The Story of the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia

The Story of the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia

This reflection was written by Renee Yan, RSM, and published on August 22, 2022 on the website in celebration of Foundation Day: Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia – August 22, 1861.

Many things live, not just the plants, animals and humans that grace our world.  Memories and promises live.  Vows live. Unlike our physical life, these less tangible realities become stronger with time.  Tales of valor and achievement live, often becoming epic with the passing of the years.

Mercy lives too, blessing not only the current receiver, but the unseen generations to whom it is passed. 

Every morning, old fears and new hopes wake up within us all.  They vie with each other to become the engines of our lives.  The happy ones among us have learned to let hope win.

Mother Patricia Waldron

Mother Patricia Waldron outside Merion’s chapel building, holding a flower. circa 1915

On this date August 22, 1861, a small group of just such happy, hopeful people came to Philadelphia. On that hot August afternoon, the first Philadelphia Sisters of Mercy, led by 26-year old Patricia Waldron, arrived at Broad Street Station in North Philadelphia. They carried no worldly possessions. They came with only a dream for Mercy.  It was a dream so alive in them that it still inspires us today, 161 years later.

Can’t you see them standing on the busy platform, the hissing steam trains encircling them in mist?  They must have felt “be-misted” themselves, these mostly Irish country girls engulfed in a big city.

Union troops heading south crowded the platform.  Busy Broad Street crackled with news of the burgeoning national strife.  Lincoln himself would visit the city in the coming weeks.

And hidden within the seams of this bustling city’s garment lay the poor
– the ones for whom they had come.  
How to reach them?  
How to help them change their lives?

Ranging from sixteen to twenty-seven years old, these brave young women had been charged with establishing a kind of “new nation” themselves – not of politics, but of mercy.  No doubt they, like the young stout-hearted soldiers surrounding them, were also a little weak-kneed. They too had their battles to face. They too would see starvation, illness, attack and death – but their spirits would endure for the sake of the Mercy dream, God’s dream for the poor.

Mercy Cemetery – Merion, PA

Enduring dreams begin with small first steps.  So, hailing a horse-drawn carriage, Mother Patricia Waldron led her young band to their new lives.  At first, they lived in a small house in Assumption Parish, Philadelphia. 

Not too much later, the growing band moved to the venerable Broad Street Convent, now of happy memory.

Convent of Mercy – Broad Street and Columbia Avenue, Philadelphia

Thus, on this date, Mother Patricia and her companions began the grace-filled saga many of us know so well and of which we are a part today.  Their dream lives in us who love Mercy:

  • in our continued effort to find those who are poor and sick
    in a world that ignores them
  • in our choice to be compassionate
    in a world that often chooses violence
  • in our commitment to care
    in a world of treacherous indifference

On that sultry August day 1861, and on this one 2022, people have choices to make. They have vows and promises to keep. Some choices live forever. In the name of Mercy, what will you choose today?