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Catherine McAuley

On September 24, 1827, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, Catherine McAuley opened the House of Mercy (now Mercy International Centre) at Baggot and Herbert streets in Dublin, Ireland. Catherine, an Irish Catholic laywoman, used her sizable inheritance to build the House of Mercy as a safe shelter and place of education for young women who came to Dublin from the surrounding countryside seeking employment. Unknowingly, Catherine McAuley planted the seeds of a new religious congregation.

On December 12, 1831, after completing her novitiate with the Sisters of the Presentation, Catherine pronounced her vows as the first Sister of Mercy. Sisters of Mercy who minister throughout the world to persons who are poor, sick and uneducated celebrate this as their Foundation Day.

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Frances Warde and Patricia Waldron

In 1843, two years after the death of Catherine McAuley, Mother Frances Warde left Carlow, Ireland, to establish in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first of many Mercy foundations in the United States. It was to one of these foundations, Manchester, New Hampshire, that Sister M. Patrick Joseph Waldron came in 1860 to assume the position of mistress of novices. She had been professed only five years earlier at the Convent of Mercy, Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland.

Sister M. Patrick quickly became known as Sister M. Patricia. Frances Warde preferred the feminine form of religious names. Just as quickly, Frances Warde recognized that her young mistress of novices possessed exceptional leadership qualities. In 1861, she selected Patricia Waldron to establish a new foundation of the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia.

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Philadelphia Foundation

The story of the Philadelphia (Merion) Sisters of Mercy began on August 22, 1861 when Mother M. Patricia Waldron and nine other sisters arrived at Assumption BVM Parish at Twelfth and Spring Garden streets to staff the parish school. Within a few days, the sisters were teaching not only in the parish school but also in the academy (now Gwynedd Mercy Academy Elementary and Secondary Divisions) and the night school for working girls which they opened in the convent. They began visitation of the sick in homes and hospitals and visitation of inmates at the city prisons.

There can be no doubt that Catherine McAuley's firm belief in God's loving providence was bequeathed to Patricia Waldron. When adverse circumstances, only hinted at in the early annals, resulted in the sudden withdrawal of the Sisters of Mercy from Assumption Parish in April, 1863, they quickly found shelter and a site for their educational ministries at a nearby parish, St. Malachy.

In August, 1863 Mother Patricia was presented with the possibility of renting a house at Broad Street and Columbia Avenue for six hundred dollars a year. With five dollars at her disposal, she signed the lease. St. Joseph Convent of Mercy became the first motherhouse of the Merion Regional Community. Eventually, the fledgling community would purchase seven row houses at the Broad Street site to house the professed sisters, the novitiate, the ever-expanding academy, St. Mary's Home for Working Girls and, in later years, Mercy Technical Institute (now Mercy Vocational High School.) Much to the surprise and delight of Mother Patricia, Father Carter, pastor of the parish from which the sisters had withdrawn, paid off the $10,000 mortgage on the second house.

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Merion and Beyond

Another significant chapter in the history of the Merion Regional Community opened in 1884 when Mother Patricia rented a country house in Merion Station where the sisters could go to recuperate from illness and get much needed rest. Within a few months the sisters purchased a house and land on Montgomery Avenue and a year later purchased an adjoining property on which two houses were located. The additional space was needed for the village school and Mater Misericordiae Academy (now Merion Mercy and Waldron Mercy academies) which the sisters opened a few weeks after their arrival. So much for rest and recuperation.

In addition to their usual outreach to persons in the area who were sick and dying, the Sisters of Mercy were quick to respond to requests to staff parish schools in the Merion area. As the community and the academy grew so did the need for more space. Between 1892 and 1906, Mother Patricia oversaw the building of the present Motherhouse. With her usual foresight, she insisted that it include a chapel and auditorium each of which will accommodate more than 400 people.

Patricia Waldron dreamed of establishing a Mercy hospital in Philadelphia. In 1914, she mortgaged the city property to buy the land for Misericordia Hospital but she died on July 30, 1916, two years before the hospital was completed. When Misericordia (now Mercy Hospital of West Philadelphia) opened so did another long chapter in the history of the Merion Regional Community.

In the tradition of Catherine McAuley, Frances Warde and Patricia Waldron, Mercy reached out again and again during the twentieth century. Chapters in the ministry history of the Merion Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy have been written in India, Guam, Guyana, Thailand, Namibia, Canada, Italy, Ireland, Sudan, Peru and more than a dozen states of the United States. Sisters of Mercy are actively involved in education from pre-school through college, in numerous outreaches to persons in need of housing and health care, in retreat work and other spiritual ministries. Mercy Volunteer Corps which began with a single volunteer at Merion is now international. Mercy Associates continue to grow in number and are a vital part of Mercy's outreach to persons in need. Benefactors of the Sisters of Mercy and their ministries enable Mercy to be passed from one generation to the next. What commenced with two in 1831 lives on and the Circle of Mercy grows bigger day by day.

