Looking Back: Mercy in a Time of Fear

Mother Frances Warde’s traveling trunk. Credit: Mercy Heritage Center
Mother Frances Warde’s traveling trunk. Credit: Mercy Heritage Center
Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Print

By Betsy Johnson, assistant archivist, Mercy Heritage Center

The Sisters of Mercy stand in solidarity with our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. This blog post is part of week-long focus on Mercy and immigration, including historical accounts of the sisters’ roots as immigrants in the 19th century as well as a look at Mercy ministries, past and present, serving our immigrant and refugee sisters and brothers. Visit the webpage for Mercy for Immigrants to learn more.

The following story is taken from The Leaves of the Annals, the first history of the Sisters of Mercy, written by Mother Teresa Austin Carroll, published in 1888.

The 19th century was a time of anti-immigrant attitudes and movements in America, particularly in New England. As Irish Catholic immigrants began to settle in the region, they felt the effects of fear and discrimination. Catholic sisters often served as the frontline in providing social services to the newest Americans, but few were able to risk the dangers inherent to moving into hostile communities.

In 1851, the Sisters of Mercy were invited to found a community in Providence, Rhode Island. In this time of rabid anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, Mother Frances Warde knew that establishing a new foundation was a dangerous decision for the community. In nearby Charlestown, Massachusetts, rioters had burned down a convent and school run by Ursuline sisters in 1834. Understanding the risks, Mother Frances led the small group to Providence herself. Knowing they could face harassment and abuse on the streets, she instructed the sisters to pack up their habits and travel in secular dress to establish their new convent.  

Hardships and Threats

As the sisters settled into their new home and began the works of mercy, they faced daily harassment and threats. Mother Austin Carroll, the first historian of the Sisters of Mercy, wrote of the community’s troubles:

“Time and again the windows of their poor dwelling were smashed … One bright midnight the glass and sashes of every window were completely shattered.”

Despite the hardships, the sisters continued to begin ministries and even began to accept new members. When a local woman converted to Catholicism and entered the Mercy community, members of the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party were enraged. They began to spread rumors that the Sisters of Mercy held this new member against her will. As the rumors gained momentum, the sisters began to hear of plans to destroy their convent and news of Know-Nothings from other cities traveling to Providence to aid in the destruction.

Protected by their Neighbors

The risk of violence by anti-Catholic mobs was so great that tradition holds that one defender of St. Xavier Convent in Providence had in his possession this dagger hidden in this walking stick when the sisters were threatened.

Mother Austin wrote that matters came to a head on a cold evening in November 1855. As a mob of Know-Nothings gathered around the convent, local Irish immigrants began to gather in the walled convent garden, promising Mother Frances that “they would, by God’s blessing, guard her and hers from evil.” With conflict seeming almost inevitable, the bishop and the former owner of the property stood on the convent steps and urged the crowd to disperse. Several accounts in Mother Austin’s text recall that after reading the riot act, the bishop and former property owner warned the crowd about the willing Irish defenders standing just inside the garden gate. Upon learning they would face a determined resistance, the Know-Nothings began to disperse into the night, and the convent was saved.

The Leaves of the Annals records that the sisters continued to face insults and harassment on the streets of Providence, but gradually respect for their ministries grew, and the Sisters of Mercy found themselves no longer in a dangerous city, but at home.