In November 1843, seven young and courageous Sisters of Mercy, lead by Frances Warde, RSM, left their home in Carlow, Ireland to come to Pittsburgh to provide community service to those who were most in need. They arrived in Pittsburgh on December 21, 1843 and became the first foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. The sisters immediately initiated their ministry by opening a school and visiting the sick at home. In response to the community’s increasing need, the sisters opened Mercy Hospital in 1847, thus expanding their ministry of service and involving others in providing a compassionate and transforming, healing presence within the community.
Responding to the Needs of the Day
As society’s needs and the health care environment changed, the sisters responded and altered their approach accordingly. In 1983, they established Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, known today as Pittsburgh Mercy. This allowed the health system additional avenues to serve the needs of the community. As part of the system’s expansion, Pittsburgh Mercy acquired St. John’s Hospital in Brighton Heights 1989, which included the St. John’s division known as Northern Southwest Community Mental Health (MH)/Mental Retardation (MR) Services, or in short, Northern Southwest.
Community Input & Inclusion
The origins of Northern Southwest date to the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966 passed by the Pennsylvania legislature. The intent of the law was to shift the health care of the populations living with mental health disorders and intellectual disabilities from institutionalization to a full continuum of care within the communities where they lived. Using citizen meetings to provide a forum for input, persons served and communities were directly involved in the planning and implementation of the legislation. As a result of these meetings, two large community organizations formed in 1969: Northern Communities MH/MR and Southwest Communities MH/MR. Bringing care directly to the communities, the two organizations focused on developing a full spectrum of services for the mental health and intellectual disability populations within their own communities.
In 1974, the Northern Communities Citizens Advisory Group selected Roy Lahet as its administrator. Prior to taking on this role, Lahet served four years as community minister of Trinity Lutheran Church on the North Side, where he had immersed and dedicated himself to the local community. In the year prior to Lahet’s appointment, Allegheny County established a contractual relationship with St. John’s to operate Northern Communities, a move that the County later made with Southwest Communities in 1978.
Allegheny County recommended the consolidation of Northern Communities and Southwest Communities in 1987. With his connections, commitment, and genuine concern for the community, Lahet successfully integrated the two organizations, thus establishing Northern Southwest Communities MH/MR, at that time, the largest MH/MR provider in Pennsylvania. This unified organization allowed for additional services to meet the evolving needs of the community.
Soon after acquiring St. John’s Hospital, Pittsburgh Mercy converted it into an inpatient psychiatric hospital, renamed it Mercy Psychiatric Institute (MPI), and retained Northern Southwest in its vital role as a community-based system of care. As times changed, so did Northern Southwest. In 1994, the Mercy Center for Chemical Dependency Services, which treated persons with substance use disorders (addictions), merged with Northern Southwest, resulting in a comprehensive service known as Northern/Southwest Community Mental Health (MH)/Mental Retardation (MR)/Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Services. As an integral part of Pittsburgh Mercy, this organization led the way in the emerging treatment of persons with co-occurring mental health and substance use (addiction) disorders, also known as dual diagnoses.
Changing Needs, Changing Approaches
With an ever-changing landscape in health care and society, Pittsburgh Mercy continually reassessed the best way to serve the community. As part of the vision to provide a comprehensive, community-based continuum of services, Pittsburgh Mercy closed Mercy Psychiatric Institute in 1995, but retained Northern Southwest as an integral part of its mission, renaming it Mercy Behavioral Health to reflect this commitment.
A Part of Something Larger
In 1998, Pittsburgh Mercy became a member of Catholic Health East (CHE). In 2013, CHE and Trinity Health came together to form CHE Trinity Health. The combined organization became Trinity Health in late 2014. The health care ministry is one of the largest multi-institutional Catholic health care delivery systems in the United States, serving diverse people and communities that include more than 30 million people across 22 states.
The Mission Continues
Today, Pittsburgh Mercy no longer operates hospitals. However, all of Pittsburgh Mercy’s programs and resources are historically rooted – and remain invested – in being a compassionate and transforming, healing presence within our communities.
All of Pittsburgh Mercy’s services are community-based, aimed at integrating care and improving the lives of the vulnerable populations it serves: persons with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and substance use disorders, as well as persons who are experiencing homelessness, abuse, or other forms of trauma.
Keeping true to the legacy and more than 180-year tradition of Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy, Pittsburgh Mercy continues to provide hope and empower the communities it serves. This historic focus endures today – and will continue to thrive well into the future.
Kathleen M. Washy, MA, served as the archivist at The Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh, formerly part of Pittsburgh Mercy, from 1993-2007. She continues to consult with Pittsburgh Mercy and other local organizations on matters of historical and archival significance to the community.