Our Spirit, Our Story…
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*, came to Cedar Rapids from Independence on July 22, 1875, and four more came from Davenport two weeks later, in response to a request for teachers for the new St. Joseph Academy, a boarding school for girls and a parochial day school. The first elected superior was Sister M. Agatha Mullany. M. Gertrude was her assistant and later, a superior. The only transportation to the town was by steamboat or rail, with rail being the mode from Independence, making for a hot, dusty and tiring journey.
The 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 finish the building, 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 Iowacommunity 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.
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 the city limits.
The mansion had been vacant for about ten 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 Academywould continue to operate in its original location as a day school.
The year 1906 was busy as the sisters also opened St. Berchman’s Seminary in Marion, Iowa. Originally planned as a day school for boys and girls, by 1915 it was exclusively a boy’s boarding school, which it remained until closing in 1942.
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 institution became Mount MercyUniversity, offering graduate programs in nursing, business administration, education and marriage and family therapy. Although the Greene Mansion was razed in 1964, a new Sacred Heart Convent was erected on the same campus as Mount Mercy as a home for the Sisters of Mercy. Today, Sacred Heart Convent continues to serve Sisters of Mercy in the Cedar Rapidsarea.
Although it would seem the Cedar Rapids sisters were busy enough in the early 20th century, in their spare time they also managed to build, furnish, open, staff and operate hospitals inOelwein, Iowa and Kalispell, Montana.
Sisters built hospitals, schools
Since their arrival in Cedar Rapids, the Sisters of Mercy were dedicated to the education of the young. Over the years, they taught and served as administrators in many Iowa parochial elementary and high schools: a total of six different schools in Cedar Rapids; two in Marion; three in Waterloo; and in 13 other rural districts. Edina, Minnesota, and Kalispell, Montanawere also blessed with their teaching ministries.
From 1964 to 1969 the sisters operated St. Ann’s Home, a residence for single expectant young women. The radical changes in social attitudes that swept the country in the 1960s ultimately made St. Ann’s superfluous.
The Sisters of Mercy along with community supporters in Cedar Rapidsopened the Catherine McAuley Center on July 20, 1989 to provide basic education for adults and a transitional housing program for women. TheCatherine McAuley Center’s basic education program provides free one-on-one tutoring for adult women and men. Students come to the Center to enhance their education, improve their English speaking skills, or work toward earning a GED or complete course work to prepare for the United States Citizenship test. In addition to the Catherine McAuley Center’s basic education program is its transitional housing program for women. The program provides unaccompanied women over the age of 18 with a safe place to live and an individualized program of guidance and education to help the women stabilize their lives.
After years in the schools in Waterloo, Iowa, the Sisters of Mercy began a new venture in 2003, opening a House of Mercy. The House of Mercy provided a Mercy ministry presence in economically poor neighborhoods. Open in the Waterloo community for five years, the House of Mercy allowed the Sisters of Mercy to provide to the neighborhood services such as tutoring, mentoring women, accompanying Spanish-speaking persons to appointments and become advocates for systematic change.
Collaboration with Common Bond
Although the House of Mercy closed, it led the way for the Sisters to collaborate with CommonBond Communities to build Unity Square, a low-income housing community in 2010. A part of Unity Square is Mercy Center centrally located in the housing community to provide on-site resident services, such as mentoring for adults and children, computer classes and employment preparation.
Sisters gather with CommonBond representatives at the grand opening of Unity Square inWaterloo, Iowa
In the 21st century, Sisters of Mercy continue to spread the mission of Mercy in the Cedar Rapids community and beyond in day-to-day operations in ministry work or as board members of Mercy sponsored institutions.