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.
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.”
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.”