The convent chapel of the Sisters of Mercy motherhouse on Mansfield Avenue in Burlington is magnificent. It captures the late Victorian imagination of imposing scale and architecture with its dark wood and high ceiling. The stained glass windows depicting various saints serenely filters the morning and evening light that cascades over the sisters at prayer and at Mass. One can only imagine that if these chapel walls could talk, they would tell the fascinating and inspiring history of over a century of spiritual and corporal works of mercy performed by generations of sisters who have knelt before the Lord. In that chapel they draw from him strength, a strength to go out on mission and refreshment upon their return.
In 1872, Bishop Louis de Goesbriand invited four sisters to St. Johnsbury and then to Burlington to teach at Catholic schools. A decade later, the sisters moved into the Mount St. Mary Convent on Mansfield Avenue where they continued their teaching and visiting the poor and sick. As the spiritual, educational and corporal needs of the fledgling diocese increased, so did the sisters' response.
"We take a fourth vow," explained Mercy Sister Laura Della Santa. "In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Sisters of Mercy promise 'service to the poor, the sick and the uneducated and those in need.'" During the 19th century, as Vermont villages swelled with new immigrants, the sisters found themselves establishing convents and schools across the state.
Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland, used to instruct the sisters: "Read the signs of the times and administer to that." Sister Laura emphasized that the works of mercy never become obsolete. The signs of the times may vary in terms of specifics, but caring for the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the uneducated, and burying the dead will continue to present ministerial opportunities not only for religious and consecrated life, but for all Catholics.
During this Year of Mercy, Sister Laura hopes that graces from the Jubilee will touch the hearts of women to join their community. The key word is "community." Religious life is community life. "Here the older sisters are as much a part of our life as the younger, active sisters," Sister Laura explained as we waited to visit two of the older Sisters of Mercy. Sister Alma Levesque joined the Sisters of Mercy as soon as she graduated from Windsor High School. She is now in her mid-90s. She has performed works of mercy in Catholic schools throughout most of the state of Vermont in her long career. Down the hall from Sister Levesque is Sister Clare Naramore who is over 100 years old. Sister Clare recounted with a radiant smile how she had taken on a "new mission" of mercy when she was in her 60s – she went to China! There she spent 11 years until she was recalled under obedience at the age of 73 to retire. Both sisters gather daily to pray the rosary and attend the conventual Mass. They've never stopped being faithful to their vocations as Sisters of Mercy.
Additionally Sister Laura Della Santa speaks of the incredible partnership with the men and women actively engaged in a formal relationship with the Sisters of Mercy serving in ministry and as lay Mercy Associates. "Associates live out their commitments in independent lifestyles, answering the call to mercy within the context of their daily lives," she said.
The Judeo-Christian message of mercy is just as relevant today as it has always been. In every era God raises up men and women devoted to mercy like those stained-glass saints depicted in the Victorian chapel on Mansfield Avenue. May this Jubilee Year of Mercy inspire a new generation of religious women to go out on "new missions" in search of the poor, the sick and the uneducated and may they find their strength and refreshment in the Lord, whose "mercy endures forever." (Ps 136)
Plan to prayerfully celebrate all those who have served God and his people by attending the diocesan Year of Mercy prayer service at 3:00 p.m. on Feb. 21 at St. Joseph-Co-Cathedral in Burlington. All are invited and encouraged to attend.
- Published in Diocesan