The Sisters Of Mercy And The Statues In The Attic

The Sisters Of Mercy And The Statues In The Attic

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by Donna Sue Berry

A Treacherous Journey

Five Sisters of Mercy arrived in the Oklahoma Territory in 1884, a scant five years before the famous Oklahoma Land Run. They had accepted an invitation from the Rev. Isidore Robot, first Prefect Apostolic of the Indian Territory, to work with the Native American tribes at Sacred Heart Mission.

Their long journey to Oklahoma (Choctaw for ‘red people’) began in Lacon, Illinois. The Sisters endured forging rivers, riding in covered wagons, walking endless miles, living through an encounter with outlaws, and even surviving a tornado! Undaunted, the little band overcame the hardships of the long, wearying trip. They did not turn back as other Orders before had.

These Sisters belonged to an Order which was founded in 1831 by Mother Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland. By the grace of God, this Order was established to shelter, feed and educate poor women and children, and to help relieve their sufferings.  Shortly after Mother Catherine’s death just ten years later, the order had grown to 150 sisters. Like many successful Orders before and since, they began to establish Missions, sending small groups of sisters to the east and west coasts of America. So when these five sisters settled down into Potawotami tribal land in July of 1884, they were indeed following the dream of their foundress.

On their way to the Oklahoma Territory, the Sisters endured forging rivers, riding in covered wagons, walking endless miles, living through an encounter with outlaws, and even surviving a tornado!

The Center of Catholicism

Their first order of business was to open a boarding school for Native American girls. Saint Mary’s Academy educated the daughters of Pottawatomie, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes as well as the daughters of white settlers. In the years that followed, the little school would grow into a self-sustaining community, an island of civilization. The Sisters had stables, employees’ houses, a blacksmith shop, a tool shop, a carpenter shop, and a bakery where the sisters baked 500 big French loaves each day. Sacred Heart Monastery, which had been built before the sisters’ arrival, housed the novitiate and a boys’ school run by the Benedictines. The large campus was called Sacred Heart; it became the center of Catholicism in the Territory.

Then, disaster struck. On the night of January 15th, 1901 a fire engulfed the Sacred Heart Mission. It swept through the boys and girls schools and overtook the monastery, convent, and college – everything was burned to the ground. The bakery and a small log cabin are the only buildings remaining today.

In the years that followed, the little school would grow into a self-sustaining community, an island of civilization. Then, disaster struck.

The ‘Mount’

Two years later, the Sisters moved to Oklahoma City to continue their ministry of education with the opening of Mount Saint Mary’s Academy boarding school (which my great grandfather helped build).  The cornerstone was laid, and soon young ladies began arriving from across the United States to be educated. It was there at ‘the Mount’ during 1910 that local women also began to attend day classes. Mount Saint Mary’s Academy continued as a novitiate until 1929, with at least 32 of their graduates answering the call to a religious vocation.

In 1947 the Sisters of Mercy bought the 85 bed Oklahoma City General Hospital in downtown OKC which they would re-name Mercy Hospital. In 1974 they made the visionary decision to build a new Mercy Hospital in very north Oklahoma City in a cow pasture. Today, it is a huge medical complex. 

 

Mount Saint Mary’s Academy continued as a novitiate until 1929, with at least 32 of their graduates answering the call to a religious vocation.

Three Sisters To Steal Your Heart

Over the years, my family has had many encounters with these sisters, and we have become friends with a few. Less than a decade later, three Sisters of Mercy walked into our small Catholic Bookstore, Our Lady of Fatima.

There they stood in their modified habits: Sister Beatrice Bergman, Sister Boniface Kettner, and Sister Madlyn McCann. Sister Madlyn stole my heart immediately. She was short, round and her smile reminded me my grandmother. As they oohed and ahhed their way through our store, they endeared themselves to us immediately as they excitedly examined  all the Catholic devotional books and items on our shelves. All three began talking about how they loved their life as Sisters of Mercy, their favorite devotions, and their love for all things holy in the Catholic Church.

