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 through its annual September Spirit of Mercy Day program, First Friday occasions of charism education, formation and social action and on Mission Heritage Day in March.
Spirit of Mercy Day: September
Catherine McAuley opened the original House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland on the September 24 Feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Mercy institutions and ministries throughout the world recognize this day when Catherine McAuley realized her 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 to establish the Sisters of Mercy in 1831.
Each year Saint Xavier University brings together the traditional opening of a new academic year Liturgy of the Holy Spirit with this foundational feast of the Sisters of Mercy and creates a Spirit of Mercy Day. Liturgy and programs scheduled for the day highlight the values central to Mercy heritage. Hospitality extended to and by Sisters associated with the University is a part of each Spirit of 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 Spirit of 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.
First Fridays: October-April
Select First Fridays during each academic year provide opportunities for the University community to imbibe, embrace and embody the practical spirituality of Catherine McAuley, Frances Xavier Warde and early Sister of Mercy pioneers in living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Some First Fridays focus on why we tell the story of Mercy through time so that members of the University community become increasingly familiar with the history and heritage of the Sisters of Mercy. Other First Fridays are opportunities to engage is some form of social action that speaks to one of the Sisters of Mercy Critical Concerns. Every First Friday includes a time for shared hospitality and the legendary sharing of a cup of tea in comfort.
Mission Heritage Day: March
The University annually honors Sister of Mercy Mother Frances Xavier Warde, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy in America in 1843 and the woman who brought the Sisters of Mercy to Chicago in 1846. Each year's ceremonies include a Eucharistic liturgy in which "The Heritage Litany" has a prominent place. Guest speakers often enhance the day's festivities, which lead, finally, to the annual Mission Awards ceremony. This is a day whereby all members of the University community reflect on and renew their commitment to an educational mission that has persisted through more than 170 years of changing curricula and diversifying student populations. Mission Heritage Day weaves the strands of history into the current moment challenging the University community to celebrate its lush past and honor its legacy into the future. In keeping with that conviction, Mission Heritage day puts particular focus on the culminating phrase of the Saint Xavier Mission Statement: "to serve wisely and compassionately in support of human dignity and the common good." A centerpiece of the day includes the presentation of awards in recognition of outstanding contributions to the life and mission of the University:
- The Mother Paulita Morris, R.S.M., Student Mission Award
- The Sister Isadore Perrigo, R.S.M., Staff Mission Award
- The Saint Xavier University Faculty Mission Award