Mother-Daughter Mercy Bonds: Sisters and Their Moms
By Catherine Walsh, Senior Writer
Mother’s Day is a time to remember the mothers and mother figures in our lives, how they influenced their children and supported their dreams. Here are some stories of Sisters of Mercy and their mothers — some recent contributions and others gleaned from stories told over the years.
‘Mom wanted me’
Placed in a foundling home as an infant, Sister Eileen Boffa lived in foster care until she was 4-1/2, when Suzanne and William Boffa adopted her. “I remember the day clearly as it was traumatic for me. I was screaming, and I threw up ice cream all over my new clothes.”
But she quickly adjusted. “I soon knew I had a very loving family,” she says, recalling “an absolutely marvelous childhood” with a doting mother (and father) who spent lots of time with her and adopted brothers Jack and Billy. “Mom would tell me that she could have had a little baby girl, but she wanted me.”
Sister Eileen’s mother converted to Catholicism with the guidance of a Sister of Mercy. Moved by a sense that “there was something beautiful about the sisters, about their joy in serving God and helping others,” Eileen entered the order after high school. She has ministered for years with women and men who are unhoused in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And until her mother passed away at 98, Sister Eileen played rummy with her on monthly visits.
‘You had to be organized with 15 kids!’
The youngest and only surviving sibling of 15 children, in a family that included four Sisters of Mercy, Sister Katherine “Kay” Graber credits her mother Kate with her Mercy vocation – as well as her three older sisters who became sisters before her. “I’ve always said I had the influence of two great Catherines in my life,” she says. “My mother’s principles were closely aligned with those of Catherine McAuley,” founder of the Sisters of Mercy.
Her mother’s organizational skills helped her hone her own, which was key when she became a hospital administrator and a leader of the Albany, New York community of the Sisters of Mercy (until she retired a few years ago).
“My mother was very organized. You had to be with 15 kids!” says Sister Kay, who says she “received basic training at home for the novitiate.” But she notes with a laugh that the siblings rotated chores, covering for each other to allow for social activities.
‘They are women first, nuns second’
Moved to become a Sister of Mercy by the sisters she encountered in college, Sister Larretta Rivera-Williams was shocked by racism she experienced in an all-white community in Belmont, North Carolina, in the early 1980s. She turned to her mother Elizabeth Rivera-Ervin for support. “I would call home crying, and my mother would say, ‘Remember, you can always come home, but you are where you feel God wants you to be, and, if that is true, you will be able to stay there. But remember, they are women first, nuns second.’”
Sister Larretta has experienced emotional healing in recent years, thanks to her mother’s example, sisters who listened to her stories and Mercy’s commitment to dismantling racism. Her mom lived in the Belmont convent during the last three years of her life and Sister Larretta moved there last year after retiring from pastoral-care parish ministry in Winston-Salem.
‘I have shared so much with my mother’
Not only is Sister Kelly Williams close to her mom Lori, the two enjoy an unusual Mercy bond. On Mother’s Day a few years ago, Sister Kelly shared how she grew up “in the midst of Mercy” – with Sisters of Mercy living on her street and teaching at her high school, St. Vincent’s Academy in Savannah, Georgia, where her mom later taught.
Her mom’s deep spirituality (and her dad’s too) moved her to be open to religious life, after college as she became close to Sisters of Mercy in Belmont, North Carolina. She expressed her sentiments in a poem “Sharing My Mother,” which describes their shared faith, how her birthday often falls on Mother’s Day, and how blessed she feels.
“God called me to life in Mercy, and invited my mother to share in the Charism as a Mercy Associate,” she wrote.
‘She was my best friend’
Her mother’s “lovely Irish sense of humor” stands out for Sister Katherine Mroz, a retired Catholic newspaper correspondent and educator in Watchung, New Jersey. “She always said there was only one holiday to celebrate each year and that was St. Patrick’s Day!”
An “extraordinary woman” – also named Katherine – she was known for her compassion, strength, faith in God and commitment to family, and also gave wise advice, according to her daughter. “When we talked about my vocation, she said simply ‘Give it time.’”
Other things stand out too. “I will always remember her example of gentleness, wisdom, courage through illness and adversity, and deep love for all of us as family,” Sister Katherine says. “She wasn’t just my mother – she was my best friend!
‘The poor need our help now…’
Growing up in Guyana, South America, Sister Jackie Nedd was sustained not only by her Catholic faith but also by her mother Jenny’s example. “Reminiscing on my childhood, I realize that like Catherine (McAuley), my mother’s virtue is charity,” she writes in an essay about being Black, Catholic and a Sister of Mercy.
“A woman of faith, she always reminded her children that ‘charity begins at home,’ suggesting that we needed to love ourselves and treat our brothers and sisters with loving kindness before we could truly love others. She frequently said, ‘Never put off for tomorrow what could be done today,’ similar to Catherine’s saying that, ‘The poor need our help now not tomorrow.’”
Sister Jackie says, “It is no coincidence that I was attracted to the Sisters of Mercy.”
‘Love of Earth and dignity of all persons’
Her mother Viola grew up on a farm and imparted “a love for the Earth and the (gifts) of the Earth – fruits, vegetables, flowers” to her children, says Sister Suzanne Marie Soppe, a former health educator and teacher in California.
Her mother’s loving care of son Duane, who was born with Down Syndrome, was especially meaningful to the family.
“She took joy in his presence and embraced Duane as a gift from God,” says Sister Suzanne, who notes that both parents advocated for children and adults with special needs.
Her mother rejoiced in her family attending daily Mass and praying the rosary nightly and demonstrated “a devoted love of God, deep faith and unselfish service as a mother, wife, daughter and sister.”
Sister Suzanne adds, “She personified gentle grace and showed us how to respect the dignity of life in all persons.”
‘My mom exemplified the spirit of Mercy’
The eldest of 13 children, Cecilia Rita “was a remarkable woman of Mercy,” says her daughter Sister Madeline Rita. Cecilia, who was born on September 24, Mercy Day – the date in 1827 when Catherine McAuley opened the first House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland – always made sure her birthday included a celebration for the Sisters of Mercy in West Warwick, Rhode Island.
“Each year she would bake a specialty cake and add other treats to highlight the occasion,” says Sister Madeline. “We delivered the goodies to the local Mercy community at the convent.”
Her mother educated herself in both written and spoken Portuguese and used her skills to assist regional immigrants with the translation of letters and documents.
“My mom genuinely exemplified the spirit, qualities, and charism of Mercy.”