As early as 1827, Catherine McAuley, a wealthy heiress in Dublin, Ireland, began caring for women and children in need. She provided safe housing, taught the uneducated and visited the ill. By 1831, she officially dedicated her life and her inheritance to this mission by establishing the Sisters of Mercy.
The community grew rapidly and the Sisters were much in demand. At the time of Catherine’s death in 1841, she had established Mercy communities throughout Ireland and England. By 1856, the Sisters of Mercy had expanded into Scotland, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand. Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of Irish laborers and their families were emigrating to the Americas and the Sisters of Mercy came with them, establishing schools and hospitals.
The Sisters Arrive in Cedar Rapids
The first Sisters of Mercy came to Cedar Rapids from the Iowa towns of Davenport and Independence, where communities had been established in 1869 by sisters from Chicago. Three Sisters, Mary Isadore O’Connor, Mary Boniface Daly, and Mary Gertrude McCullough, arrived in Cedar Rapids on July 22, 1875, and four more came from Davenport two weeks later. They were responding to a request for teachers for the new St. Joseph Academy, a boarding school for girls and a parochial day school. The only transportation to the town was by steamboat or rail.
In the Beginning
St. Joseph Academy was to be housed in a new building near the commercial center of the city. When the Sisters arrived the building was not only unfurnished, but unfinished! Upon viewing the building, one sister is said to have exclaimed, “The windows are not in!” Another playfully replied, “Well, we won’t have to wash any windows today.”
Eager to get the building ready for the school year, the sisters rolled up their sleeves to help the carpenters, laying floors and installing windows. In addition to the academy, the building would also serve as the convent and novitiate for the next 30 years.
As early as 1894, the Sisters opened their first hospital, which was located in the rural Iowa community of Anamosa. In 1900, because the only hospital in Cedar Rapids was consistently filled beyond its capacity, the sisters opened a 15-bed hospital in a converted house. Response from the citizens was overwhelming and by 1903, after much scrambling for funds, the sisters moved Mercy Hospital to a brand new building with 100 patient beds and the most advanced technology of the day. A year later they welcomed their first class of students to the Mercy School of Nursing. They later added schools of Medical Technology and Radiology.
The Academy and Junior College
By 1906, their convent, novitiate and school were all bursting at the seams and the search began for a larger site. Eventually, the sisters located and leased the Judge Greene mansion, which was then beyond Cedar Rapids' city limits. Over the years, the property had at times been home to three shady horse thieves, an alleged counterfeiter, and finally, a Supreme Court judge. Judge George Greene was responsible for having the mansion built and was the first legally recognized owner of the property, the others being considered squatters.
The mansion had been vacant for about 10 years, used only as an occasional shelter by hunters, with the ballroom being used for grain storage. After signing a lease, the sisters once again rolled up their sleeves to lovingly prepare the mansion for their motherhouse, novitiate and the fall opening of their girl’s boarding school, Sacred Heart Academy. St. Joseph Academy continued to operate in its original location as a day school.
The farsighted leadership of the Cedar Rapids Sisters of Mercy elected to buy the Greene property in 1907. Future years saw remarkable growth in Sacred Heart Academy boarding school for girls, as it became Mount Mercy Academy in 1924, a junior college in 1928, a four-year college in 1960, and went co-ed in 1969. In 2010, the early vision of the sisters was realized when Mount Mercy became a university.
Through the years, the sisters divested themselves from their involvement with all the rural hospitals. Day-to-day operations/management of Mercy Medical Center, Mount Mercy University and the Catherine McAuley Center have been turned over to each organization’s Board of Trustees. A true continuity of the Mercy mission is maintained by having sisters serving on each board at all times. An Executive Director for Mission and Ministry, who is liaison for all three sponsored works, also ensures that Mercy values will remain the primary focus at each of the sponsored ministries.