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Mater Misericordiae/Merion Mercy

The Sisters of Mercy arrived in Philadelphia in 1861 and immediately began the work for which the community was founded. By 1884 the community had a strong presence in Philadelphia and started to expand to the country; thus, the grounds at Merion were purchased and a new academy for girls was opened-Mater Misericordiae, now called Merion Mercy Academy.

In her book entitled Mother M. Patricia Waldron, Sister M. Henrietta Connelly wrote the following about Mater Misericordiae:

From 1886 to 1891, the prospects of the academy brightened yearly by reason of increasing enrollments; but the lack of classrooms, dormitories, and other accommodations showed itself more and more clearly. Reverend Mother and the sisters recognized the necessity for another building but they also realized that they must construct not merely for the present. They needed a structure large enough to house both a boarding school and a convent, with adequate provisions for the growth of each. An answer to that need demanded much reflection and foresight. Earnest prayers for a solution were offered daily, and by 1892, the decision had been made.On the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, October 7, 1893, the sisters and students moved into their new domain.

A November, 1965, article in the school newspaper, Ricordia, revisited MMA's early years in an interview with 1895 graduate Mrs. Helen Baird Caldwell. The article in its entirety is republished here both for posterity and for genuine human interest. The reporter is unknown.

Mrs. Helen Baird Caldwell, Mater class of 1895, honored me with an interview on November 12, (1965). She resides at the Presbyterian Home for Single Women and Widows.

Although her rocker swayed only slightly, happiness and interest enlivened her conversation, and the deep cornflower blue of her dress accentuated the friendliness and humor in her face.

'When I was two-years-old, my father bought the General Wayne Inn on Montgomery Avenue,' she began. 'Later, the Mercy sisters from Broad and Columbia bought the tract of land adjoining the Inn. When I was six, I started school at Mater. Classes were first held in a little school house which later developed into Waldron Academy. Then the new school was completed (presently the convent).'

Mrs. Caldwell's class of four was the first to graduate from the new school. During her ten-year schooling, she studied spelling, arithmetic, botany, painting, music, astronomy, Latin and French. Every Friday was 'Judgement Day.' All the girls assembled for their weekly reports. 'We received 'X' for Excellent, 'VG' for Very Good, 'G' for Good, and 'B' for Bad.'

After school, the girls walked over to St. Isadore's, a house on the school grounds to study. Sometimes studying would be disrupted because of the noise from a large, popular racetrack across the street, the Belmont Driving Club.

Although she is Presbyterian, Mrs. Caldwell with deep feeling told me that she loved the Sisters very, very much. 'They were all so good and kind.' Even today, she enjoys the continuing rewards of Mercy education.

During the next 60 years, Mater Misericordiae continued to grow, and by 1954, the present school building was opened for girls in kindergarten through grade 12. The convent space was then devoted completely to housing the sisters.

In 1968 the school's Latin name was changed to English, giving Merion Mercy Academy greater name recognition throughout the Philadelphia region. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Merion Mercy grew in enrollment; additional classrooms were opened in the convent's basement.

Enrollments changed dramatically by the end of the 1980s. In 1986, a decision was made to merge the girls in grades kindergarten through eighth with the boys from Waldron. The entire MMA building was then given to the education of high school girls. The school suffered a declining enrollment through 1989 when general population statistics began to show an increase in the number of high school aged girls. The change in population and a resurgent interest in single gender education found Merion Mercy Academy positioned to welcome an influx of new students. During the past years, the school has had a steady increase in enrollment.

To help address problems facing the school and to keep pace with educational trends, Merion Mercy and Waldron Mercy academies formed a joint board of advisors in 1986. Mr. Harry Bellwoar, a prominent city attorney, served as the board's founding chair and immediately went to work to address short-term problems and long-range plans for the schools.

In 1997, Merion and Waldron formed an advisory board for each of their respective schools. Then by 1999, plans were underway to separately incorporate the schools and form a Board of Trustees. Merion Mercy's board of trustees began its work in October, 2001. Mrs. Marianne Grace, Executive Director for Delaware County, chairs the board.

In June 2002 ground was broken for the school's most significant capital project in 50 years. A new 27,000 square foot addition opened in 2003 with space for a chapel, administrative offices, student center, indoor track, aerobics room and weight room. Significant renovations were also completed in the library/media center and music room.

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Principals of MMA - Current Principal: Sister Barbara Buckley

1884-1904 Mother Mary Gertrude Dowling
1904-1910 Sister Mary Angela Green
1917-1946 Sister Mary Agnes Ficker
1946-1952 Sister Mary Annunciata (Directress)
1946-1948 Sister Mary Gregory Campbell (Principal)
1948-1953 Sister Benedict Mary Freeborn (Principal)
1953-1968 Sister Gertrude Marie (aka Sister Catherine FitzPatrick)
1968-1972 Sister Mary Jean Ritti
1972-1980 Sister Madeleine Marie Sautter
1980-1983 Sister Elizabeth Carroll (aka Sister Mary Hugh)
1983-1989 Sister Mary Anne Nolan
1989-1993 Sister Miriam de Lourdes Hunter
1993-2000 Sister Teresa Mary McGhee
2000-2007 Sister Regina Ward

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