Mercy for Immigrants
Share the Journey with Sisters of Mercy
Our foremothers immigrated to the United States in 1843. They continued their ministry even when faced with anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in New England. From our foremothers’ time as immigrants, we’ve responded to the needs of the times, accepting people and welcoming them regardless of their country of origin.
We continue that ministry today, stepping in when our broken immigration system leaves entire populations vulnerable. Join us over the next seven days as we share our history with and hopes for immigrants in the United States.
This page was created for National Migration Week 2018 to help us explore the Mercy heritage in the United States through archival materials and more current news; our gratitude to the Mercy Heritage Center for providing photos and stories from the past 175 years. Share the journey with us as we share our history from our first landing in the U.S. in 1843 to our present ministry with and advocacy for refugees and immigrants.
- 1843: Arrival in America
- 1850s-1870s: Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Sentiment
- 1870s-1900s: 50 Years Later, Still Welcoming Immigrants
- 1970s: Mercy to Southeast Asian Immigrants & Refugees
- 1980s: Mercy for Central American Immigrants & Refugees
- 1990s-2000s: Ministering with Vulnerable Populations
- 2000-Now: Recent and Current Ministries
Sisters of Mercy Arrive in America - 1843
America has always been a nation of immigrants, and each family has their own story. The family history of the American Sisters of Mercy is also rooted in the immigrant experience. Who were these sisters? Why were they called to come to the United States?
Early immigration to the United States was in large part from Britain, along with the forced migration of Africans brought to this country as slaves. The 19th century proved to be a transformative time for U.S. immigration. In the 1840s, immigration into the United States nearly tripled, the largest group coming from Ireland. A devastating fungus destroyed Ireland's potato crop causing dire consequences for many of the poor in Ireland. Starvation and related diseases claimed as many as a million lives, while perhaps twice that number left Ireland for better opportunities, many to the United States.
Video: the first Sisters of Mercy arrive in the United States
The 1840s began the extended period of the growth of Catholicism in the United States. The Irish and Germans were the first group of Roman Catholics to come, followed by the Italians and Eastern Europeans. The wave of Catholic immigrants, many of whom were poor, put a strain on the already struggling American Catholic Church.
Bishops from around the country called on men and women religious orders from Europe to help the newly arrived Catholics. The Sisters of Mercy, renowned for their active service to those most in need, stood out as good candidates to help these new arrivals, and the sisters, many of them young, adventurous women, accepted the call to live and work in an unknown land. The sisters arrived willing to help, but also found themselves to be strangers in a new land, facing the challenges of poverty, disease and discrimination along with their fellow immigrants. The stories that follow show women who were determined to live their faith by walking with those in need who were, most often, immigrants.
Sisters face anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment - 1850s-1870s
As famine struck Ireland in the 1840s, desperate men, women and children left their homeland to escape starvation and disease.
Despite their own immigrant heritage, many Americans of this time felt that they were “natives” and reacted with hostility to the new arrivals. This hostility ultimately resulted in an outburst of violence in the years prior to the Civil War.
Catholics, especially the influx of Irish-Catholic immigrants, were a particular target of the hostility. Nativists feared Catholics’ religious practices and argued that the hierarchy of the Catholic church would influence American elections. In addition to fears and hostility related to religion, immigrants willing to work for low wages created competition for local work forces—sparking fears that jobs were being stolen by foreigners.
The fears of nativists manifested themselves politically in the rise of the American Party in the early 1850s. This secretive group became known as the “Know-Nothing” Party because of their response when questioned about their political affiliation—“I know nothing.” Although short-lived, the group managed to elect officials espousing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic rhetoric. Nativist violence erupted at polling places, in some instances resulting in attacks on churches.
Despite threats and violence, the Irish continued to immigrate to the United States, and in doing so, became a vital part of the American identity we celebrate today.
In 1851, as the sisters settled into their new home in Providence, Rhode Island, and began the works of mercy, they faced daily harassment and threats.
"Time and again the windows of their poor dwelling were smashed … One bright midnight the glass and sashes of every window were completely shattered."