Our relationship with these Sisters grew over the years. Once, they invited mom and me to Mount Saint Mary’s for a tour. One year the International Statue of Our Lady of Fatima came to Oklahoma for an entire month, and every church, school or organization had a chance to secure a day or night for a visit. Mom and I were thrilled to be asked to be on the committee to host the statue.

Our Sisters were excited, too and immediately asked their pastor to host Our Lady’s statue. His response was an emphatic “NO!”  He did not want that statue visiting, he explained disdainfully, because the Church was past all that nonsense.

Well, those Sisters told me that they would NOT take no for an answer. They would go over the priest’s head — to the Mother of God. They began to pray their rosaries, and fast! They also made a novena.

Just before the final time slot was taken for the statue, their priest suddenly called me. To my utter shock, he asked politely if his parish might have the statue for an evening. Before I could respond, he named the very date we had open.  

Our Sisters immediately asked their pastor to host Our Lady’s statue. His response was an emphatic “NO!”  He did not want that statue visiting, he explained disdainfully, because the Church was past all that nonsense.

A Spooky Old Attic on the Mount

What an incredible evening it was. Snow was falling, and we had been invited to stay all night at the convent at Mount Saint Mary’s. Late in the evening, our three Sisters told us that they had a surprise for us.

We were intrigued, as they beckoned us to follow their flashlights down dimly lit hallways and into an old, old elevator that creaked as it labored to take us to the top floor. We emerged from the lift into a dark space, leading into a staircase into the attic.

Those Sisters fairly flew up those broken old steps. We followed, but at the top of the stairs we stopped abruptly. The attic looked like a scene out of a scary movie – complete with ghosts everywhere!

However, the ghosts turned out to be sheet-covered statues, crucifixes, framed papal blessings, and various other Catholic treasures. We were in awe; all of these holy things were very, very old. The Sisters explained that some of them had survived the fire at Sacred Heart Mission. Others were gifts to Mount Saint Mary’s during the early days.

Those Sisters fairly flew up those broken old steps. We followed, but at the top of the stairs we stopped abruptly. The attic looked like a scene out of a scary movie – complete with ghosts everywhere!

The Sisters’ Secret

Why were these treasures hidden in the attic? The Sisters exchanged glances and lowered their voices. Decades before, the changes in the Church had led to changes within their own convent, they said sadly. They had been worried that some of the younger Sisters would have had the statues destroyed.

They’d made a secret plan, they said. Some of the older boys from the Mount had agreed to help them hide their treasures in the attic, where they had rested undisturbed for decades since.

Oh, how those three Sisters treasured the secret contents of the attic!  This time it was our turn to ooh and awe at the sight of so many sacramentals hidden away. 

After a short time, we started back down the treacherous stairway. When we shut the door to the attic behind us, we never dreamt that we’d see anything like this again.

 

Why were these treasures hidden in the attic? The Sisters exchanged glances and lowered their voices. Decades before, they had been worried that some of the younger Sisters would have had the statues destroyed, they explained.

Five Years Later

Sister Beatrice asked if we would like a few of the treasures from the attic, as they had won permission to give them to someone who would take care of them. They had already given a few things away — a Sacred Heart statue and a Saint Joseph statue went to a church that had gladly taken them.

Of course we said yes, and that’s when Saint Anthony, Saint Jude, Saint Aloysius, Saint Agnes and two altar angels came to live at our home. Today, the angels adorn either side of an altar at St Damien of Molokai church, where the Traditional Latin Mass is said each day.

These statues are all indeed treasures, beautiful sacramentals, and each time we look at them it brings back the sweetest memories of those three very special Sisters of Mercy — gone now, to their heavenly reward.

Requiescat in pace.

Today, the sisters' angels adorn either side of a beautiful altar at an Oklahoma church where the Traditional Latin Mass is said each day.

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