Whenever I have the opportunity to visit the historical marker that was installed in the 800 block of Penn Avenue 25 years ago, when the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy marked their 150th anniversary*, I am so taken by the words “at once.”
The Sisters of Mercy came from Carlow, Ireland on the eve of the winter solstice, a dark and cold time in the Northern Hemisphere. They sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and bumped across the Allegheny Mountains on train and stagecoach. When they finally landed in Pittsburgh, Pa., on December 20, 1843, they had every right to take a few days off, to rest, get settled, and look around them. But the annals say they wasted no time. They began “at once” to do what they had come to do: to serve the city’s poor, sick, and uneducated.
That energy must have impressed a young Eliza Jane Tiernan, who supplied flowers for the chapel for the sisters’ first Christmas in the United States just days after their arrival. She witnessed the sisters renewing their vows on New Year’s Day. Soon after, she became the first U.S. postulant then later received the religious name Xavier. The following year, Eliza traveled to Ireland with Mother Frances Warde and stayed several months, returning with new recruits, including a novice.
In 1848, Pittsburgh suffered an epidemic, and the sisters began accepting typhus patients at the new Mercy Hospital. Because of their tireless service, many sisters, including Sister Xavier Tiernan, died of typhus themselves. Xavier’s short religious life was rich in Mercy. Her obituary in the March 11, 1848, edition of The Pittsburgh Catholic reveals her own impulse to be of service: “We cannot exaggerate her loss, not merely to the religious community which she edified so much, but to all who came within the wide sphere of her usefulness.”
Like Eliza Tiernan, many young people today are looking for ways to join with others to make a difference in the world. Our own new members have a good portion of the spirit of Frances Warde and her companions as they eagerly engage in the Works of Mercy in the places where they find themselves. They are called to do this in Mercy, because Mercy has a reputation for responding “at once,” whether that’s to the U.S.-Mexico border, to Haiti, or to a neighbor in need down the block.
“Mercy doesn’t wait to see if someone else will go first, but steps out and takes the lead, then looks around to see who else might be ready to help.”
Like Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, we know that those who are poor “need our help today, not next week.” When people in need look around, they see that the door of Mercy stands ajar, ready to welcome them “at once.”
Sister Cynthia Serjak, RSM, the author of this story, is responsible for Mercy staff development for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Silver Spring, Md. Pittsburgh Mercy is proud to share this story during National Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14, 2019) and Women’s History Month (March 2019). This adaptation is based on an original piece published in the September/October 2018 issue of ¡viva!mercy!, a bimonthly publication for sisters, associates, and companions of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.
*The Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy celebrated 175 years in Pittsburgh on December 21, 2018.
Information about Xavier Tiernan is taken from “On the Wing: The Story of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy, 1843-1968” by Sister Jerome McHale, RSM, Seabury Press, 1980.
Feature image: “I was thirsty,” a sketch by Sister Clare Agnew, RSM, one of the early Sisters of Mercy.