Mother Austin Carroll, the first historian of the Sisters of Mercy
Despite the hardships, the sisters continued to begin ministries and even began to accept new members. When a local woman converted to Catholicism and entered the Mercy community, members of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party were enraged. They began to spread rumors that the Sisters of Mercy held this new member against her will. As the rumors gained momentum, the sisters began to hear of plans to destroy their convent and news of Know-Nothings from other cities travelling to Providence to aid in the destruction.
St. Peter the Apostle Church was built as a parish for Irish railroad workers in West Baltimore (Baltimore and Ohio Railroads) in 1843.
50 Years After Arriving in America, Still Welcoming Immigrants - 1870s-1900s
St. Alphonsus Orphan Asylum, New Orleans, Louisiana
Sisters came to New Orleans in 1869 and began to minister in the Irish Channel neighborhood. Although settled by Irish immigrant laborers, the neighborhood was also home to German immigrants and local French-speaking Creoles.
Typical of new Mercy foundations, the New Orleans community immediately began sheltering the homeless—working women, the elderly and children orphaned by yellow fever. Annual summer outbreaks of yellow fever, carried by mosquitos, led to near constant deaths and a need to care for those left behind. Immigrants and other poor populations were typically infected at a greater rate due to poor sanitation in their neighborhoods and an inability to flee infected areas as wealthier city dwellers did.
There was an orphanage for boys, St. Vincent de Paul, which several parishes helped to maintain. For girl orphans, their only option was to live in the convent with the sisters wherever there was room. To provide a safe place for young girls and boys orphaned by yellow fever, Mother Austin Carroll proposed a new facility—St. Alphonsus Asylum, which opened in 1876. The sisters cared for children here until 1926.
Watch the Story of Sister Mary Austin Carroll
Sister Paula Diann Marlin tells the story of the Sisters of Mercy arrival in New Orleans in 1869, and their first years of ministry. Led by Sister Mary Austin Carroll, six sisters arrived to minister to the Irish immigrants and eventually began an orphanage in response to the orphaned children left behind after a yellow fever outbreak.
St. Joseph's Home for Working Girls, Worcester, MA
In 1895, the Sisters of Mercy established St. Joseph's Home for Working Girls in Worcester, Massachusetts. Intended to provide an affordable space for single, working women, the home quickly became a safe haven for immigrant women.
Sisters of Mercy Respond to Waves of Immigrants from Southeast Asia - 1970s
The United States' action in Southeast Asia directly led to people fleeing war and violence.
Throughout much of US history, immigration law showed a preference for granting Europeans citizenship. Until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, immigration from many Asian countries was strictly limited.
The United States' political and military involvement in Southeast Asia directly led to many people fleeing war and violence. Large-scale Vietnamese migration to the United States began as an influx of refugees following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The devastation of war and the rise of oppressive governments in Cambodia and Laos caused many people to flee those countries for the safety of the United States.
As in other periods of U.S. history, the arrival of a new immigrant group caused some Americans to fear change. Others—including the Sisters of Mercy—saw the opportunity to help those in need find their way in their new home.
Airport Ministry with Refugees, Burlingame, CA
Reflection on Southeast Asian Refugee Crisis, 1979
Agencies resettling refugees escaping Communist regimes in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were scrambling to send staff to San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s to welcome refugees and help them find their way. The Sisters of Mercy's motherhouse in Burlingame was just 10 minutes from the San Francisco airport and when requested, over 100 sisters answered the call for help.
Sister Ellen FitzGerald wrote an essay on the Southeast Asian Refugee Crisis in 1979, reprinted on our blog linked below. Her words, written nearly 40 years ago, are still fresh. As she writes in an introduction:
"There was an estimated 12 million refugees in 1980. Everyone worked so earnestly to help these people and get them resettled—not just Sisters of Mercy, but governments, agencies, churches of all faith, all over the world. Today there are over 65.6 million people forcibly displaced. Do we see the same commitment? Haven’t we learned anything in the meantime?"
Read her entire 1979 essay, "Let Them In," on our blog.
Mercy Welcomes Our Sisters and Brothers from Central America - 1980s
Why people fled Central America in the 1980s
Before sharing how we welcomed people fleeing violence in Central American countries, it’s important to know why so many families fled north, and the United State’s role in their taking flight. The following excerpt is from an article on the Migration Policy Institute's website.
