Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Frances Xavier Warde

Inspired by a plaque discovered while strolling through the streets of Pittsburgh this weekend, Today’s AWU Woman of the Day is: Frances Xavier Warde. Born at Belbrook House, Mountrath, Queen's County, Ireland, 1810; died September 17,1884 in Manchester, N.H. She led a group of six Sisters across the Atlantic from Ireland and started a chapter of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States. The Sisters of Mercy began in Ireland in the 1820’s as the House of Mercy established by Catherine McAuley. The House of Mercy became home to the Sisters of Mercy, a new congregation of religious women who, in time, added a fourth vow – a vow of service – to their lifelong commitment to Christ and to his sisters and brothers in need of education, health care, and relief from poverty. As they continued to walk among those they served, the Sisters of Mercy experienced the transformation of early criticism into an admiring nickname – the “walking sisters.”

In 1843 Frances Xavier Warde began in Pittsburgh and by the time of her death in 1884, she had helped establish over 82 Mercy convents, schools, hospitals, orphanages and other works of mercy in some 20 cities across 9 states. Over the course of the next 120 years, many more communities of religious women came to Western Pennsylvania. Some were cloistered nuns, dedicated to a life of prayer. Many came in answer to the call for teachers in the parochial schools established in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Erie, Altoona-Johnstown and Greensburg. Some of those communities also responded to the need to provide nurses and agreed to begin healthcare facilities of their own, or to staff or manage hospitals sponsored by local community groups.

A handful of religious communities were devoted exclusively to healthcare. In all, a total of 16 communities of Roman Catholic Sisters worked in over thirty-four hospitals and healthcare facilities in Western Pennsylvania during the period from 1847 to 1969. Although some communities are no longer involved in hospital work, their work in various healthcare-related ministries continues to the present day.

When Sisters began their nursing ministry, some ten years before Florence Nightingale made professionalism a watchword among nurses, they were looked down on for being both nurses and Roman Catholics. Anti-Catholic sentiment was high during those early years in the history of the United States. The turning point for the Sisters and their work was the Civil War. As one of the first groups of organized nurses, Sisters were called to service to care for soldiers regardless of whether Union or Confederate, and without regard to race or religion. The Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh responded to the call of Abraham Lincoln and sent Sisters to run military hospitals and care for injured soldiers from the battle fields. Their service, along with that of other congregations throughout the country was recognized by President Lincoln.

"Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of Catholic Sisters were among the most efficient. I never knew whence they came or what was the name of their order. More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art so long devoted to illustration of love, mercy, and charity are the pictures that remain of those modest Sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and dying..." [Attributed to Lucius Chittenden in his book "Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration" (1891)]

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