Sisters Of Mercy Celebrate 150 Years In New Orleans

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By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photos | COURTESY SISTERS OF MERCY AND OF THE AMERICAS, MERCY CENTER BELMONT, NORTH CAROLINA 

What comes to mind when a local New Orleanian thinks of the Sisters of Mercy order of nuns? Most probably, Mercy Hospital and Mercy Academy.

The Sisters of Mercy left a legacy much larger than that since arriving first from Ireland, then making their way to New Orleans from New York in 1869.

For all of their local work over the past 150 years, the eight sisters remaining in New Orleans will be honored at the Mercy Alumnae Association luncheon Sept. 15, near Our Lady of Mercy’s feast day (Sept. 24), at noon at Chateau Estates Country Club in Kenner.

“The spiritual and corporal works of mercy and fulfilling the needs of the people wherever they may be are our legacy,” said Sister Nicholas Schiro, Mercy Alumni Association moderator and former St. Francis Xavier School principal. “We care for the poor, the sick and educate the masses. We have a wonderful penchant for education and health care. Our sisters have put their blood, sweat and tears into these areas.”

Taught thousands

The Sisters began their teaching ministry at St. Alphonsus School in the Irish Channel and remain there today.

They also have taught at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary beginning in 1909 and added a high school there in 1933. The high school became Mercy Academy and operated until 1992. In September 1926, they took over St. Francis Xavier School in Metairie.

The Mercy Sisters also operated Redemptorist Girls High School on Prytania and Third streets through 1953, and taught at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Kenner, and in Jeanerette and St. Martinville, Louisiana.

Although they are no longer at Holy Name or St. Francis, “the spirit of Mother McCauley is still carried at Holy Name and St. Francis Xavier,” Sister Nicholas said.

Beyond schools

The Sisters’ ministry of offering mercy went beyond teaching at school. The Mercy Sisters established Mercy Hospital in 1924 on Annunciation Street and maintained it until 1959. That hospital later moved to Jefferson Davis Parkway at Bienville Street in Mid-City and remained under their ownership until 1996. 

The Sisters also sponsor Mercy Family Centers in Metairie, Mandeville and Gretna, which offer outpatient services and counseling for children and adults.

Mercy Sister Jane Briseno is director of Mercy Endeavors Senior Center, a day center that offers daily recreation and social activities, educational opportunities, nutrition programs, noon meals and advocacy programs to more than 100 elderly in the Irish Channel and Garden District New Orleans neighborhoods. The center helps these older adults live life to the fullest by supporting their independence, self-respect and vitality.

Sisters still in New Orleans

Today, eight Mercy Sisters continue meeting the needs of the New Orleanians in various ways, although, post-Katrina, many have retired or moved to ministries in other states. 

In addition to Sister Jane, other Mercy Sisters remaining in the Greater New Orleans area are Mercy Sister Monica Ellerbusch, who is principal, and Sisters Stephanie Miller and Jeanne Marie Keller in the finance department at St. Alphonsus School; Mercy Sister Michael Mary Gutowski,  a part-time counselor at St. Alphonsus School and part-time teacher at the University of Holy Cross; Mercy Sister Terri Bednarz, a theology professor at Loyola University of New Orleans, currently on sabbatical writing a history of the Sisters of Mercy in Peru; Sister Nicholas Schiro, a counselor who also facilitates the processes of the Mercy Sisters’ local community in New Orleans; Sister Evelyn Fournet, retired but who prays daily for the works of Mercy Sisters and assists the poor. Mercy Sister Henry Simoneaux, long-time principal at Mercy Academy, recently retired to Oklahoma City. 

Former students often approach the sisters and tell them how much they appreciated the education they received from the Mercy sisters. 

“They taught me to serve, first of all; to serve not only the community but to serve women,” said 1986 Mercy Academy graduate Kathleen Alberts Kazour. “Our high school class was very supportive of each other. It was what the sisters of Mercy taught us – not to put anyone down but to build up everyone around us and to do the works of mercy. The way that they taught us was very progressive. There was a lot of discussion. It was a great education, and I was very ready for college.”   

Sister Jane Hotstream, a Mercy Academy graduate, is Sisters of Mercy south Central community leader, but other graduates have used mercy charisms and dedicated their lives to education as teachers and administrators and at all levels of the medical field.

“We were always told we were on the front lines and have administered an excellent education,” Sister Nicholas said. “Our students have gone on to do many wonderful things.” 

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.