The year 1980 marked the opening of a decade of public controversy over U.S. refugee policy unprecedented since World War II. Large-scale migration to the United States from Central America began, as hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans fled north from civil war, repression, and economic devastation. That same year, in the last months of the Carter administration, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act, a humanitarian law intended to expand eligibility for political asylum in the United States.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, civil war had been years in the making, as oligarchies supported by corrupt military leaders repressed large sectors of the rural population. In Nicaragua, the socialist revolutionary Frente Sandinista had ousted the brutal right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The civil war in El Salvador increased in intensity in early 1980. Government-supported assassins gunned down Archbishop Oscar Romero at the altar shortly after he had publicly ordered Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. In December 1980, four U.S. churchwomen were assassinated in El Salvador, an act of brutality that brought the violence 'home' to the U.S. public.
The administration of President Ronald Reagan, who came to power in January 1981, saw these civil wars as theaters in the Cold War. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States intervened on the side of those governments, which were fighting Marxist-led popular movements. In Nicaragua, however, the United States supported the contra rebels against the socialist Sandinista government."
Sanctuary for Refugees and Immigrants at Burlingame, CA, 1985
"We are doing this out of a religious conviction, a moral belief, and we realize this has political implications."
Sister Mary Waskowiak, 1985 interview
We respond to the needs of the times, accepting people and welcoming them regardless of their country of origin. In 1985, the Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame, CA, declared themselves a Sanctuary community, inviting a refugee family to live with them as they were escaping violence in Central America. This video shows two news clips from that year, including interviews with the mother of the refugee family and interviews with Sisters of Mercy.
Video: Burlingame Sisters of Mercy Provide Sanctuary
Below, Sister Suzanne Toolan shares a recollection of that time.
"Other families were sheltered at the Lodge (a small house on the property). One of the families included the parents and these three little boys, Oscar, Juan Carlos, and Herman. To keep them busy I invited them to help me greet interns coming for a month-long program in Spiritual Direction at Mercy Center Burlingame. I asked the oldest to go along in the car to pick up interns as they arrived at the airport. He was very proud of himself, but the other two were jealous. So I invited them to help bring in luggage of interns as they arrived. I gave them a dime (!) for each item they brought in. I didn’t realize the interns were tipping them quite generously. By the time the big-shot brother got home from the airport trips, the little guys had a pocket full of money. We could hear sounds of a fight brewing!
There were other refugee families that lived at the Lodge. They would come up to the convent to eat their meals. I remember one little fellow leaving to go back to the Lodge. He had his pockets overflowing with food. They were evidently so used to not having enough to eat, that when they saw such a plenty they put some away for leaner times.
As families came to stay at the Lodge we soon realized that it was difficult for them.
They were not near other refugee families, and far from public transportation. So which ever Sister was in charge (I don’t remember who it was) relocated them in the City (San Francisco). I had one family come from the City every Saturday to help out with projects in the Center. They did a lot of painting. I was able to pay them with cash that I had stashed away from income cash through the Center."
Mercy Empowers Colonia Residents
What is a Colonia?
"Adela and her husband's combined income is $12,000 a year. The children have Medicaid. They get $500 a month in food stamps."
Do you know about the colonias in the Southwest United States? The U.S. Government says, “Colonias are rural communities and neighborhoods located within 150 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border that lack adequate sewer, water, and/or housing. These areas also typically lack other basic services like electricity, garbage service, water drainage, schools and community facilities.” But this definition doesn’t tell the entire story. Watch this video to see the typical experience of a family in a colonia.
Sister Gerrie Naughton and ARISE
When Sister Gerrie Naughton came to Las Milpas, Texas, in 1987, she did not have a specific plan. According to her, the plan “revealed itself, step by step, through her interaction with the women of the Las Milpas community.” She understood that in order to build a sustainable project, it had to be done by the women and led by them as well.
