A Personal Communion of Saints in the Time of Coronavirus

March 29, 2020

By Sister Patricia McCann

These are indeed sobering times. The coronavirus pandemic, along with its implications for our nation’s financial and political health, challenges even the most stable of us. What do people do to cope?

As I watch the evening news on television and experience rapidly escalating concern about COVID-19, I’ve been thinking about our early sisters. A small band of Sisters of Mercy came to America in December, 1843, opened Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh in 1847, and a disastrous typhoid epidemic broke out in 1848.

An image of Mother Frances Warde, Sister Elizabeth Strange, Sister Josephine Cullen, Sister Veronica McDarby
Mother Frances Warde (top), Sister Elizabeth Strange (left), Sister Josephine Cullen (right), Sister Veronica McDarby (bottom)

These young Irish women, hardly yet over homesickness for the families and country they had left behind, plunged into the task of caring for typhoid patients.

Sister M. Jerome McHale tells the story in her history of the Pittsburgh community, On the Wing:

“When the first typhus patient was received in January 1848 there was grave anxiety, for the sisters knew what Ireland had experienced in the onslaught of typhus fever.  . . . Exhausted and worn out by the demands made upon them, the sisters one by one became ill. Sister Anne Rigney contracted the disease and died February 11,1848. On March 3, Sister Catherine Lawlor, a newly received postulant, died. Two days later Sister Margaret Reinbold, a novice, died, and on March 9, Sister M. Xavier Tiernan, died.”

A picture of Sister Xavier Tiernan
Sister Xavier Tiernan

Sr. Xavier was the first American member to join the community, entering in 1844.

What enabled those young women to meet that epidemic head on? We know that their response to Mercy’s call to serve the sick was rooted in faith, but they were real people like us. They must have felt fear and anxiety and some measure of distaste for the tasks asked of a nurse in those days. Their heroism resides in the fact that they did not hide from life; they met ordinary tasks with extraordinary generosity. It is an inspiring heritage, and a valuable life lesson in 2020.

I like to think of these early women as part of a personal Communion of Saints to whom I can pray in these challenging days:

“Dear brave women, you who walked the path of Mercy before us, you’ve known epidemics in other times and places. Be guides for us now as we navigate new and frightening paths—a worldwide pandemic, universal social turmoil and economic distress, and so much fear, pain and anxiety for ordinary folks. We know that there are blessings in all of this somewhere; help us to find and share them. Walk with us. Amen.”

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  1. Renee Yann

    Such a powerful encouragement, Pat, to call upon our Sisters for inspiration and intercession ! Thank you.

  2. Sister Natalie Rossi

    Beautiful. Thanks. May we never give up reaching out to the poor.

  3. susan collins

    Always meetingtheneeds of others and reaching out even in tough times.

  4. Claudette Schiratti

    Thank you, Pat. I have been thinking of our Sisters who in the past have responded to epidemics and pandemics and so many died. I think also of so many of us being in the high risk category because of age. I keep pondering what is our response now to this pandemic.

  5. Jane Bower

    Thank you! Indeed we are not alone.

  6. Jean Kearse

    A sobering and “edifying” remembrance of these young women of Mercy. May our hearts be courageous. Thanks Pat for reminding us.

  7. Doris Gottemoeller, RSM

    Your comments really bring it home. Thanks, Pat.

  8. Mary Daly

    Thank you, Pat, for this reminder of the long tradition we stand in and can call upon.

  9. Linda Leary

    It gives me great hope when I read about others who have been caregivers, endured and survived.

  10. Sarah Halter

    Wonderful story and significant prayer, may it go to our hearts and aid us in reaching out to God.

  11. Mary Kay Smid

    Thank you for positive prayerful thoughts.

  12. Martha Larsen

    And in those terrible habits …maybe wool ones, ok in winter, not in summer. Day to day must have been totally exhausting and fearful. Not knowing what was next was part of this, as today. I often wonder what can we do.who sit so save and quite comfortable in our dwellings. Could we do.something more???? What???

  13. Eileen O'Connor

    Pat ~ Beautiful and inspiring. It’s a wonderful reminder of the women whose shoulders we all stand on…. Stay put and stay well! Eileen O’Connor

  14. Sarah Sherman

    The times repeat themselves.
    Thank God for the work and example of those courageous women!

  15. Sarah

    Thank you!

  16. Jacqueline Dewar

    Thank you. Wish I had the knowledge and health to do that now.

  17. Rita Valade, RSM

    Beautiful reflection, Pat. During this pandemic, I’ve thought of our valiant Mercy women who served on the front lines during wars, epidemics, civil unrest, etc. Your reflection put flesh on the stories of our lives. Thank you much.

  18. mary riordan RSM

    I can well imagine their fear and confusion as they went out to tend to the patients and then losing so many of their sisters. May they inspire us with their courage and trust.

  19. Diane Odonnell

    A testament to Faith. Such inspiring women.

  20. Fran Repka

    Such faith-filled women…with strong shoulders we stand on! Thanks for the reminder, inspiration, and motivation, Pat.
    Sending virtual hugs…

  21. Sr. Linda Kaman

    Pat, inspiring and hopefull. Your prayer in now my prayer as we face days of fear.

  22. Veronica Kovach

    Thank you, Pat, for reminding us of how Mercy has responded during times of crisis. There are fewer of us today, but we see the compassionate caring continuing today through our co-workers. Thank you especially to those “on-the-front-line” in our Mercy sponsored health ministries.

  23. Mary Conway Mercy Associate

    Sr. Pat, Thank you so much for this beautiful reminder of those brave women of Mercy from the past, and we pray for all those who again answer the call to Mercy!

  24. Susan Welsh, RSM

    Thank you for this reflection and prayer; it helps to keep me grounded.

  25. Anne connolly

    As we stand on their shoulders, what is our view?

  26. Shirley thens

    There is a plaque in downtown Pittsburgh commemorating their arrival, have passed it many times. Makes me think of my Mercy teachers

  27. Liz Duckworth

    Love these stories about the Sisters of Mercy and their past and present contributions. Amazing women of faith and the integrity to keep fighting injustices of all kind.