A general history of the Sisters of Mercy (1894 - 2000)

By Sister Mary Noel Menezes, RSM
Guyana Chronicle
April 30, 2000

ON APRIL 23, 2000, the Sisters of Mercy in Guyana celebrated 106 years of service to the poor, sick and ignorant.

It is indeed a special occasion, but many will be asking: "Who are the Sisters of Mercy?"

Quite a few people tend to think of all the Sisters - Ursulines, Carmelites, Missionaries of Charity - as belonging to one group, but each community of Sisters has a specific role and a specific goal.

The Sisters of Mercy in Guyana, who, in previous years, were particularly connected with education in the Primary schools and at St. Joseph High, form part of an international body - the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas - one of the eight Mercy organisations throughout the world.

The Mercy order was founded in 1831 in Ireland by a Dublin heiress, Catherine McAuley, and in its 169-year history has spread throughout the world. Besides working in 202 cities and 46 States in the U.S.A., the Sisters of Mercy serve in 25 other countries of the world, including Guyana.

The foundress, Catherine McAuley, inheriting a fortune at the age of 50, used her fortune to build the first House of Mercy for abandoned women and children from Dublin's slums. The work burgeoned into a network of other services, above all, education and visitation of the sick. Many young women joined Catherine in her work, becoming the first Sisters of Mercy or "walking nuns" as they were called.

To their three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience they added the fourth Vow - "service of the poor, sick and ignorant". Together with their foundress they were dedicated to fighting the two prevalent evils of the day, Ignorance and Poverty.

The works of Mercy spread to England and later to the U.S.A. in the 1840s. It was from the Convent of Mercy in Midhurst, Sussex, England, that two Sisters of Mercy, Sister Ursula Green and Antonia Chambers, journeyed to Barbados in 1892 and opened a school there. They were joined by a young Guianese woman, Gloria De Freitas, who later became Sister Pauline.

In 1894, Bishop Anthony Butler of British Guiana invited these three Sisters to come to Guiana where the need for a sound education was becoming increasingly vital. They settled in the poor area of Charlestown, and in true Mercy fashion, they immediately carried out one of the chief functions of the Order of Mercy, that of teaching.

They began teaching in the government school, later named Carmel RC School, and shortly after, in 1895, Sister Pauline opened a private school for girls on Main Street. This school blossomed and became a grant-on-aid school. The inspector's report for 1897 read: "Discipline and tone excellent, and the results of the examination reflect great credit on the Sisters in charge".

In 1897, in the community room at Dettering Hall, their Charlestown convent, they offered four classes in secondary subjects. This was the beginning of St. Joseph High School which was to become one of the leading Secondary schools in the country.

With the arrival of more Sisters from the British Isles, the Sisters branched out into other government-aided schools, St. Mary's, Brickdam; Victoria and Kitty on the East Coast, Henrietta, Essequibo, and in the interior at Santa Rosa and Morawhanna. In the 1920s, a number of local women joined the order in Charlestown.

In 1910, at the request of the Bishop, three Sisters left Charlestown to establish a mission among the Amerindians at Takutu in the Rupununi, later there emerged foundations at Santa Rosa, Morawhanna, Hosororo and Mabaruma. Unfortunately, in the 1970s, because of a lack of personnel, the missions at Santa Rosa and Hosororo had to be closed.

In the 1930s, as the educational work increased and the number of Sisters decreased, the Charlestown community requested permission to join the Union of the Sisters of Mercy of the U.S.A. The Scranton Province accepted the Charlestown mission as part of their province and in October, 1935, 10 Sisters from the U.S.A. arrived in Guiana to work in the schools and at the Mahaica Hospital. The arrival of these Sisters from Dallas and Baltimore was followed by 19 more between 1936 - 1946.

They injected new life into the Mercy community in British Guiana. Consequently, there was a spate of vocations between 1935 - 1970 when young Guyanese women entered the Mercy Novitiate in Dallas and returned after First or Final Vows to work in their country's schools.

With Guyana's independence in 1966 the country experienced a period of intense Guyanisation with its by-product of anti-foreignism. Coupled with the decrease of vocations both in the U.S.A. and in Guyana the number of Sisters dwindled while the works mushroomed.

In 1976, when the schools were nationalised, the Sisters were still allowed to teach in them and even remain in charge. But these Sisters were few and, according to government regulations, due for retirement. The future was, however, not all bleak. There were some real vocations and even new vistas - a convent each in Ruimveldt and Charlestown, a Preparatory School, Stella Maris and a Night Shelter for homeless women currently being run by the Missionaries of Charity.

By the end of the 1980s, the Sisters of Mercy were no longer in schools. Three of them are attached to the St. John Bosco Orphanage, six are in the hospital ministry at the St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital, while there are three in pastoral care and one serves in a government ministry.

In 1994, the Sisters of Mercy celebrated their 100th anniversary, and in the same year, its Regional Coordinator, Sister M. N. Menezes, held meetings with the Sisters of Mercy in England.

The following year, the St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary. Sisters Julie Matthews and Jacqueline Nedd made their First Vows in 1996, and a year later, St. Joseph High School had its centennial celebrations during which the role of the Sisters of Mercy was highlighted.

In 1998, Sister Julie Matthews succeeded Sister Noel Menezes as the Regional Coordinator of the Sisters of Mercy, Guyana.

The weekly Mobile Health Clinic initiated by Sister Finnegan and the St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital in collaboration with the Rotary Club and the Bel Air Lions Club is aimed at meeting the health needs of those who could ill-afford. To date, thousands of patients have benefited. As recent as January, 2000, a Mercy Wings project, a vocational centre, was established in the Sophia Squatting Area to cater for the needs of the poor. Initial funding for this venture came from the St. Louis Sisters of Mercy. March, 2000, saw the acquisition of the Mercy Boys' Home in Prashad Nagar. This building caters for those boys over 16 years of age who have no where to go upon completion of their tenure at St. John Bosco Orphanage.

The work of the Sisters of Mercy continues in the 21st century as they strive to live the charisma of their foundress.