A Time to Speak – 150 years of Mercy

Sister of Mercy Paulanne Diebold

Sister Paulanne Diebold, RSM

The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas will celebrate the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Louisville with a liturgy and reception Sept. 29 at Good Shepherd Church.

Their history in the area began Oct. 2, 1869, when, at the suggestion of Bishop William George McCloskey, Sisters of Mercy from St. Louis arrived in the Portland area of Louisville to take over the operation of the U.S. Marine Hospital.

The nursing skills of women religious had become legendary during the Civil War, so it was natural to seek a community of sisters to run the hospital. Under a five-year contract with the federal government, the sisters operated every aspect of the hospital, including direct care for those wounded in the Civil War and in the building of the Portland Canal, as well as lifetime boatmen who were sick or aged.

From the beginning, the sisters also held Sunday school for children and for adults seeking instruction in the Catholic faith. In addition, on Saturdays, they offered sewing and needlework classes for girls. The sisters also started visitation in the area to comfort and assist the poor, sick and elderly. Within a year, they had begun to offer education to hospital patients and other adults in the area.

Young women interested in religious life began to arrive, and soon it was necessary to find a building to house the novitiate. As they say, the rest is history.

Following their work at the hospital, the sisters were invited to staff a few parish elementary schools in the archdiocese and opened Mercy Academy in 1885. It grew rapidly, so in 1901 the sisters opened a new Academy building at 1176 East Broadway, where it operated for 106 years before moving to Fegenbush Lane.

At the request of women for a home for the aged, Bishop McCloskey invited the Sisters of Mercy to take up this mission, and in 1892, Sacred Heart Home was founded. It was sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy until 2016, when it was sold and renamed Nazareth Home Clifton.

The Sisters of Mercy were approached by the Catholic Woman’s Club to take over their mission of providing a residence for working women, so in 1914 the name was changed to the Visitation Home for Working Girls. A community of sisters lived there and, in the early years, were responsible for organizing social activities for the residents. Fortunately, the Auxiliary planned and implemented the programs.

During World War I, many women came in droves to do the men’s jobs and “The Viz,” as the home was called, flourished. Later, it was renamed McAuley Residence for Business Girls. In the 1970s and ‘80s, as the economy became stable and women could afford apartments, the occupancy rate declined to the point where a study was undertaken to determine the viability of the building for future use, resulting in its sale in 1988.

With a great leap of faith, and at the wishes of Archbishop John Floersh, the sisters founded Assumption High School in 1955. It took years of fund-raising spring and fall carnivals to pay off the debt. Referring to those years, Sister Mary Prisca Pfeffer used to say, it was “Struggle, struggle, struggle!”

In addition to staffing 25 schools during their years in the archdiocese, the sisters branched into other areas of service, including jail ministry, CCD at Fort Knox, the Cerebral Palsy School and Mattingly Center, peace and justice ministry, Day Spring, Bridgehaven, Community Ministries, Catholic Charities, Mercy Montessori, Lake St. Joseph Retreat Center, parish ministry, archdiocesan agencies and many others.

The Louisville sisters also ministered in schools in Paducah and Hickman, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio, and at hospitals in Morganfield, Owensboro, Paducah and Irvine, Ky.
Over the years, Mercy’s ministries have evolved to meet the changing needs of the times. Many Sisters of Mercy have dedicated their lives to the well-being of those they served during their 150 years in the Louisville area.

The five sisters currently ministering here stand on the shoulders of these women and give thanks to God for their faithful service.

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