Sr. Mary Hanah Doak is vocations director for the Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM) of Alma, Michigan, which last September celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding. The community settled in the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan, with seven sisters; within the first month, there were four postulants.
During a period when other religious communities experienced a stark decline in their numbers, the RSM have steadily grown, today numbering nearly 100. The order’s 15 convents are located in 11 states, as well as in Australia, England, Germany, and Italy. Their chief apostolates are education and health care; sisters are known for their advanced degrees and high levels of education. They are also known for wearing the full habit and their fidelity to the Magisterium.
Sr. Mary Hanah recently spoke with Catholic World Report.
CWR: Please tell us about the history of your community and its distinctive character, or charism.
Sr. Mary Hanah: We continue the work of our first founder, Venerable Catherine McAuley (1778-1841). Catherine lived in Ireland at a time when there was much discrimination against Catholics, by both the British and Irish governments. The legal structure was both pro-Protestant and anti-Catholic. The Irish of her time suffered from both material poverty and a poverty of faith.
Catherine sought to help those in need. But she wanted to do so by helping people develop the skill set they needed to raise themselves out of poverty. She sought to identify the root cause of poverty and attend to it. She saw a need, for example, to help poor women to develop a trade and find a job, lest they turn to bad things to help themselves. So, she’d bring them into her home, help them learn a trade like needlework, and then help them find a job.
Rather than just feeding them if they were hungry, she helped them acquire the tools they needed to feed themselves and ultimately become a freer people.
Catherine opened her first convent, which she called a “house of mercy” (we call ours “homes of mercy”), in 1827. She wanted it to be beautiful, so it would be a suitable environment to help those she served develop a well-ordered sense of discipline and love.
In 1831, Catherine joined with two other women to found the Religious Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. The people often saw the sisters outside the convent and began calling them the “walking nuns.” This was not typical of sisters at the time; they usually stayed in their convents. There weren’t what we today call “active sisters.”
However, Catherine wanted her nuns to be out working among the people. She was able to obtain special permission from her bishop and Rome for her nuns to go out and visit the poor, the sick, and the ignorant. Catherine wanted to bring them the mercy of God, instructing children, providing housing for women in trouble, and nursing the sick. Her sisters performed both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
Catherine lived 10 years after she founded her community, dying in 1841. By that time, she had founded 11 convents: nine in Ireland and two in England. In 1990, Pope John Paul II declared Catherine venerable, the first of three steps to sainthood.
The next generation of Religious Sisters of Mercy brought the community outside the United Kingdom. Our community would receive requests from bishops worldwide, requesting we establish convents in their dioceses. Mother Francis Xavier Warde (1810-84), for example, brought the community to the United States. Houses were initially autonomous; the groups joined together in the 1950s to become the Sisters of Mercy of the Union.
In 1973, our community had its “second founding” when seven sisters founded the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. Our sisters are involved in health care and education, and some work at diocesan chanceries. We have sisters who are doctors, nurse practitioners, psychologists, and social workers. We have sisters who teach at the elementary school level to the college level. Some teach in seminaries; some are canon lawyers. Whatever we do, like Catherine, we engage in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
CWR: What is a day in your life like?
Sr. Mary Hanah: Our life flows out of our prayer. We rise at 4:30 am and begin with the Liturgy of the Hours at 5:30 am. We devote the first two hours of our day to prayer. We do 30 minutes of meditation on the Gospel reading of the day and go to Mass, either in our convent chapel or at a local parish. After breakfast, we head out to our various apostolates.
Our sisters come together for lunch, if possible, and pray the Angelus together. We return to our apostolic service, and head back to our convents for dinner, which is cooked by one of the sisters. Our convents are like a home, so we do all our own cooking, cleaning, and yard work.
While some communities of sisters eat in silence or listen to spiritual reading during meals, we talk to one another. Our community is based on the Rule of St. Augustine; fraternal and common life is emphasized. We want our sisters to know one another, to be friends, and to relate honestly to one another.
Our evenings include a holy hour, which includes Vespers, the rosary, and our own private prayers. We also have a period of recreation and personal time. Our day closes with Compline, where we conclude the Liturgy of the Hours for the day. It’s lights out at 10:30 pm.
On weekends, we have a sleep-in; we start our prayers at 7 am.
CWR: How did you come to join the community?
Sr. Mary Hanah: I’m from Denver, where the Religious Sisters of Mercy serve as professors in the archdiocesan seminary. I was involved in a church youth group and developed a personal relationship with our Lord. I wondered if he was calling me to be a sister. I was attracted to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and visited their community.
I was impressed with their love for one another and the sincere friendships they enjoyed. I also liked that they were professionals and were engaged in apostolic service.
I entered the community and have since found great joy. I enjoy peace knowing I’m fulfilling God’s will in my life. I’ve also come to know myself. I knew I’d learn about God, but I’ve been surprised at how much I learned about the human person.
One thing I’ve observed about our community is how very unique each sister is. We all wear the same habit, so an outsider might think we’re alike. But that’s not the case. When you do away with the externals—such as a person’s selection of clothes or a hairstyle—you come to discover the mystery of each person within the community.
I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to grow in the spiritual life, as well as develop a well-ordered life as a person. It comes through religious formation, which is a difficult process. But our Lord speaks to us through our lawful superiors. Obedience brings joy.
CWR: What kind of woman would be a good fit for your community?
Sr. Mary Hanah: We’re interested in women with an interior sense of a call to the religious life, with a love of the Church and a desire to serve her. Many of our applicants have an interest in higher studies, although that’s not always the case. Some of our sisters have degrees when they enter; others don’t.
The women need to be in good physical and mental health, usually between the ages of 18 and 35. They have to have received all their sacraments of initiation and be free to enter.
If these signs are manifested, we invite the woman to visit our community. If she finds a resonance with the community, and the feeling is reciprocal, she’d make a good candidate to enter. Currently, we have 12 women who are either postulants or in the novitiate (in their first two years of formation).
CWR: What is the secret to the success of your community?
Sr. Mary Hanah: It’s been a gift of the Holy Spirit. We respond to his call and to those in authority in the Church with a desire to live religious life authentically. We believe we live our lives with a dynamic obedience, and we have good relationships with local bishops.
Our sisters share a common consecration to our Lord, lived out in prayer, and live community life in common. They love one another and love their vocations. They are honest with one another and are comfortable in addressing and working out problems which can arise.
This legacy of unity and charity is both a challenging and rewarding inheritance we have from Mother Catherine. A fruitful apostolate has flowed out of it, and many women have found our life attractive.
CWR: What financial needs do you have?
Sr. Mary Hanah: In order to serve the Church in our vocation, we need to be well-educated. Mother Catherine wanted her sisters to be as educated as possible. That way, when they help the poor, they can give the same quality of service that the rich can afford to buy.
Therefore, we need support for our education fund. We have sisters in college and graduate school. It is expensive. And, when our sisters do go to work, they are not well paid and, hence, have difficulty paying off loans. We’re not in it for the money.
Other areas in need of benefactors are our health clinics and our young women in their first two years of basic formation. If anyone would like to support our work, they can contact our motherhouse to make a donation.