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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sisters of Mercy bring medical skills to California by Kaye Spencer

A few 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.

Sacramento, California - 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. 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 image):

"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 are from this website:

"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 Statue, Sacramento, California*

The dedication 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"

Sister Catherine McAuley*

To read more about the history of the Sisters of Mercy, their origins in Ireland, and their legacy, here are but three of many websites:
Until next time,


Writing the West one romance upon a time

Images from Wikipedia Commons and Kaye's personal collection
McCauley image:
This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.{{PD-US}}


  1. Amazing women, that's for certain. Thanks for sharing, Kaye.

  2. Kristy,

    I think there's a romance lurking somewhere in their story. I just haven't pinned it down yet. *wink*

  3. Thanks, Kaye! Brave women, for sure.

  4. Jacquie

    Yes, they were brave. Pioneer women at heart.

  5. Kaye, I loved this article. The Sisters of Mercy from Ireland reached far and wide into the world including Charlotte, North Carolina. Mercy Hospital, where I worked for 37 years, was also established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1906 and they operated it until 1995. The Sisters opened their doors to all races and religions, making Mercy Hospital the first integrated hospital in Charlotte. They were a pleasure to work for, visited patients and staff every day and knew every staff member's name.
    I was amazed to learn from your article how early the Sisters went to California in a time when there was little in the way of civilized conveniences established there. They were some tough and courageous sisters.
    Great blog, Kaye.

  6. Sarah,

    Thank you for sharing your information and experience with the Sisters of Mercy. I'd read the Sisters of Mercy had branched out to many other places besides California. They were definitely women on a mission, literally and figuratively.

  7. We often forget the 'Sisters' who did so much for this county. Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity, were at the forefront of much of the forward movement of this country. How many women and children can thank their existence to these women? We can never honor them enough. Doris

  8. Doris,

    There is a line spoken by the Lee Marvin character in 'Paint Your Wagon' that rings true when it comes to the role women played in settling and civilizing the West:

    "Pardner, it's been my experience that there ain't nothin' more ruthless and treacherous than a genuine good woman."

    Of course, taken out of context as I did, the quote sounds derogatory, which it isn't at all. What it means to me is women [coming to an untamed land] moved mountains, so to speak, to bring home, hearth, and healing wherever it was needed back then.

    1. The Marvin quote is perfect. I can still hear him saying it in that whiskey tone of voice. Doris

    2. Doris,

      I've been humming Paint Your Wagon tunes all afternoon. I'll have to break out the movie and watch it. The whole movie is somewhat of an earworm. *grin*