All Sisters of Mercy trace their roots to their foundress, Catherine McAuley, an Irish Catholic laywoman, who recognized the needs of the poor in the early 19th century and realized she and women like her could make a difference. During a 1854 visit to Rome, philanthropist Sarah Peter heard many good things about the Sisters of Mercy in the Crimea and she was determined to bring the Sisters from Kinsale, Ireland, to Cincinnati, with approval from Archbishop John Baptist Purcell. There were 11 Sisters who volunteered, including Mother Teresa Maher. They arrived in Cincinnati on Aug. 18, 1858.
Shortly after their arrival, “The Catholic Telegraph” described their ministry in part: “The special mission of the Sisters of Mercy in this city is to give
gratuitous instruction to young girls in all the ordinary, useful branches
of education…visit the jails and hospitals, sick and destitute, in every part of the city.”
Their first home, named Convent of the Divine Will, was with Sarah Peter on Sycamore Street. On Oct. 11, 1858, they move to their new convent behind St. Thomas More Church, also on Sycamore Street. Before long, local young women noticed the good the Sisters were doing and wanted to be part of the exciting new venture. Between 1858 and 1865, there were an additional 20 Sisters that joined the original group. To support themselves and their works of mercy, one of the Sisters compiled a Prayer and Instruction book, which was sold for the purpose of bringing in some additional finances.
In 1869, the Sisters purchased property on Third Street and built
the Church of the Atonement to bring the Catholic faith to the people since they were finding it very difficult to walk to the cathedral or to the other local churches and still have energy left to do their work. In addition, the Sisters established a school of nursing, opened a laundry for the purpose of training and employing young women, and started their first hospital in Hamilton.
The Sisters of Mercy founded what would become Mother of Mercy High School in Westwood in 1915. Mother of Mercy Villa was originally planned as a secondary school for young women, but it grew to include elementary students in its early years. The first permanent school building was constructed in 1923. The school acquired the name Mother of Mercy in 1943 at the request of Archbishop John T. McNicholas. Continuing their dedication to the education of young women, the Sisters established McAuley High School In 1960. The schools combined in 2018 to form Mercy McAuley High School.
By 1929, there were 60 independent Mercy motherhouses and over 9,000 Sisters of Mercy in the United States. Cincinnati become one of these nine Mercy Provinces, and the Sisters belonging to this Province came from throughout Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and a mission in Jamaica. The Provincialate was located in Cincinnati, first on Freeman Avenue, then on Victory Parkway, and finally on Grandview Avenue. The Sisters of Mercy in Cincinnati are now part of the congregation’s South Central Community.
Over the years, the Sisters’ ministry in education continued to expand with new schools in the Cincinnati area, along with Dayton, Kettering, and Piqua. The Sisters opened Our Lady of Cincinnati College in Walnut Hills and started a free library and other services to the blind through the Mercy Braille Club. They began a school for African-American children in Hamilton, and opened a hospital in Mariemont. The Siena Home for the elderly was opened in Dayton. A Montessori school was begun, and another home for the elderly – Mercycrest – opened in Springfield. Catechetical instructions were given during the summer in rural parishes.
The Sisters’ healthcare ministry also grew over time, with hospitals opening in Fairfield, Coldwater, Urbana, and Batavia. Mercy Health Care Systems was incorporated in 1986, with 12 hospitals participating. Mercy Hospital Anderson opened three years later. In 1997, Mercy Health Care became Catholic Healthcare Partners to reflect the multiple religious communities that sponsored it. It was later shortened to Catholic Health Partners to reflect its growing emphasis on preventative care and overall wellness. It became Mercy Health in 2014, with hospitals and other healthcare facilities across the area.
In other areas of ministry, two Sisters established House of Mercy Environment (HOME) in Walnut Hills for the care of the elderly poor. The program has grown significantly and currently provides a food pantry, home visits, health care screenings, transportation, and a variety of other services for the needy.
A Sister of Mercy currently serves as director of the Tribunal Office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Sisters are also involved in such ministries as community leadership, retreat work, library services, Hispanic ministry, prison ministry, GED Instruction, and spiritual direction. Many Sisters also remain active serving God and His people through various volunteer ministries.