“Don’t believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.” —Maya Angelou. Working at their sisterhood—or even just plain working—is familiar territory for the Sisters of Mercy.

Sister Georgine Scarpino, RSMFrom the outside looking in, a deep spiritual life may seem a life spent in quiet contemplation and prayer. There is certainly that aspect, but to dismiss it as only that is to miss so much of what makes the Sisters of Mercy who they are. Their name, “Sisters of Mercy” continues to be synonymous with community service.

The first Sisters of Mercy in the United States arrived in Pittsburgh from Carlow, Ireland in 1843, spending most of their time in the community, seeking the poor, the sick, and the uneducated. The Sisters built schools and, in 1847, opened Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh. In 1929, they established Mount Mercy College—which is today Carlow University.

Sister Georgine Scarpino, RSM, PhD is a strategic planning consultant, meeting facilitator, teacher, and former high school principal. She also serves on the Institute Anti-Racism Transformation Team of the Sisters of Mercy and coordinates local Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support groups.

Sister Georgine lists a number of qualities that hold this community together. “It’s history for one, but it’s also service to the poor. We’re not afraid to go somewhere and start something. The sisters accepted the invitation to go to Peru. It’s a hard place to live because people are so poor. There is no infrastructure. Just to pick up and go—that takes courage.”

Courage, as portrayed in American popular culture, would rarely be thought of as the act of bringing poor people clean drinking water, but the Sisters of Mercy stand apart in many important ways.

Sister Cynthia Serjak, RSM“The first thing would be what we call charism—our spirit,” said Sister Cynthia. “Catherine McAuley built a house in Mercy to take in young women who didn’t have any place to go. We are looking to see who those people are today.”

Sister Cynthia knows about reaching out to those less fortunate. For years, she would share music (on her keyboard) with individuals at area homeless shelters.

They made music together—some of which they ended up recording. She says she’s often contacted by others who want to reach those in need.

“The biggest question I hear…is, ‘How can I make a difference in the world for the better, and who can I connect with to help me? I don’t want to do it on my own.’ “The Sisters of Mercy are determined to make those kind of connections. Unfortunately, it’s often not terribly difficult to find people in need in the world today.

Sister Jean Murin, RSM“We all have human rights that are God-given to us,” said Sister Jean Murin, a registered dietitian and administrator for 45 years and now the justice coordinator for Mercy Communities of Pittsburgh, Erie, Rochester, and Buffalo, as well as a member of PATH (People Against the Trafficking of Humans).

“We must make sure that everyone has these human rights... It doesn’t make any difference what your race is, what your sex is, what your sexual preference is. We just seek what is good for the individual.”

The Sisters have sought what is good for individuals since their founding in Dublin, Ireland so many years ago. And they’ve been at the forefront of many historic moments in the struggle for human rights ever since.

On March 14, 1965, Sister Patricia McCann, RSM, led a group including more than 20 Mount Mercy College students to Alabama to join the now infamous Selma to Montgomery march in support of voting rights for black southerners.

Sister Patricia McCann, RSM“I remember one conversation with a Black man who had been with the Marines in Iwo Jima in World War II,” recalled Sister Patricia, who has extensive experience in religious and educational administration and is today chair of the board of McAuley Ministries.

“This man had never voted in his life because when he would go to vote, he would have to take a test, and the test asked him to write the Constitution. It was so clear that the people of Alabama whom we encountered in Montgomery did not want Black people voting.”

In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the protests came closer to home.

“The 1960s were scary,” remembered Sister Jean. “Our whole world was changing. One of the memories I have is looking out the window of the 11th floor [of Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital] where I lived and seeing the National Guard in uniform with rifles on every street corner and the Hill ablaze.”

And in spite of the fires and dangers to themselves, still they marched for justice.

“Sister Ferdinand would put up a sign that read ‘The Sisters Will March at 4 p.m. Be at [Freedom Corner].’”

Amazingly—almost unbelievably—in spite of all the inhumanity and injustice they have witnessed in this world, to a Sister, they still have hope in the future.

“Yes, I am hopeful,” said Sister Jean. “I took a visitor through the Hill. I showed her Freedom Corner and told her we marched many times from there to the Federal Building. People are resilient. Enough good people in the world will help, and with God’s will they will heal.”

And they have the faith that a just and merciful world is possible.

“Oh yes, of course, because it’s not just our idea,” said Sister Patricia. “This year we are celebrating the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and Pope Francis has asked for people to go back to the spiritual and corporal works of Mercy. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the dead. These values are not limited to the Sisters of Mercy.”

The Sisters have taken up those causes, but don’t think that it’s all action and little contemplation or prayer either. 

“Personally, I’ve seen that prayer does work,” said Sister Jean.“Sometimes I feel that God, when He gives us challenges or She gives us challenges, also gives us the grace to carry them out.” 

By Drew Wilson

Editor’s Note: Any discussion of community at Carlow begins with the Sisters of Mercy, who remain at the heart of our university. Audio of the full interviews with Sisters Cynthia, Georgine, Jean, and Patricia is available on SoundCloud.