I recently attended a ceremony that truly marked the end of an era – the closing of St. Clare’s Mercy Convent. Its history began 102 years ago, as St. Clare’s Home for Working Girls and was the first location of St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital.
Over the years, 92 Sisters of Mercy called it home.
In her emotional remarks during the recent closing ceremony, one of its former residents, Sister Elizabeth Davis, reminisced: “It is a holy space which has seen and heard joy and laughter, music and dancing, pain and tears, anger and gentleness, fear and hope, dreams and promise.”
Her words resonated within me and I was gripped by a nostalgia for something I didn’t really understand. I wanted to know more about these women.
As a secular person, the spiritual practices of individuals who live consecrated lives in the selfless service of others, are something of a mystery to me. I had a preconceived idea that a life lived without a spouse or children made for a kind of lonely life; that the lives of these Sisters were shaped by rules, sacrifice and discipline.
And while sacrifice and discipline were key ingredients of their success, I discovered that what drove them was passion – both drove them and inspired them.
As a 21st century ‘modern’ woman living in North America, I feel entitled with unrestricted freedom to choose my own path. And that’s a good thing. But with all these choices and all the ‘freedom,’ of our commercialized, materialistic society, many of us seem more lost and directionless than ever.
As Bob Dylan puts it “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Yes indeed, we all have to serve somebody – we all need purpose and drive to make life meaningful.
I think the Sisters know this. I think they lived it and continue to live it.
Mercy Above All: A Way of Life, Not a Motto
The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Ireland by Catherine McAuley in 1831, whose calling was to serve people who suffer from poverty, sickness and lack of education – in particular, women and children.
Their story in our province began in 1842. At that time, St. John’s was an international port town, continuously plagued by ongoing epidemics like measles, typhus, cholera, smallpox and tuberculosis.
It was a dangerous time. Regardless of the risk to themselves, the Sisters of Mercy went into the homes of the sick and dying and provided care.
They lived up to their name. Some even gave their lives.
To combat poverty and lack of education, which were major factors for ill health and the spread of disease, the St. Clare’s Mercy Convent and Home for Working Girls was opened in 1913 in the Jackman House on LeMarchant Road. Known as the ‘white house,’ it provided a home for the Sisters of Mercy and affordable housing to young ladies who came from the out ports looking for work.
In 1922, the Home for Working Girls was converted into St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital, which was largely run and staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, who also continued to reside there. The Sisters were on the cutting edge of education and leadership for the time.
Before the school of nursing opened in 1939, the Sisters received their training at various schools in the United States. Sister Mary Bernard Gladney, the first Superior of the hospital, spent three years at the Mercy Hospital in Pittsburg before returning as a registered nurse.
She and other Sisters even completed courses that would qualify them to perform specialized medical procedures in other fields such as radiography, anesthesia and laboratory!
The Sisters that followed in her footsteps over the years were pioneers who lead the way in comprehensive hospital care, information technology, pastoral care, palliative care and innovative mental health care.
By the late 1930s the convent hospital was bursting at the seams. In 1937, in the midst of the worst depression in history, Archbishop E.P. Roche announced that a new hospital would be built. Remarkably, over $72,000 in donations poured in. This, in addition to other funds, allowed the ‘new’ St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital to open on October 29, 1939, and remains part of the existing hospital to this day.
At the same time, the St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital School of Nursing opened. The motto, “Mercy Above All” was chosen by the archbishop to be the guiding principle for both the hospital and the school. The nursing profession became more accessible to the generations that followed.
In 1972, a large extension was added to the hospital and ‘white house’ simply became a convent again.
Their role in the hospital next door continued to grow and evolve over the years – just as the hospital itself, as well as health care delivery in general, grew and evolved.
Even after the 1995 merger of six independent health boards under the Health Care Corporation of St. John’s, the Sisters still played a key part in the provision of health care.
More importantly, the mission, values, ethics and philosophy of St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital remained intact.
Today, the Sisters of Mercy continue to provide medical, spiritual and pastoral care at St. Clare’s. However, the reality is that as time has passed, the calling to consecrated religious life has dwindled. Twenty of the 92 residents are left. Some have retired, others have gone to other convents in other communities and others have passed away.
With no new members in recent years, this could truly be the end of an era for the Sisters of Mercy.
Sister Diane Smyth, the manager of Pastoral Care and Ethics at St. Clare’s says, “In today’s world, many people focus more on the spiritual aspect of life than on the structure of religious life.”
But the Sisters have left their mark on face of health care delivery in this province.
Sister Elizabeth believes it’s a lasting legacy. “While the physical convent may be gone, we have far more than the memories of the place and of the women who once called it home.”
“We have the energy that flows from the spirit of mercy that lived in the convent and now lives forever in this hospital and in our world.”
Amen to that. ■
This story was written by Robyn Lush, a communications specialist with Eastern Health’s Corporate Communications Department.