Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sisters of Mercy bring medical skills to California by Kaye Spencer #sweetheartsofthewest #californiahistory #sistersofmercy

Several summers ago, I traveled to Sacramento, California to attend a college graduation. During the few days I was there, I worked in a bit of historical wandering about town. One of the places I visited was the capitol building.

Capitol Building*
Not far from the front door and just off to the left in the shade (as you're facing the front doors) is a commemorative area for the Sisters of Mercy (Catholic religious order, not the Rock 'n' Roll band of the same name). The Sisters of Mercy was a lay order of Catholic women with its beginnings in Ireland of 1831.

Eight Sisters of Mercy left Kinsale, Ireland, sailed to San Francisco, and arrived on December 8, 1854. The leader of this group was 25-year-old Mary Baptist Russell. Then in 1857, five sisters traveled by steamboat to Sacramento to begin their work there.

This plaque summarizes who the sisters were and what their mission was (transcription below the image):
Sisters of Mercy plaque*

"During the Gold Rush Days of 1857 the Sisters of Mercy came to Sacramento to care for the children of the miners and to serve the sick and homeless.

In those early days, the Sisters of mercy purchased land in the heart of the city to build a school. Passage of the 'Capitol Bill' in 1860 resulted in the sale of that property to the State for its original price of $4,850. This is now the site of the State Capitol Building.

The Sisters of Mercy have made significant contributions to the history and progress of the State of California. Their mission to care for the sick, the poor, the elderly and the uneducated continues today throughout the world."

 These quotes about the Sisters of Mercy are from the Roman Catholic Diosese of Sacramento website. Click HERE to read more about them.

The sisters’ sacrifice “is scarcely to be underestimated...

They were largely middle-class women embarking on something that had been unimaginable to them even when they entered the convent, where they expected to be serving Ireland’s poor — not the poor of the world....

Once they arrived in San Francisco after that arduous journey, they were instantly plunged into ministering to the sick, to the homeless, to prostitutes and to children. No lofty missionaries from enlightened Europe, these women were immigrants serving immigrants, aliens in a strange land...

Now, let’s put these women into the historical perspective of their arrival in California.

  • Driving the spike at Promontory Point, Utah, which joined the railroads from the east and west coasts, was twelve years in the future.
  • Colorado's gold rush was still two years away.
  • Travel on the Oregon Trail was in its height.
  • The first pony express rider wouldn't leave Missouri for another three years.
  • Dred Scott decision was made the year the sisters arrived.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin was published five years before they arrived.
  • James Buchanan was president.

  This is the Sisters of Mercy statue that was dedicated by the Mercy Foundation.

Sisters of Mercy sculpture*

The dedication on the nearby plaque reads:

"This sculpture commemorates the 160th anniversary of the Sisters of Mercy caring for those in need in the greater Sacramento region. Mary Baptist Russell, California Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, is depicted here as a woman of vision, courage and compassion, blazing the trail for her companions and followers as they bring hope and healing to those in need.

The works of the Sisters of Mercy are based on the vision of their foundress, Catherine McAuley, who sought to connect the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, and the educated to the uninstructed.

Dedicated by Mercy Foundation on September 29, 2007 - Created by artist Ruth Coelho"

Sisters of Mercy foundress
Catherine McAuley
**attribution below

To read more about the history of the Sisters of Mercy and their origins in Ireland, here are websites  I used as references for this article.

  • California Catholic Conference website:
  • Sisters of Mercy website:
  • Dignity Health website:
Until next time,

Kaye Spencer

*Images from Kaye's personal collection
**McCauley image: Unknown, Photo mcauley, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons


  1. Thank you, Kaye, for a special insight into the Sisters of Mercy. So many religious groups helped found the West that it is hard to imagine life without them at that time. controversial for their proselytizing ways, it was a price paid for services rendered.

    1. Arletta,

      I hadn't thought of it that way, but you summed it up just right that their services came with a price. Their services were not just necessary, they were the difference between life and death for many people. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Kaye, that post gave me goose bumps. Think of a 25 year old being in charge of such a huge commission. Makes me wonder at the ages of the other seven sisters. Also, it shames me for not being more active in helping the poor.

    1. Caroline,

      Yes, I agree. It does make you wonder about their ages. I can't imagine being 25 years old and heading out to another country to provide medical services in an untamed land. Holy moly. Thanks for dropping in.

  3. Kaye, I appreciate learning about the Sisters of Mercy. What remarkable women they were to undertake such a long, dangerous voyage to fulfill their mission. Thanks for sharing your research.

    1. Lyn,

      The Sisters of Mercy remind me of the story of the nuns who went to Santa Fe and established a church there. The story is in the movie "The Staircase" (1998 - Barbara Hershey), which tells about the 'mysterious' carpenter who built the staircase in the Loretto Chapel. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Thank you for researching and sharing this bit of history. I confess I didn't know their history and thought it was just a phrase attributed to nurses. I agree with Lyn Horner's comments and can't begin to imagine what these nuns went through leaving their familiar homeland and going to a foreign land. They are truly to be admired and remembered. I love the beautiful sculpture that honors The Sisters of Mercy.

    1. Elizabeth,

      The dedication these women, and other women, had is amazing. It is a beautiful sculpture. It is located in a shady place, and it is a peaceful place to take a few moments and just 'be'. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  5. So many people forget what organizations like the Sisters of Mercy and The Sisters of Charity did for the opening and settling of the Western States. Love this post. Thanks. Doris


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