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Religious Life

Mercys at a glance

NCR Staff

Essential to understanding the Sisters of Mercy is the significance of “a nice cup of tea.” A steaming teacup with the legend, “Steeped in Mercy,” is on Mercy note cards and sweatshirts, and it’s also part of the congregation’s Irish history.

When, in 1841, founder Mother Catherine McAuley lay dying at 63, exhausted like her immediate companions from the physical demands of their work with the poor, she told those companions, “The sisters are tired. Be sure they have a comfortable cup of tea when I’m gone.”

McAuley was a groundbreaker. Until Catherine, Irish nuns were confined to convents, living the cloistered life. As a laywoman she’d based her social work in Dublin’s Baggot Street where she built a school at what is now the Mercy’s Baggot Street international center.

When Dublin’s archbishop suggested she start a religious order to ensure the continuation of her work, she said she wouldn’t do it unless the sisters were free to move among the poor. The archbishop, and eventually Rome, agreed. The first Mercys were known as “walking nuns.”

There are 6,000 “walking nuns” in the U.S.-headquartered Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and about the same number in other institutes worldwide. The United States additionally has 1,700 lay Mercy Associates, and more than 50 Mercy Corps volunteers in Mercy-sponsored missions.

The Americas’ Mercys -- they include sisters in North, South, Central America, the Caribbean and many of the Pacific islands -- sponsor or co-sponsor hundreds of health care facilities, 20 elementary and pre-schools, 39 secondary schools, 20 colleges and universities, plus social service and retreat centers, housing and justice ministries.

Sixty percent of their number is over 65; 1.44 percent (111 sisters) under 40; 24.6 percent (1,538) between 40 and 59.

At the chapter meeting in June 1999, and rare for any U.S. conference, at the midmorning coffee breaks the hotel set out as many urns of hot water for the teabags as urns for coffee.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000