By Sister Julia Upton
“You never knew her. I knew her better than I have known anybody in my life. She was a woman of God, and God made her a woman of vision. She showed me what it meant to be a Sister of Mercy, to see the world and its people in terms of God’s love; to love everyone who needed love; to care for everyone who needed care. Now her vision is driving me on. It is a glorious thing to be a Sister of Mercy!”
Glorious indeed! And after Catherine McAuley herself, none was more courageous and forward-thinking than her protégé Frances Ward (1810–1884), who painted that deeply personal and inspiring portrait of Catherine McAuley in a letter to Sister Mary Gonzaga O’Brien in 1879.
I began to wonder what occasioned the letter and its words that we treasure so deeply. My curiosity is insatiable, and while I revere Catherine McAuley as founder of the Sisters of Mercy, I’m inspired by how Frances and the other “first born” carried the work forward to the ends of the earth.
Frances met Catherine McAuley when she was just 17 years old, introduced by her friend Mary Macauley, Catherine’s niece. Frances helped with the ministries at Baggot Street Convent in Dublin, Ireland, from its earliest days and began to live there permanently in 1828. She received the habit in the first reception ceremony held there on January 23, 1832, and made her profession there the following year. Gifted with intelligence, energy and enthusiasm, today we would probably say that Frances served as Catherine McAuley’s “chief of staff.”
Catherine named Frances as the first superior of the foundation to Carlow (1837), and from there Frances herself led foundations to Naas (1839) and Wexford (1840). Following Catherine McAuley’s death in 1841, Frances fulfilled Catherine’s promise by leading a foundation to Westport (1842).
More adventures and challenges lay even further westward, for when Michael O’Connor was consecrated as the first Bishop of Pittsburgh, he came knocking at the door of St. Leo’s Convent in Carlow, charming the sisters and pleading with them to join him in his faraway mission in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania. Frances Warde was named superior, and six other sisters (four professed, one novice and one postulant) sailed across the ocean aboard Queen of the West, accompanied by the bishop.
Adventures and foundations were just beginning! Sister Kathleen Healy’s engaging biography of Frances Warde (1973) describes in detail the pioneering adventures of the American founder of the Sisters of Mercy. I never grow tired of reading about her courage, generosity of spirit and wide-ranging vision. Frances led foundations to Chicago, Illinois (1846), Providence, Rhode Island (1851), Manchester, New Hampshire (1858), and Bangor, Maine (1865), to name just a few. From them came other foundations with schools and hospitals galore, stretching all the way to Omaha, Nebraska, and on to Yreka, California (1871). Besides making more foundations than any other Sister of Mercy, Frances also assisted Mother Austin Carroll, author of Life of Catherine McAuley (1866) and the four volumes of Leaves from the Annals (1881-1895), by curating and handling letters and other valuable memorabilia.
Leaves from the Annals records that on September 14, 1878, Frances sent a group of sisters to labor among the Indigenous peoples in Maine. Their first convent was the chief’s dwelling, which he vacated for the sisters. Frances made her first visit to these missions in the “early summer” of 1879. The chief crossed in his own canoe to be the first to welcome “the great Mother.” As they walked toward the convent, Frances was heard to exclaim, “Oh, how happy would our revered foundress be had she lived to see this!”
Perhaps this experience prompted Frances to write that often-quoted letter to Sister Mary Gonzaga O’Brien, her close friend and companion, who was back at the convent in Manchester.
Now their vision is driving me on…
The anniversary of the death of Frances Warde is observed on September 17.