Mercy Then and Now — Forming the Next Generation of Mercy
Treasuring Our Heritage
On Christmas Day 1843—just days after the Sisters of Mercy had arrived in Pittsburgh—a young woman named Eliza Tiernan sent flowers to the sisters at their new convent, to decorate the altar for Christmas Mass.
Eliza was the daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh merchant, but nonetheless was drawn to a life of service and mercy. On April 11, 1844 she became the first American woman accepted into the Sisters of Mercy, pronouncing her first vows at the Cathedral of St. Paul and taking the religious name Sister M. Xavier, in honor of Mother Frances Xavier Warde.
Sister Xavier’s talents were immediately evident; in 1845 she was selected to accompany Frances and Pittsburgh Bishop Michael O’Connor on a trip to Ireland to encourage more sisters to join their mission in Pennsylvania. After they returned, Sister Xavier used her knowledge of Pittsburgh to help the sisters meet the needs of the people and also was selected to be the Director of Novices for the burgeoning Mercy community in Pittsburgh.
Tragically, three of the sisters in her charge—Novices Anne Rigney and Magdalen Reinbolt, and Postulant Catherine Lawler—died while nursing victims of the typhoid epidemic that ravaged Pittsburgh in early 1848. Sister Xavier herself died the following week, of an acute infection compounded by grief and exhaustion.
Her time as a Sister of Mercy was short-lived but she left an indelible mark on the community of Pittsburgh and on the many sisters in Pittsburgh she oriented into a life of Mercy.
Embracing Our Future
The legacy of Sister Xavier lives on in so many modern-day sisters, but Sister Cynthia Serjak’s Pittsburgh roots and New Membership ministry uniquely embody the spirit of Sister Xavier in today’s world.
My experience in working with new members dates from the mid-eighties, and stretches from Pittsburgh to Rochester, and now to the whole country as I serve in the Institute New Membership Office.
Reflecting on these many years I feel so blessed to have been a part of this important work and to have come to know the future of Mercy in the faces and lives of remarkable women. As we work to understand how God is calling women to Mercy today and how we shall find them, we continue to learn new ways to do the work. I am happy that we remain flexible to needs as they develop while discerning with our new members how Mercy will respond into the future.
I cherish the example of Eliza Tiernan and see her passion reflected in the women with whom I am privileged to work. I saw that passion in the women I first met when I came to a Mercy high school in Pittsburgh. And I believe it is that very passion that enlivened Catherine McAuley and which lives in the hearts of all who follow the path of Mercy today. Indeed, “it is a glorious thing to be a Sister of Mercy!”