When the Sisters of Mercy arrived from Ireland in 1843, on the way to their first American home in Pittsburgh, William Quarter joined the priests who greeted them at the New York City dock. Recently appointed bishop of the new diocese of Chicago, Quarter asked Mother Frances Warde, the nuns' superior, to establish a convent in his new home. Three years later, few Chicagoans noticed the six women who disembarked on the shores of Lake Michigan one September evening. At Sunday Mass, the bishop introduced Warde and the five Sisters of Mercy whom she had escorted to the city; only one newspaper briefly mentioned their arrival. Warde returned to Pittsburgh, but her charges, led by the oldest, Mother Agatha O'Brien at age 24, soon changed Chicago's institutional landscape, launching charitable activities that touched Catholics and Protestants alike. Before the Civil War, and despite their youth, Chicago's Sisters of Mercy accepted some one hundred members, founded three other Illinois convents, and built the city's first permanent hospital, three parochial schools, two select academies, and two orphan asylums.1
In achieving these ends, the Sisters of Mercy exercised much greater autonomy than most American women. Through their institutions, they obtained corporate charters and owned property. Their ministries made the nuns the most visible actors of a missionary Catholic Church in an increasingly anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Chicago. The Sisters had greater contact than priests with more people of all faiths-people who came to admire the nuns for their courage, self-sacrifice, and accomplishments. Yet early municipal histories barely recognized them. A. T. Andreas, for example, wrote of the debt due Bishop Quarter for bringing the Sisters to Chicago rather than the obligation owed the women for their labors.2 Andreas unintentionally captured an important, but unspoken reality. The Sisters of Mercy inhabited a gendered public space that demanded a prominent presence and a substantial silence. Like any social space, this one was constructed through cultural and historical phenomena.3 The ecclesiastical structure of the Church, the American sociopolitical milieu, the nuns' Irish heritage, and their spiritual training all defined the opportunities and limitations of this public space.
Chicago's Sisters of Mercy offer a vital window on the lives of mid-nineteenth-century religious women not because they were unique, but because their experiences were representative of those of nuns across the United States. Most female religious communities incorporated, and under this legal status, owned property. Other convents similarly adapted their rules and constitutions to difficult urban conditions, emerging as multipurpose institutions and discovering new ways to serve constituents. Like the Sisters of Mercy, their leaders sometimes found themselves at odds with bishops over property or other issues, yet worked within the private bounds of the Church to resolve such conflicts. Margaret Susan Thompson has observed, "[t]hese women were hardly feminists, or even proto-feminists; for the most part, they accepted the circumscribed roles that both church and society had ascribed to them and had no intention of fomenting revolution."4 Operating within a public space that required their presence and imposed their silence, the Sisters of Mercy balanced their avowed obedience and humility with an ambition to offer meaningful service consistent with their vision of religious life.
The proximity between the founding of the Sisters of Mercy by Catherine McAuley in Dublin in 1831 and the establishment of their Chicago convent in 1846 compels us to consider how their Irish roots shaped the maintenance of this balance. A wealthy heiress, McAuley organized a small cadre of women and initially built a secular home in Dublin in 1828 to aid working women and educate poor Catholic girls. McAuley was an anomaly. Nonreligious women of her socioeconomic stature rarely mingled with the poor. …