Our Spirit, Our Story…

Our History

Eight adventurous Sisters of Mercy left Kinsale, Ireland, and landed in San Francisco on December 8, 1854. Their leader, 25-year-old Mary Baptist Russell, led the small band first into healthcare, as they nursed the City through the cholera epidemic the next year. Their ministries branched out into protection and education of young women, care of the elderly, prison ministry, and education. Remarkable for their compassion and competence, these sisters were soon joined by other young women.

Ibaptist_russelln a city dominated by the Know-Nothings and Vigilance Committees, the sisters had to withstand serious anti-Catholic prejudice at first, but San Francisco was won over by their much needed nursing expertise and their willingness to care for women of the streets, wards of the court and the elderly. They were vital strands in the “safety net” of the local community not far removed from the rowdy days of the ’49ers and the California Gold Rush.

Some think of Mary Baptist as the pioneer who founded many desperately needed institutions, but many more recall her for her big heart. When visiting the very poor, she would tidy the rooms, make a fire and often would draw on the hospitals’ linen closet for supplies. Another sister finally firmly locked the closet to keep the sheets for the patients. When Mary Baptist died she was known as “the best known charitable worker in the West.”  At the time of her death in 1898, the sisters had established St. Mary’s Hospital in 1857, St. Peter’s Academy in 1878, and the Magdalen Asylum 1865 inSan Francisco and Our Lady of Lourdes Academy 1877 in Oakland.


San Francisco Sisters set up a hospital tent in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 earthquake.

Sisters went to Sacramento and founded what became the Auburn Mercy community in 1857. This foundation became separate from the sisters in San Francisco when the Sacramento Diocese was formed in 1886.

Sisters had come from other Mercy convents in the US to establish foundations in Rio Vista, San Diego, Los Angelesand Phoenix, Arizona. By 1922 these groups had amalgamated with the sisters in San Francisco. In 1924 they acquired the former Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, 20 miles south of San Francisco, and established the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy of California and Arizona there. The sisters opened Mercy High School on the campus in 1931.

Education a Priority

Holding firm to the belief that the education of the poor is central to their charism, the sisters began a variety of educational ministries in 1870, including job training and religious education. They staffed a number of elementary schools and still sponsor two high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mercy High School in Burlingame and Mercy High School in San Francisco

Work in Peru

In 1964 sisters were missioned to the Altiplano of Peru to serve the poor.  Sister Carmen Rosa Ccallomamani, RSM, the first Burlingame sister professed in Peru and an Aymara woman, commented on the professions of two more women in 2002: “This was a day long awaited, a day that signifies great hope for the future of the Sisters of Mercy.  I feel that each day becomes more real with the presence and the charism of Catherine here in Peru.” Sisters inPeru became part of the new Caribbean, Central America and South America Community as of July 1, 2006.

Mercy Center Opens        Mercy_Center_front

In 1981 Mercy Center opened in what had been the novitiate building on the Burlingame campus. Educational and spiritual conferences, retreats and other events are held year-round in this Center, known worldwide for its pioneering work in spiritual direction, Taizé prayer and East-West meditation. Spiritual direction training on the West Coast began at Mercy Center. More and more people were seeking spiritual directors because, as Sister Mary Ann Scofield, RSM said, “They are having experiences of God and don’t know where to have them tended.”

Housing and Healthcare

St. Mary’s Hospital founded by Mary Baptist in 1857, joined other Mercy hospitals in Californiaand Arizona, as well as hospitals sponsored by other communities of women religious and community hospitals to become Catholic Healthcare West in 1986. These Mercy-founded CHW hospitals in Bakersfield, Oxnard and Pleasant Valley, and Phoenix are still the focal points for sisters and associates’ ministries in those areas. Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego carries on the tradition of compassionate care in the Scripps system.

The Burlingame Region joined the now nationwide Mercy Housing in 1989. Sister Lillian Murphyof Burlingame leads the national organization in its efforts to “create healthy communities by developing, operating, and financing quality, affordable, service enriched housing.”  

Union with Elder Care Alliance

Mercy Retirement and Care Center, a ministry which began in 1871, joined Elder Care Alliance in 1997 for compassionate, faith-centered senior care.

Sisters and Associates On Their Ministries Today

   “I can’t imagine being alive and not being able to do music. Music is so universal, like Mercy, available to everybody. It’s a wonderful ministry. It’s God’s Work.—Sister Cecile Ley, RSM, Hospital Music Chaplain

   "Hospice is about living, not dying, I've planned weddings, high school graduations, retirements from the Navy, and I've declared Christmas in early December. It's intense but not depressing at all."—Sister Maureen Kelley, RSM, Hospice Chaplain

   “God has provided each step of the way. When funds seemed bleak…I continued in this mission of mercy following the model of Catherine McAuley. Miracles have happened!” Associate Cindy Burger, Director, Grace in Action, a liaison between local churches and homeless people.

   “As I work with the people here I realize how a lack of love seems to be at the bottom of all distress and evil in the world. In these poor dysfunctional families we work with I have come to realize that the most important role in the world is that of parent, and one generally for which there is no training”. —Sister Mary Rose Christy, RSM.  (Sister Mary Rose died in 2011 but was founder and director of an association that works with the poor in Romania.)

150th Anniversary

In 2004, the Burlingame and Auburn regions celebrated the 150th anniversary of the coming of Mary Baptist and her small band to San Francisco from Kinsale. In 2008, the former Burlingame Region joined five other regions to become the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest.

Our work together is the beginnings of Reimagining our life together.