GLASGOW – They are small in number in Delaware, but the Religious Sisters of Mercy have made a big impact on their students at Christ the Teacher School in Glasgow.
Sisters LaVerne King, Rosalie Pronsati and Dolores Huhman minister at the 600-student school, and although their order does not sponsor the school, the charism of the order has permeated its halls. This has been very carefully and thoroughly infused by the sisters.
Christ the Teacher celebrated Mercy Day on Sept. 24, but, according to Sister Rosalie, every day is mercy day for the students and staff.
“They can tell you who Catherine McCauley is,” she said, referring to the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. “They can tell you something about her, something about the Sisters of Mercy. What makes them special or what they do besides teach here. I think they can all say that mercy has to do with service, and mercy has to do with welcoming.”
McCauley, an Irish nun, founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831. She inherited a considerable amount of money from her family and used it to establish a house where she and other women would care for homeless women and children and provide them an education. St. John Paul II declared her venerable in 1990.
Sept. 24 was a special day at Christ the Teacher. In the morning, the school dedicated its Mercy Wall, which features a portrait of McCauley. That afternoon, at an assembly in the gymnasium, the school was designated a No Place for Hate school by the Anti-Defamation League, the first Catholic school in Delaware to receive that honor.
To gain that designation, the school community instituted programs on anti-bullying; reinforced the values of acceptance and inclusiveness; formed a Diversity Club; and participated in a “No Name-Calling Week.”
“It’s more than just three projects. It’s about how you treat everyone every day,” sixth-grade teacher Paul Ackerman told the students. Ackerman has worked with the ADL in Philadelphia.
That effort fits nicely with the charism of the Mercy Sisters. According to the website of the order, “each Sister of Mercy is called by her vows to be a point of convergence between the mercy of God and the misery of mankind.” They do this in their various ministries, which in Delaware includes education and, in the case of the fourth Sister of Mercy who lives in Delaware, health care. Sister Peggy Mahoney ministers at St. Francis Hospital.
The Mercy ‘hearse’
For Sister LaVerne and Sister Rosalie, their introduction to the Sisters of Mercy came at their respective high schools, Bishop Egan in Levittown, Pa., and Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, Pa.
“We had five or six communities of sisters, but the Mercies stood out for me. I just liked their charism. They did a lot of service work, got us involved in service. And that was a blessing to me,” said Sister LaVerne, who was appointed principal of Christ the Teacher in June 2001, more than a year before the school opened.
Sister Rosalie, the coordinator of religion at Christ the Teacher, had several Sisters of Mercy teach her as a freshman, and by the next year, she was intrigued. “They would come to school in this hearse — we called it the Mercy hearse — this big black car, and they always seemed so happy. Whenever you saw them, they seemed to gel so well together.
“It was just the way they related to each other, and the way they related to us, the girls. And they really treated us like people that had a thought in our heads. They were very understanding, and demanding. That was kind of the seed.”
Sister Dolores, known by everyone as Sister Dolly, was born at Misericordia Hospital in Philadelphia, operated by the congregation. She recalled that in eighth grade she had an assignment on vocations, and she wrote to the Sisters of Mercy because her sister had introduced her to one, Sister Natalie Marie. When Sister Dolly was a student at St. Hubert’s High School in Philadelphia, Sister Natalie Marie was one of her teachers.
Sister Dolly, Christ the Teacher’s main office manager, visited several congregations before she entered religious life, “but I always went back to the Mercies in my mind. There was something about them that called out to me, and I felt that was the community where God was calling me.”
The trio is surprised there isn’t more of a presence of Mercy Sisters in the Diocese of Wilmington given the order’s proximity to Delaware and Maryland. The provincial headquarters is in Merion Station, Pa., about 45 minutes from Wilmington.
“Over the years, we’ve been small in number in Delaware. We’ve been in Oregon, Florida, Peru. I don’t know if there was a particular reason for it. It just didn’t happen,” Sister LaVerne said.
Year of Mercy coming
Christ the Teacher is unusual in that three members of the same religious order are on the staff. That doesn’t happen often any longer at schools that aren’t operated by a congregation, such as Mount Aviat Academy in Childs, Md., which is run by the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales. Sister LaVerne said the Mercy Sisters at Christ the Teacher aren’t going anywhere soon, but they want to make sure their lessons endure.
“Our hope is that we put a strong enough understanding of mercy in this school that long after we’re gone, mercy will continue here. We hope that through the people we’ve taught, the charism will live on,” she said, referring to the faculty as well as the students.
Sister Rosalie said the students show mercy by the service they perform, often on their own during the summertime, for various organizations, their parishes and their communities.
“That carries over and it comes back,” she said. “They do hear us, and hopefully they put it into practice.”
The sisters live in community in a way; Sisters LaVerne and Rosalie share an apartment in Bear, while Sister Dolly lives with Sister Peggy in north Wilmington. They are close enough to Merion Station to participate in activities at their motherhouse, and the congregation has a shore house where many spend time during the summer. Sister Rosalie likes to cook for the members who visit the beach.
“I get to see a lot of our sisters that I wouldn’t normally get to see. Some are people that I have never met up with,” she said.
As the Year of Consecrated Life winds down, the sisters invited another sister to come visit Christ the Teacher on Oct. 14 to speak about vocations. That includes all kinds of vocations, not just to religious life.
The Sisters of Mercy also have associates, men and women who have a formal association with the order and who minister to the poor, sick and uneducated. They live out the call to mercy within the context of their daily lives, according to the order’s website. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have more than 3,000 associates.
They also offer the Companions in Mercy, men and women who vow to live a life of prayer, community and service in his or her profession. In addition, they take part in gatherings twice a year. The Mercy Volunteer Corps offers full-time service for a year with people who are poor or marginalized.
Come December, the Sisters of Mercy will have another reason to celebrate as Pope Francis has declared a Year of Mercy will begin then. The year will be emphasized at Christ the Teacher in classrooms and at school Masses. Each grade will have a month and will have to demonstrate a parable in some way, Sister LaVerne said. It fits right in with what they are trying to accomplish with the students.
“This is great,” she said. “This is perfect for us.”