At Once the Sisters Began

September 27, 2018

By Sister Cynthia Serjak

The historical marker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The historical marker in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Whenever I have the opportunity to visit the historical marker that was installed 25 years ago when the Pittsburgh Community marked its 150th anniversary, I am so taken by the words “at once.”

The sisters came at the winter solstice, a dark and cold time in the northern hemisphere. They sailed across the ocean and bumped across mountains on train and stagecoach. When they finally landed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they had every right to take a few days off, to rest and get settled and to look around them. But the annals say they wasted no time. They began “at once” to do what they had come to do.

From Eliza to Sister Xavier

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 and weeks later became the first postulant and later received the religious name Xavier. A year later Eliza traveled to Ireland with Mother Frances Warde and stayed several months, returning with new recruits, including a novice.

In 1845 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 and her obituary 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.”

The Next Generation of Mercy

Portrait of Sister Xavier Tiernan. Credit: Mercy Heritage Center.

Portrait of Sister Xavier Tiernan. Credit: Mercy Heritage Center.

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 down the block who finds herself in need.

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, we know that those who are poor need 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.”

Information about Xavier Tiernan is taken from On the Wing: The Story of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy, 1843-1968 by Sister Jerome McHale, Seabury Press, 1980.


Learn more about our 175th Anniversary and the first Sisters of Mercy to minister in the United States.

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  1. Sally Barnes

    Brilliant


  2. Bridget

    Makes me proud to carry on the heritage and ministry of the Sisters of Mercy.


  3. Jackie Zalumas

    Where in Pittsburgh is this marker?


  4. Mary Ann Hvizdos

    Cynthia, how nice to read your article and remember with fondness my years of employment with the Campus School and Hospital. The Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy always will be part of my life’s tapestry.


  5. M. Linda McDermott

    Beautiful story of a young woman who wanted to ‘make a difference ‘. God bless her. God bless all the women who followed in her footsteps.
    There are so many women who struggle to find meaning in life, I wish there were more opportunities to reach out to them, to show them the path less traveled.