Q & A: Sister Mary Katherine Doyle on the Sisters of Mercy in Sacramento 1857-2008

“Braided Lives: The Sisters of Mercy in Sacramento, 1857-2008,” is a new book by Sister of Mercy Mary Katherine Doyle, a native of Sacramento and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, West-Midwest Community.

Trained in history and spirituality, she previously wrote “Like a Tree by Running Water: The Story of Mary Baptist Russell, California’s First Sister of Mercy,” published in 2004, after spending 20 years studying the life and works of Mary Baptist Russell, pioneer founder of the Sisters of Mercy in California.

She has ministered in education, faith formation and retreat ministries, formerly serving as director of Catholic faith formation for the Diocese of Sacramento and as director of Mercy Center Auburn. She entered religious life in 1962 as a Sister of Mercy of the Auburn Regional Community.

“How could a circle of women without power, money or political position become one with the tapestry of a city?’” Sister Mary Katherine writes on the book jacket of “Braided Lives.” “That is the question arising from the story of the Sisters of Mercy in Sacramento,” she notes. “Their lives reveal how a small group of dedicated women came to make a significant difference in the life of their city and their world.

“Throughout their 163 years in Sacramento, the Sisters of Mercy endured floods, lack of resources, changes in church and society, prejudice and pandemic,” Sister Mary Katherine adds. “Throughout it all, they provided a steady source of inspiration, compassion and empowerment for the people they served. There were no boundaries to their compassionate service; indeed, where there was need, there was Mercy.

“They did so much with so little. This is more than a history relating courageous deeds and profound faith. Their story shows how bonds of relationship, clarity of vision, and a commitment to collaborative partnerships can transform and animate growth and hope.”

In a recent conversation with Catholic Herald magazine, Sister Mary Katherine shares how the history of the Sisters of Mercy in Sacramento provides for future generations “a reservoir of hope in times of struggle.”

Q: Why did you write this book? 

A: “Braided Lives” emerged for a variety of reasons. First, it is of great importance to preserve the stories of the women religious who contributed so much to church and society. In some ways their stories have been lost over time, and that is a loss to everyone, but especially to women.

A second factor emerged in 2007 during the celebration of our 150 years in Sacramento when we wanted to celebrate the legacy of the sisters to the people of God as well as their civic contributions. We realized that the only published story of the sisters was Sister Mary Evangelist Morgan’s “Mercy Generation to Generation” published in 1957. It was a great chronology of the works of mercy in Sacramento, but didn’t say much about the life or struggles of the sisters themselves. That realization was the seed of this work. 

Q: What did you hope to discover by researching and writing? 

A: As a Mercy historian I was anxious to discover the untold story. As a native Sacramentan, I realize how much the sisters did in the city. It was so evident when I led Mercy history walks around the downtown area. You found Sisters of Mercy memorialized on Sacramento’s pioneer wall, in the California Museum, in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and on the state Capitol grounds itself. Our California foundress, Mother Mary Baptist Russell, was named among the 100 pioneer leaders identified in “Makers of Northern California.”  

The sister’s impact on the beginnings of the church in Sacramento was even more striking.  From 1857 until 1902, the Sisters of Mercy were the only women religious in the city. They were instrumental in starting religious education in many parishes as well as sustaining their own academy, Stanford Home, and the Mercy hospitals. That was a lot for a small number of women especially during a time when women’s leadership and autonomy were very limited. I was very curious about what factors and dynamics produced such a profound impact.  

Q: What is your perspective on the power found in stories? 

A: They animate, challenge and inspire, particularly the stories of pioneer Religious. They give energy and courage to persons trying to make a difference. These stories have moved persons to identify how they are part of a mission that brings God’s mercy to those who are suffering. I believe that every faith denomination is called to emulate that model. Societal challenges are too systemic and too vast to be addressed by just one person. 

This is not a story that speaks just to Catholics. It is a paradigm of inclusivity, an inclusivity that embraces both those who minister and those who are served, one which draws persons together regardless of faith traditions, to work for the well-being of God’s people. Having written about Mother Mary Baptist Russell earlier, I wanted now to focus on how a circle of women, some unknown, came together for the reign of God.

Q: Were there any surprises?

A: There were quite a few surprises as I dug deeper into the Mercy story. The first one was the identity of more than 20 sisters who served the Mercy mission prior to our becoming an independent community. Their names and activities had been lost to us partly because of lost records and partly because individual sisters were rarely named in the early news articles. I also discovered just how hard their mission was. They were utterly courageous in the face of great debt, limited resources, illness and hardship. It was awesome for me to see how their love and devotion prompted them to take great risks in serving people.

One of the things I was looking for in the study was the combination of values and practices that made it possible for them to do what they did. There were seven primary ones. They stayed true to their mission at every step of the way. That was their compass and passion. Likewise, they were always collaborative in their works. I discovered that they always took on new works because the people of the city or the bishop asked them to. They worked together. That was really highlighted in their health care ministry. Collaboration allowed for the mission to expand.

Q: Can you expand more on what you found about their faith?

A: Their faith provided two essential guidelines for them. First, because they saw every person as made in the image and likeness of God, they believed that all persons possess the right to human dignity, are worthy of respect, and deserving of compassion. From the very beginning the sisters offered their services to folks from all faiths, ethnicities, economic levels or backgrounds. That was the taproot of their commitment to education as well as to the service of those who were poor or marginalized.

Aligned with that understanding was a second guideline. You achieve most when you empower persons to be their best selves. I discovered that Mercy education was always focused on helping young women to achieve their full potential. They received a formation in faith, intellectual excellence and job training.

One of the things that was initially a mystery to me was how they did so much with so little. While the commitment to collaboration explained part of that, I also discovered that there was a belief that where one Sister of Mercy is, all are present. That meant they could spread throughout the diocese even if few in number.

The final beliefs were not a surprise at all. The sisters approached every work with the confidence that it was God’s work, not our own. That allowed the sisters to take the great risks they did. They totally did it in God, for God. They gave what they could but relied on God to supply the rest. Their story showed so vividly that the sisters were not about public acclaim or honors. They believed in an evangelization through deeds. It was their lives that were to speak and it was their lives that authenticated the message they proclaimed.


To purchase a copy of “Braided Lives,” visit www.through-time.com or Amazon.com. If a parish or group wishes to have a presentation on the history of the Sisters of Mercy, contact Sister Mary Katherine at mkdoyle@sistersofmercy.org.

Catholic Herald Issue