STILL SERVING CHICAGO - STILL LIVING THE MISSION
Mercy’s history of caring reaches back more than two centuries to the commitment of one person, Catherine McAuley, who was born in Dublin in 1778. It was a time of strife and widespread poverty in Ireland. British law excluded Catholics from educational opportunities, equal civil rights, and the open practice of their faith. Catherine was born the daughter of a successful Catholic businessman, James McAuley. In this time of despair, Catherine's father was very concerned about the plight of the poor and oppressed. He died when Catherine was only five years old.
The death of Catherine’s father and then her mother left the McAuley children orphans. Catherine was taken in by the Callaghans, close family friends and strict Quakers. While she was able to follow in her father’s footsteps by working with the poor of Dublin, this strict household did not allow for the open practice of Catholicism. Twenty years later, however, Catherine inherited the Callaghan family estate and was able to practice her religion and pursue her calling to help those in need.
House of Mercy Established
Catherine commissioned a building for the needy on Dublin’s fashionable Baggot Street. It was called the House of Mercy and opened September 24, 1827. The social elite of Dublin began volunteering to teach and care for the children of the poor. Staff members tended to the sick in their homes and in public hospitals. Young women were trained in needlework, etiquette and domestic services so that they might find paying work in the nearby homes of the wealthy.
The spirit of selflessness and giving at the House of Mercy so moved the Archbishop of Dublin that he asked Catherine to establish a religious order that her work might endure. In 1831, after training and preparation for a life of religious service, Catherine McAuley and two colleagues founded the Sisters of Mercy upon a commitment to help the poor, sick and uneducated and all of those wounded by contemporary society. This commitment remains central to the Mercy Mission.
Catherine McAuley died of tuberculosis just ten years after founding her community, but by then there were 100 Sisters to carry on her work. Today there are more than 4,500 Sisters of Mercy.
In 1843, only two years after Catherine’s death, her closest friend and assistant Mother Mary Frances Xavier Warde brought a group of Sisters to America. They would establish Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh – the oldest Catholic hospital in the United States.
Sisters of Mercy Land on Chicago Shores
Three years later, at the request of Bishop Quarter from the new frontier diocese of Chicago, Mother Mary Frances Xavier Warde chose five Sisters from the growing community in Pittsburgh and set out for Chicago. This muddy village on the shores of Lake Michigan was ravaged by recurrent outbreaks of typhoid, smallpox, and cholera.
In 1846, Sister Agatha O’Brien, who at age 24 was the oldest of the five Sisters, began establishing area schools. One of the schools offered high school classes, 10 years before the opening of Chicago’s first public high school. The Sisters created a boarding school for working girls; treated the sick in their homes, in the alms house and in the local jail. Within a decade, four of the five Sisters had died of disease or exhaustion.
Mercy Becomes Chicago's First Chartered Hospital
In 1852, at a site that today would be near Rush Street and the Chicago River, the Sisters of Mercy converted an old rooming house into Mercy Hospital, the first chartered hospital in Chicago.
By 1859, Mercy Hospital was the first Catholic hospital to affiliate with a medical school – Lind Medical School – and the first to require a graded curriculum. The hospital moved to a brand new building at Wabash and Van Buren and was renamed Mercy Hospital and Orphan Asylum. It was here that Mercy’s goals became clearly defined – to provide both high quality medical care and excellence in medical education.
In the 1860s, when the country was ripped apart by the Civil War, the Sisters of Mercy treated the Union wounded and gave care to the Confederate prisoners of war.
In 1863, with the war not yet ended, the Sisters moved their hospital once again. This time, they moved to the site of a former academy at 26th Street and Calumet Avenue, in what seemed like the far distant countryside of Chicago. Many city residents shook their heads over a hospital so far out in the country. There was also criticism when they broke ground in 1869 for extensive additions to the hospital.
Mercy is the Savior of the Chicago Fires
But two years later every bit of that space would be needed. In October of 1871 Chicago burned. Mercy Hospital, which had seemed so ridiculously large and foolish placed on the fringe of the city, became a haven beyond the fire’s reach and provided for as many as six times the number of fire victims any other hospital could handle. The history of Mercy and the history of Chicago had become inseparable. Mercy’s importance to this remarkable new city rising on the prairie was rooted.
In a commitment to both high medical and teaching standards, facilities were expanded, upgraded, and remodeled. By the turn of the century, Mercy Hospital had evolved from a makeshift outpost of assistance to one of the nation’s great medical institutions.
In the decades that followed, Mercy remained in the vanguard of medical treatment. Thousands of medical doctors were trained there. Despite the fame and glory that came to Mercy, the Sisters did not neglect Catherine McAuley’s commitment to those wounded by contemporary society. In 1921, the Sisters of Mercy took over a World War I Veterans’ Dispensary to offer medical and surgical services to the poor. During the depression, the Mercy Free Dispensary served the jobless until the national economic tragedy forced it to close down. Yet in 1938, the dispensary opened again, providing needed health care services to tens of thousands.
In the early 50s, plans for building a new Mercy were being made. The original plan had called for Mercy and the Stritch School of Medicine to locate on the same campus in the suburbs. But Mercy would not abandon their commitment to provide medical care for patients most in need.
The Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, also understood the importance of Mercy to Chicago. Through the Department of Urban Renewal, Daley helped Mercy acquire the land between 25th and 26th Street, from Michigan Avenue to King Drive. Mercy would remain a part of Chicago. And in January of 1968, Chicago’s oldest hospital became its newest with the opening of a 517-bed facility.
Today, Mercy Hospital and Medical Center is part of a nation wide network of Mercy Healthcare facilities within reach of 75% of the American population. Since that September day in 1846, when the first Sisters of Mercy dared to venture west to the brawling frontier town of Chicago, the commitment of Catherine McAuley has been tested by fire, disease, and financial hardship – that commitment has thrived bringing hope, comfort and caring to a growing metropolis. The history of Mercy is a rich strong history and it is growing even stronger.