Left to right: Sister Mary Hanah Doak, vocations director for the Religious Sisters of Mercy (RSM) of Alma, MI; RSM Sisters in temporary vows; RSM Sisters at prayer.
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
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.
than just feeding them if they were hungry, she helped them acquire the
tools they needed to feed themselves and ultimately become a freer
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 externalssuch as a person’s selection of
clothes or a hairstyleyou 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;
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.
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.
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.
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
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.