidential candidates all got together and said, ‘What do you think, who wants to do this?’ Then we have an election.”

Leaders serve their term, then resume their previous work. When Sister Cynthia was in leadership, she was also on the board of Mercy Hospital. “People, particularly men, from other institutions, were fascinated that I was the vice president of the Sisters of Mercy one day, and when that was over, I wasn’t anything. Because their thing was that you keep moving up. It made me realize again how counter-​cultural our life style is.”

With experience as an English teacher and a master’s in secondary education, Sister Susan Welsh was tapped to be financial manager for the community. While she would later obtain an MBA, she said her elevation was not unusual. “You are doing one thing and are asked to do another, and you think ‘I can’t do that.’ And there you are doing it for 30 years.” She is now president and CEO of Pittsburgh Mercy Health Systems, overseeing the programs that have remained the province of the sisters.

The sale

For years, Mercy Hospital was losing money. With UPMC dominating healthcare and Highmark dominating insurance, the lack of competition led to lower reimbursement rates, said Sister Susan. “We were told if we had moved Mercy Hospital to the suburbs in the ’60s, we would have thrived, but it was important to the sisters that Mercy remain where it is.”

There were other reasons for the losses, according to Michele Rone Cooper, who worked at Mercy for 20 years in strategic planning. “A higher percentage of our revenues went to uncompensated care, compared to other hospitals. We treated everyone who walked in the door.” With the added burden of intense competition for physicians, Mercy decided it was time to seek a buyer. And early last year, along with Mercy’s parent organization, Catholic Health East, they finalized the sale to UPMC.

After deliberation, the sisters decided to use the $88 million to create the McAuley Ministries to help meet the needs of the poor, elderly and uneducated in Hill District, Uptown and West Oakland. “Difficult as the sale of Mercy Hospital was for us, the end result of it is that we are back out on the streets,” Sister Cynthia said. “Not that we are all out pounding the streets — though Fidelis is — our presence is borne out among the folks, rather than in an institution.”

In December, after the markets had fallen and cut deeply into their funds, the McAuley Ministries met to dispense their first grants. “The question on everyone’s mind was ‘What do we do?’ ” Sister Sheila said. “It was an amazing moment. I thought Ray Wolfe (the CFO of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System) was going to say, ‘You can’t do this.’ Instead, he said ‘You give them the money, that’s what you do.’ Not only did we give the grants, but we used our discretionary funds to help meet the food crisis in Pittsburgh.”

The first grants totaled $700,000 and included a variety of projects, including a green rooftop terrace for the new YMCA on Centre Avenue, several grants for nonprofit staffing, and emergency food aid to regional residents. The McAuley Ministries, however, are only part of the continuing involvement of the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh. They continue to run Operation Safety Net, A Child’s Place at Mercy, the Parish Nursing program, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, the Intersection in McKeesport, Sister’s Place and Carlow University.

A new chapter

For Michele Rone Cooper, her new post as executive director of the McAuley Ministries is the job of her dreams. She is just the kind of lay person the sisters are hoping to recruit to carry out their missions, as their own numbers decline.

We want to cultivate relationships with people like Michele and Ray Wolfe,” said Sister Sheila. “Even though we can’t be every place that we want to, there will be others who will keep things going in the spirit in which they were intended, doing the works of Mercy. We are inviting the energy and the commitment of our lay people into the work that we have been doing, because ultimately it will be handed over to them.”

Women continue to join the sisters, but not in the numbers of the past. Sister Cynthia is working with six women, from 20 to 60 years old, who have joined the community but have a long process ahead before taking final vows. There are 144 members in Pittsburgh, with many being older and requiring care, which the community is well able to provide. Because they were in healthcare, the sisters made professional salaries that went into a well-​managed common fund for the benefit of all.

Despite the changes, and perhaps because of them, the impact of the Sisters of Mercy remains strong in Pittsburgh. Sister Sheila summed it up, saying, “One of our sisters, who has been off in the Sudan, told us something her mother had said: ‘If I had known what a rich and exciting life you were going to have, I wouldn’t have cried so much when you entered the convent!’ That’s true for all of us. It’s a very rich life.”


Bette McDevitt

Bette grew up in New Castle and is a firmly planted transplant in Deutschtown on Pittsburgh’s North Side. She came to Pittsburgh to work at the Thomas Merton Center and met all the interesting people who came through the doors there. She met the rest of Pittsburgh as a freelance writer for the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette and some magazines. Next to Pittsburgh, she loves Iceland best, but there’s not enough room to tell why.

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