Beloved Sister Mary Catherine Reichenberg (Sister Mary Nivard) had been a Sister of Mercy for 74 years. She grew up in East Baltimore, Maryland, and attended St. Paul’s Elementary School and The Catholic High School. Young Catherine began her studies at the Mercy School of Nursing, which included classes at Mount Saint Agnes College. She soon grew to admire the Sisters of Mercy, finding them “holy but down to earth.” She entered the Community in 1947 at Mount Washington and made her novitiate there. She expected to continue her studies in nursing, but soon found herself in the classroom, facing large numbers of children in each class and finding herself happy with this unexpected ministry.
Sister Catherine expected to be moved frequently from one school to another, as that was usual for young sisters, but she was relocated so many times that she never felt settled. Starting out at St. Bernard’s in Baltimore, she was moved to schools in Salisbury, Maryland; Mobile, Alabama; and back to Baltimore to Mount Washington Country School. She also taught at Holy Trinity in Washington, D.C., and at Mercy High in Baltimore, remaining there for her longest stretch—10 years. Sister Catherine regarded these changes as evidence of her flexibility and willingness to teach any and all subjects.
After years of teaching, she was surprised again when she was sent to Mercy Hospital, not to teach or nurse, but to handle the admitting office, and later, the finance office. She was able to remain in Baltimore and, finally, to feel settled. While there, she became aware of a new disease—AIDS. At that time there was no known treatment and a great deal of fear and misinformation. When she discovered that many AIDS patients were completely isolated and prevented from interacting with anyone, Sister Catherine was incensed, and she was determined to do something about it. She educated herself about the disease, reading everything available and becoming more and more involved with groups that were trying to help those diagnosed with AIDS.
By 1988 the infected population was much larger and still growing, so when an opportunity to work directly with AIDS patients became available, Sister Catherine immediately took the job. Outreach to the AIDS community was part of the work being done at the Franciscan Center, a community-based organization, and she was soon on staff there. She became quickly adept at all kinds of services for “her” AIDS patients, finding sources of food and clothing for them, as well as connecting them with agencies and services able to assist them in other ways. Looking back, she saw that she had surprised her religious community as well as herself. Sister Catherine believed she had been a “follower” who always did what she was told and accepted the status quo, but involvement with AIDS changed her. She recalled that “…the Holy Spirit grew in me… I was awakened to what it is to be poor… I woke up and started to use the gifts God gave me … the world opened up to me.”