I was asked recently to give a talk about Sister Frances Warde to a group of Mercy Associates whose calling is to aid the Sisters in their ministries. My first task was to read biography entitled “Frances Warde - American Founder of the Sisters of Mercy” (1973). The following is the result of my research and what I presented to the Mercy Associates.
Sister Frances Warde
Frances was born in 1810 and was the youngest of six children. She was called Fanny by her family, and even today, I hear some of the Sisters refer to her as Fanny and Franny. Early on, she met Catherine McAuley in Ireland when she was 17 years old. Catherine was 49 years old then and had opened the first House of Mercy on Baggot Street in Dublin. Catherine had not yet started her religious community. Frances was a friend of Catherine’s niece, Mary McAuley, which is how she came to know Catherine. Frances loved the social life that she had in Dublin but felt that there was more to life than that. A priest suggested that she donate her time to Catherine’s House of Mercy.
When Catherine McAuley consented to the Bishop’s request that she enter the novitiate of the Sisters of the Presentation, she took two companions with her and left Frances, then a lay person, in charge of the House of Mercy. A year after Catherine was professed, Frances joined them. That was in 1832. They were known as the Congregation of Our Lady of Mercy.
Frances held the job of confidential secretary to Catherine for six years. The friendship between Catherine and Frances was so strong that Catherine hesitated to send Frances away from her to become the head of one of the new foundations in Ireland that were being requested every day. They had very different personalities which was probably the reason for their lasting friendship. Frances was a woman of genius. She was universally loved, though she was not easy to understand. She did not reveal herself to others. She was tall and attractive with blue eyes. The Sisters often remarked about her beautiful smile. The term “queenly” was often used to describe her. Catherine was said to be gentle and docile, while Frances possessed an assertiveness which Catherine did not have. Catherine McAuley was a Sister of Mercy for only ten years, while Frances Warde lived to have her Golden Jubilee the year before she died, in 1884.
When Frances was 27 years old, Catherine appointed her as the first Superior of the Carlow foundation. When the Sisters took possession of their temporary convent on the Carlow College grounds, the abandoned building turned out to be dingy and dilapidated. The priests evidently did not know how to prepare a house for the Sisters. They were promised a newly built convent which finally materialized. The Sisters instructed poor children in the Catholic religion, started what is called a pension school for middle class girls, and Houses of Mercy for working girls. The pension schools or academies received some criticism in later years as they did not serve the poor, but Catherine saw the need for them as income which allowed them to serve the poor. Carlow University in Pittsburgh, a Mercy establishment, is named after this original Carlow foundation. Frances went on to establish three more foundations in Ireland before coming to America.
Map of the United States in 1850
The Bishop of Pittsburgh asked the Sisters of Mercy to come to his diocese in the United States, which they did in 1843, two years after the death of Catherine McAuley. Frances, at the age of 33, was the leader of “the first seven” Sisters of Mercy to go to the New World. They were asked by the Bishop to travel by boat in secular dress. They then had to travel by rail and by stagecoach over the Allegheny Mountains to reach Pittsburgh, their first mission in the United States.
After accompanying five of her Sisters to Chicago to open a House of Mercy, Frances had to return alone to Pittsburgh. Traveling by stagecoach, again she had to wear secular dress and to watch out for attacks by the Know-Nothings, an anti-Catholic group that were a danger to religious. The Sisters had forgotten to give her the basket of food they had prepared for her, so she had no food or drink for two days.
At one point, the travelers had to switch to an ox-cart where they were spattered with mud. She had to stay alone in a hotel in Toledo one night, and the next morning she walked through a blinding snowstorm to find a church where she could go to mass. Here she met Father Louis de Goesbriand who sensed she was a religious woman even though she was in secular dress. They talked together and formed a spiritual bond which would last a lifetime. Twenty-five years later, as the first Bishop of Burlington, Vermont, he asked Sister Frances to found the first convent in Vermont. He preached the sermon at her Golden Jubilee in 1883 and stood beside her body when she was buried in 1884.
When the rickety stagecoach reached Pittsburgh after breaking down ten times, and an iron bar on the coach had fallen on her head, she returned to her convent and hovered between life and death as she had developed double pneumonia.
Another tale involves a man named Kent Stone. In 1868, his wife passed away leaving him with three little girls to take care of. He had held many prominent positions including President of Hobart College. He was also a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. His studies had convinced him that the Roman Catholic Church was the church where he belonged and he became a Catholic, which angered his in-laws.
Kent Stone went to see Frances to ask if he could enroll his daughters in her school in Manchester, New Hampshire, and for her to take charge of their upbringing. He wished to become a Passionist priest, but was not accepted by them because of his responsibilities. The Paulist Fathers would, however, accept him. Frances understood and trusted him. She took the girls who made their home in Frances’ convent, and they were baptized in the Catholic Church. The littlest one was seen following Frances everywhere. Sadly, Kent Stone’s superiors asked Frances not to write to Kent Stone regarding the girls as they felt that as a religious priest he should separate himself from his family. This caused great heartbreak on both sides. The second child, who was called Ethel Xavier, developed pneumonia and died. Kent was sent for, but she died shortly before his arrival. She was buried in the same cemetery where Frances Warde was later buried. The other two little girls were adopted by a family in California who stipulated that Kent Stone should give up his parental rights to the girls. He achieved his desire to become a Passionist priest and was called Father Fidelis. Three years later, he conducted the annual Retreat of the Sisters in Manchester, as well as a Retreat for them even after Frances Warde’s death.
There is no telling what more Catherine McAuley might have accomplished had she been a Sister of Mercy for more than her allotted ten years, but as we can see, Frances Warde’s work in the U. S. far overshadowed what Catherine accomplished in her lifetime. Of course, it is Catherine’s spirit which is infused in all the Houses of Mercy around the world. Nevertheless, it is often felt that Frances has not always received the recognition she deserves.
Sister Catherine McAuley
The community of the Sisters of Mercy is the largest English-speaking congregation of religious women in the world. The Sisters conduct colleges, secondary schools, elementary schools, academies and business schools, hospitals and schools of nursing, child care centers, social service centers, homes for the aged, residents for women, retreat houses and night refuges, catechetical centers and numerous other apostolates. There are more convents of Mercy in America than in all other countries in the world combined. The majority of American convents trace their origin directly to Frances Warde.
It might be well to mention that during the Civil War, the Sisters of Mercy nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers. President Lincoln commissioned a painting of the Sisters of Mercy with the wounded soldiers. There are many duplicates available, but the original has been lost.
Of the original seven Sisters who were sent to the New World, six are buried in the Sisters of Mercy Cemetery in Latrobe, Pa. Only Sister Frances Warde’s body is in Manchester, New Hampshire. Efforts to bring her to Latrobe have failed. Manchester does not want to give her up.
It is hoped that this examination of the life of Sister Frances Warde will give you an appreciation of the works that are performed by her Sisters who continue to bring the spirit of Catherine McCauley and Frances Warde to those with the greatest need.
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