The Sisters of Mercy made headlines after they were arrested in February for peaceful civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., where they were demanding a new policy for the thousands of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
But their ministry to serve those on the margins in society is no recent trend; it stretches back to the early 1800s in Dublin. They’ve worked alongside Florence Nightingale and in the Civil War. Today, they have a presence around the world, including the United States, Central and South America, the Philippines, Guam, Jamaica, Haiti, Australia, Africa and Ireland.
And the sisters’ passion for others is fueled by the fourth vow they take in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience: service to the poor, the sick and the ignorant.
Sister Jenny Wilson met the Mercy sisters only because she was interested in volunteering through the University of Akron’s Newman Center. “I wanted to deepen my relationship with God, but I didn’t really know what that meant,” she said.
After college in 2000, she joined the Mercy Volunteer Corps for a year to serve in Philadelphia. At this time, while living in community, she had a lot of exposure to sisters, but didn’t really think too much of it. Their lifestyle was too foreign to her; she’d always assumed she’d get married and have a family. However, the sisters saw something in her and would invite her to their home. She’d go, but then she’d leave as fast as she could.
“I felt there was something there, but I wasn’t really ready to recognize what it was,” she said. “That’s what led me to go to Guyana [in South America]. I knew there was something deeper and something that I was looking for in my relationship with God.”
In Guyana, she taught at an orphanage and fell in love with a little boy who had special needs; she even considered adopting him. But during her two years in South America, she seriously began to consider religious life as the sisters shared their vocation stories with her. “Their relationship with God was so seamless — service and contemplation together,” she said.
She decided to enter the Mercy community, but that didn’t keep her from having an exit strategy. “I wasn’t going to stay. I had a plan that it was going to be six months and I would be like, ‘OK God, I tried it; it didn’t work out.’ And here we are 12 years later,” she said with a chuckle.
She made her final vows in August 2015 and currently teaches high school in Buffalo, New York. As part of her final vow experience, Sister Jenny went to Ireland for a weeklong retreat to “walk with Catherine.”
Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley was born in Dublin on Sept. 29, 1778. In 1803, she became the household manager and companion of an elderly, childless and wealthy Protestant couple. After the couple died, she inherited their estate and a lot of their savings. So, in 1824, Catherine fulfilled a long-standing desire: She built a large house in Dublin as a school for poor girls and a shelter for homeless servant girls and women.
On Sept. 8, 1830, Catherine entered the Presentation Convent in Dublin to begin formal preparation, and on Dec. 12, 1831, three women professed their religious vows as the first Sisters of Mercy.
Sister Jenny was able to stay in the original house in Dublin started by Venerable Catherine, and it impacted her deeply.
“I stand on all the shoulders of the women who have gone before me, and the women after me will stand on my shoulders,” she said. “It is a community, and we really do share our life together.”
The appreciation of community is a sentiment shared by Sister Kelly Williams, an Army brat who was born in Germany and lived in Savannah, Georgia, from the age of 2. Her mom was hoping she’d attend a public arts high school, but Sister Kelly really wanted a Catholic education.
She remembers growing up down the street from some Mercy sisters (who knew which kids at Halloween belonged to their church and, accordingly, gave them access to a special candy stash).
Sister Kelly went to Belmont Abbey College, where she worked in the admissions office for three years after graduation.
But she was looking for something more. “God was nudging me a lot,” she said. No matter what options she looked at, “nothing was drawing me in.”
To catapult her personal discernment, she began documenting her journey on the blogging website Tumblr. “Journaling wasn’t a thing I’d ever engaged in before,” she said. “This made sense for me, because I grew up in the world of social media.” Her intention was not to discern religious life specifically, but, she says, looking back through the blog she is able to see “a straight line” to the Mercy sisters.
“I was fearful to discern religious life initially, because I was afraid that God was calling me to it, and I was fearful that God was calling me to something where I wouldn’t be happy,” she said. “Which is so not the case.”
She decided that she truly had to be open; she went online and took a vocation test and scored high with the Mercy sisters. She entered the community in 2014 and recently submitted her letter requesting temporary vows. Currently, she is assigned to a parish in Biloxi, Mississippi, but she also has worked in schools and in health care.
One of the beautiful things about the community, Sister Kelly said, is that the women bring a wide range of talents to the table and they work together to find the best fit for each sister.
“Our community’s hope is always that we, along with the Church, read the signs of the times — where are people needing us to be, as opposed to this is where we’ve always been,” she explained. “We’ve kind of been pioneer women.”
Women in the community are nurses, teachers, lawyers, social workers. One is even in formation to be a spiritual director.
“It’s so beautiful to see people flourish in their ministries and also bring that understanding of what it means to be a sister into places that aren’t used to having a sister,” Sister Kelly told Our Sunday Visitor.
Sister Jenny agrees: “We all fulfill the mission that God has for us in a different way, but we all do it together.”
Mariann Hughes writes from Florida.
Read more spring vocation articles here.