Founder and sponsor of Saint Xavier University, the religious congregation of the Sisters of Mercy originated in Dublin, Ireland. Today, nearly 10,000 Sisters of Mercy, along with Mercy Associates and Companions, serve in more than 40 countries around the world on every continent except Antarctica.
Within that global Mercy community, the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas accounts for 4,000 Sisters and some 3,000 Mercy Associates and Companions working in almost a dozen Central and South American nations, the Caribbean, Guam, the Philippines, and the United States. Through its Conference for Mercy Higher Education, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas sponsor or co-sponsor 16 colleges and universities in the United States, including Saint Xavier University. These Mercy institutions of higher education serve over 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
A Brief History
Founded in 1831 by Mother Mary Catherine McAuley, and quickly dubbed "the walking Sisters," the congregation of Roman Catholic women now known as the Sisters of Mercy moved beyond convent walls to walk amid and serve the poor, the sick and the uneducated of their day. Such "secular" work outside the convent was unusual at the time because most communities of women religious were cloistered, working only within convent walls. The availability of these new Sisters of Mercy, to carry the works of mercy to those in need, caused the congregation to spread with unusual rapidity. These were women "capable of combining personal spirituality with a pioneering spirit of initiative and independence," as the American founder Mother Frances Xavier Warde once put it.
In 1843, seven Sisters of Mercy left Ireland for Pittsburgh, the first Mercy Foundation in the United States. In 1846, the educational needs of Irish immigrants and others drew the Sisters of Mercy from Pittsburgh to a pioneer town called Chicago.
Under the guidance of Mother Frances Xavier Warde, for whom the Warde Academic Center at Saint Xavier University is named, five Sisters of Mercy, all under the age of 25, arrived in a diocese that was barely three years old. The first and only group of women religious in Chicago for the next 10 years, the Sisters quickly established St. Francis Xavier Female Academy, the forerunner of Saint Xavier University and Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School.
Within eight years of their arrival, all but one of the original group of SXU founders had died, most as a result of the nursing care they gave to victims of the epidemic diseases that periodically swept through the city. But other women had joined the Sisters of Mercy, devoting themselves to spreading the Good News of the Gospel by their good example, their prayer, their tireless acts of compassion and hospitality, and their institutional ministries.
Since 1846, Saint Xavier University has benefited from the continuous support of the Sisters of Mercy. The names of the Chicago Mercy pioneers, of Saint Xavier’s Sister of Mercy Presidents, and of all the Sisters of Mercy, living and dead, who have served at SXU since its 1956 move to the current Chicago campus are inscribed in the Mercy Heritage Walk leading into McDonough Chapel. These names recall the respect, compassion, hospitality, service and excellence with which the Sisters of Mercy have endowed SXU. Today, together with their lay faculty and staff colleagues, who increasingly and most ably share the responsibility for grounding the teaching and learning mission at Saint Xavier University in its Catholic and Mercy heritage, the Sisters of Mercy continue their mission of serving "the poor, the sick and the uneducated" in the name of Jesus Christ.
University Celebrations of Mercy
Saint Xavier University celebrates its Mercy heritage throughout the year, but especially on three special occasions: Mercy Day in September, Founders’ Day in December, and Mission Day in March.
Mercy Day: September 24
Mercy Day is an observance that Saint Xavier University shares with all other Sister of Mercy institutions and ministries. Historically, Mercy Day recalls the opening of the House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland on September 24, 1827. This establishment realized Catherine McAuley’s dream of creating a place where the poor, especially women and young girls, would find safe lodging and instruction in their faith and in skills that would lead to honorable employment. This work at the House of Mercy eventually led Catherine McAuley to establish the Sisters of Mercy (1831).
Liturgically, Mercy Day marks the feast of Mary under her title as Our Lady of Mercy. Because her "settlement house" opened on this feast, Catherine McAuley favored the name House of Mercy. It was a fortuitous circumstance that subsequently led to the name of the religious congregation she founded there -- the Sisters of Mercy.
Celebrating Mercy Day as the foundational feast of its Sister of Mercy initiators and sponsors, Saint Xavier University highlights values central to its Mercy heritage. Hospitality extended to and by Sisters associated with the University is a part of each Mercy Day at SXU. Service, especially the service of leadership, is honored and encouraged with the formal commissioning of representative leaders from all segments of the University community -- sponsors, trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni. The Mercy Day leadership commissioning takes place alongside the Academy Bell, a campus site richly symbolic of the Mercy spirit. Pre-dating the Chicago Fire in 1871, the Academy Bell regularly called the Sisters of Mercy to prayer and to teaching during Saint Xavier’s early years as an Academy. Left behind but secretly salvaged by a savvy Sister of Mercy when Saint Xavier moved to 103rd Street, the Academy Bell was returned to Saint Xavier University and installed near the main entrance of the Warde Academic Center in 2004.
Founders’ Day: December 3
Founders' Day is an observance specific and special to Saint Xavier University. It honors the University’s Sister of Mercy founders with particular attention to Mother Frances Xavier Warde, the American founder of the Sisters of Mercy and the woman who brought the first Sisters of Mercy to Chicago. Founders’ Day occurs on or near December 3rd each year, the day on which the Catholic Church remembers Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary. It was his zeal for the Gospel that inspired Frances Warde to append his name to hers when she became a Sister of Mercy.
Founders’ Day offers the University community an opportunity to reflect on its educational mission, especially its commitment to the liberal arts and sciences. Each year’s ceremonies include prayer, both the Eucharistic liturgy and a non-denominational service in which "The Heritage Litany" has a prominent place. Attention to the liberal arts and sciences comes in the form of presentations and performances by members of the University community. "Above Me, Round Me Lie," a musical composition by Stephen A. Paulus, and "This Bell," a poem by Laurence Musgrove -- both commissioned for Saint Xavier in 2004 -- are frequently featured as part of the Founders’ Day celebration. Guest speakers often enhance the day’s festivities, which lead, finally, to an all-University reception in the tradition of Sister of Mercy hospitality.
Mission Day: March
Mission Day is an observance that celebrates Saint Xavier University’s foundational purpose, inviting all members of the academic community to reflect on and renew their commitment to an educational mission that has persisted through more than 160 years of changing curricula and diversifying student populations. Scheduled for an annually selected date each March, Mission Day reminds students, staff and faculty alike that Saint Xavier’s mission is rooted in the fundamental belief that education encourages and enables individuals to reach their full human potential and to contribute meaningfully to society.
In keeping with that belief, Mission Day places particular focus on the culminating phrase of Saint Xavier’s Mission Statement: "to serve wisely and compassionately in support of human dignity and the common good." Festivities center on the presentation of the University’s three major service awards:
- The Mother Mary Paulita Morris, R.S.M. Student Service Award
- The Sister Isidore Perrigo, R.S.M. Staff Service Award
- The Saint Xavier University Faculty Service Award