Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community

By Mary Beth Fraser Connolly | Go to book overview

1
“The spirit of our Institute
is mercy, as its name denotes”

The Nature of Mercy
in Nineteenth-Century America

The spirit of mercy, then, should guide and govern all our actions; all our hope
of happiness must depend not only on the love of Jesus Christ but likewise on
His mercy. In our intercourse with mankind let us be mindful for it is the princi-
pal path pointed out by Jesus Christ to who are desirous of following Him
.1

According to a nineteenth-century Directory for Novices,2 any “hope of happiness” for Sisters of Mercy came from the love of Jesus Christ and “His mercy” bestowed upon them. Images of Sisters of Mercy from the nineteenth century often do not show this joy, but they do convey directly that they were religious women. They committed their lives fully to God; they cloaked themselves in their belief, and they lived their religion. Posed photographs of women religious, or sisters, reveal serene countenances, though their faces often possessed serious and determined expressions. Their religious garb, or habit, envelops and conceals their feminine frames. If the voluminous garments and veil did not speak plainly to their identity, then large crucifixes or rosaries provided further evidence to their commitment. If pictures show sisters’ hands, they are usually folded holding prayer books.3

A portrait of Mary Ann and Catherine McGirr, two biological sisters who became Sisters Mary Vincent and Mary Francis Xavier in the Chicago South Side community, exemplifies this image of women religious (see Figure 2). The photograph of the McGirr sisters shows two Mercys with similar countenances (the family resemblance is apparent), staring intently forward as they held their pose for the camera, their hands folded in a prayerful clasp. Their faces reveal little of their personality or the breadth of their religious life. Who were these women, sisters both by blood and in religion? Posed together in their religious habits, little distinguishes the two. The photograph does not divulge that Sister Mary Vincent, standing on the right, was one of the first pioneers to Chicago in 1846, nor that

-15-

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