Back then, the area was barely developed. Las Milpas is a colonia—a low income, unincorporated neighborhood— along the south Texas border. There was no pavement, flooding was a recurrent problem and there were no basic services. Its residents were discriminated against by other Mexicans who lived in the nearest town, Pharr, because Las Milpas were seen as poor. Many residents of Las Milpas lost their sense of community and replaced it with far and isolation.
In this colonia, the first of four ARISE locations opened. Today there are locations in three additional colonias, each offering educational programs and workshops for youth and adults that focus on personal development and leadership. And true to Sister Gerrie’s vision, ARISE is staffed and run by women from the colonias who listen and respond to the community’s needs. ARISE also empowers the people of the colonias to be their own advocate through civic engagement, so they can voice their own needs in the communication about education, infrastructure and immigration policies. Learn more about ARISE.
Ministering with Vulnerable Populations, Especially Women and Children - 1990s-2000s
Escuela de San Jose - Migrant Education Project
Casa Misericordia Offers Shelter and Security for Victims of Domestic Violence
What happens when victims of domestic violence are undocumented? In Laredo, TX, the community turns to Casa Misericordia.
“My baby was four months old, and my son was four years old. My son was diagnosed with dyslexia, autism and ADHD. My husband did not want to accept that our son was ill. This caused many of our fights and much of my beatings.”
The police brought Maria and her children to Casa Misericordia, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Laredo, Texas. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the women at Casa are undocumented, and their immigration issues often compound their domestic situations, says Sister Rosemary Welsh, executive director of Casa.
Maria's story is just one of many. "We have to take every opportunity we can when it comes to helping our immigrant brothers and sisters," said Sister Rosemary. "Hearts can be changed by this work of Mercy."
Recent and Current Ministries with Immigrants and Refugees - 2000-now
Sister Kathleen Erickson's Ministry on the U.S.-Mexico Border and in Omaha, NE
"I lived at the border for about 18 years. Of course that added a whole lot to my life and my understanding of...just about everything."
From when we first landed in America, Sisters of Mercy have tended to the needs of immigrant communities and we will continue to do so.
In 2017, Sister Kathleen Erickson helped organize a border immersion experience for sisters and staff at Mercy ministries. Watch her here describe her ministry on the U.S.-Mexico border and with immigrants in Omaha, Nebraska.
Interview with Numan, a Syrian Refugee, 2017
"So the thing is about being a refugee is that nobody asks to be a refugee; you’re just thrown into it... It was never our decision to become refugees."
– Numan, a refugee from Aleppo, Syrian
In 2017, we invited Mercy students to tell a story through video of how people in their communities #MakeMercyReal by living out our Critical Concerns. "Not a Choice," submitted by Galina Lang of Mercy High School San Francisco, was an Honorable Mention and features an interview with a Syrian refugee now living in San Francisco.
Sisters JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy at Broadview, IL, Detention Center
Over 10 years ago, Chicago-area Sisters of Mercy JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy began to pray outside an ICE facility in Broadview, IL. Slowly they began to push for access to the facility to provide religious counseling to detainees and began to start asking questions of their local representatives about the conditions at the facility.
"The root cause of it all is poverty. It's the poverty and the wars and the conflicts that are driving these people. To turn children away, and women — what they've gone through — those are the things that cry to heaven for vengeance... This whole period is going to go down in history as a shameful period. Just shameful." – Sister Pat Murphy
"All of the officers tried to convince us these are all hardened criminals; why would you bother with them anyways? We’re people of faith, we bother with anyone that needs us." - Sister JoAnn Persch"
Sisters of Mercy will continue to walk with immigrants and refugees
Mercy For Immigrants highlights past and present ministries with immigrants and refugees. Many Sisters of Mercy minister with these populations today across the country in a variety of capacities. From serving as an paralegal on behalf of immigrants in Brooklyn, NY, and Albuquerque, NM, to ministering with immigrants directly in Laredo and El Paso, TX and Chicago, IL, to serving these populations at the diocesan and board level in Portland, ME, and Miami, FL, Sisters of Mercy will continue to welcome and walk with immigrants and refugees now and in the future.
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- Read our blogs about immigration
- View digital exhibits from Mercy Heritage Center
To learn more about the history of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, visit the Mercy Heritage Center, who provided the images and words for most of this webpage.