Make Mercy Real: The Journey of Seven Sisters

October 14, 2015

By Sister Johanna Burnell

Sister Johanna helps dress senior Rachel Johnson as Catherine McAuley for a Mercy Day play at Mercy High School.

Sister Johanna helps dress senior Rachel Johnson as Catherine McAuley for a Mercy Day play at Mercy High School.

It is hard to imagine what could happen when seven young women, ages 17 to 27, are enflamed with the fire of the Spirit to serve to the poor, sick and uneducated, inspired by the example and teachings of an Irish matron named Catherine McAuley. Catherine and the Holy Spirit capture hearts of young women around the world, whether it is the 19th or the 21st century.

In 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, these seven young women, all Sisters of Mercy, travelled from Manchester, New Hampshire, to the frontier country of Nebraska Territory. Their journey took several months—by train, covered wagon, and steamboat— with rather difficult accommodations, to say the least! The threat of violence on the frontier delayed them for several weeks in civilized Chicago, Illinois, where another community of Sisters of Mercy begged them to stay. However, the seven were determined to reach the frontier. The bishop negotiated with the Union Army to arrange military escort, and he sent a local priest to oversee their safety. The seven were on their way!  

The stories of their arrival are legend. Muddy roads, an unfurnished convent, curious Native Americans peeping in windows at the mysteriously clad young women. But nothing deterred their enthusiasm for the mission of bringing the Catholic faith to the Nebraska Territory.  In less than a month, they had accomplished a survey of the needs of Catholic residents and two schools, one elementary and one for high school for girls, were opened. How could they address the needs of the sick? They raised money and built the first Catholic hospital. Who would care for the orphans of the Union Pacific train workers? An orphanage was established. Where could young women moving into the city find safe shelter? A residence for employed single women was established. How would the sisters provide professional education for all the young women who were entering religious life? A college was established. And so it went. Wherever need emerged, the Sisters of Mercy resourcefully answered the call!

Sister Johanna with junior Brianna Fleek, baking cookies for the tea room at Mercy High School.

Sister Johanna with junior Brianna Fleek, baking cookies for the tea room at Mercy High School.

The Omaha Sisters of Mercy are grateful that Catherine’s guidance and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit have created numerous institutions to continue serving the people of Omaha. Great movements in our Church were born in Omaha, such as Mercy Housing , a multi-million dollar corporation that serves housing needs for the poor in numerous states, and CHI Health, which oversees Catholic health care in several states.

Today, 150 years after the first seven Sisters of Mercy arrived in Omaha, needs are still emerging and screaming for attention and response. The Sisters of Mercy are still here, responding to the needs of the times. Today our work is concentrated in two vital areas: direct service to the most needy among us and advocacy for those who lack voice or recognition in our society. The issues today are countless and all interconnected: women in church and society, violence, immigration, racism and care for Earth. Each requires action based in contemplative prayer, fearless courage and sensible steps.

Our median age climbs, but our spirit of service remains young and healthy! Today, while age may require more time spent in prayer and contemplation than in the trenches, we choose to sponsor Mercy Volunteer Corps, which captivates the hearts and minds of young college graduates, women and men, who experience the call of the spirit to serve in the true spirit of Catherine. How grateful we are to all the youth who have responded over the years from 1864 to the present day to God’s call to serve with us and Make Mercy Real. How can we not be filled with joy and gratitude!

Read other blogs in the “Make Mercy Real” series

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