Wanted: Catholics willing to work long hours for room and board only, no pay. Must be educated and skilled in nursing, as doctors are in short supply. Willingness to work with poor, uneducated and commitment to mission a must. Work area includes border of Indian Territory, so violence may be expected. Only those with courage and strong faith need apply.
Such was the rosy picture painted by Arkansas’ first Roman Catholic Bishop Andrew Byrne in an advertisement circa 1845. Bishop Byrne had big dreams for the woods, mountains and mosquito-infested swamps he found here, but to make them come true he needed help. His pitch, delivered throughout the East Coast and Europe, was his attempt to recruit more Catholics to the wild and unforgiving land.
Some religious orders responded only to have their delegations turn tail and head for home because of the harsh conditions. Bishop Byrne followed his ads with personal appeals, twice traveling back to his native Ireland to convince Catholics there to assist him in his work in Arkansas.
On one such trip in late 1850, Bishop Byrne paid a visit to the indomitable Catherine McAuley, who founded the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Dublin in 1831. Sister McAuley’s charism revolved around serving the sick, poor and uneducated, and through her House of Mercy she sought to provide solace to sick and needy families, train young girls for employment and instruct poor children. She granted Byrne a delegation of 12 young nuns to plant the seeds of this charism in America.
On November 30, 1850, four Sisters of Mercy — Mother Teresa Farrell, Sister Mary Alphonsus Carton, Sister Xavier Nolan, Sister Aloysius Fitzpatrick and a few postulants — set sail on the cramped vessel John O’Toole for the two-month sea voyage from Ireland to New Orleans. With such time on their hands, the women perfected their teaching skills by holding classes for the children on board during the day and for adult passengers at night.
Surviving a violent storm and a strong bout of illness, the delegation docked safely in New Orleans, on Jan. 23, 1851. They headed north, chugging up the Mississippi River on a steamboat toward Little Rock, their new home. On board was a cross section of frontier folk, including wealthy plantation owners, simple farmers and soldiers.
The women arrived in Little Rock on Feb. 5, 1851, and immediately set about visiting the sick and teaching at what was soon to become known as St. Mary Academy. By November, they had their own convent at 6th and Louisiana Streets downtown, which remained their home for the next five decades. The sisters also taught 35 Catholic and Protestant students of both sexes there, a setup that expanded the following year into a boarding school housing the daughters of some of Bishop Byrne’s friends from New Orleans.
Inspired by St. Mary’s success and a visit to Arkansas’ western frontier, Bishop Byrne asked the Sisters of Mercy to form a foundation in Fort Smith, at that time the last outpost of civilization in the territory. Led by Mother Teresa Farrell, a small band of sisters embarked on the four-day steamboat journey to their new home to found St. Anne Convent and Academy.
The convent in Fort Smith, established in 1853, was located in the former home of General Zachary Taylor, who vacated the property to find fame during the Mexican War. Classes began there shortly after they arrived and a school for boys was added not long thereafter.
The school was unlike anything to be found in the wild country and quickly became the center for education and culture. The student body, ranging from local children to six Native American princesses of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes, attended classes in traditional academic subjects as well as needlework, music, art and etiquette.
In 1858, the Sisters of Mercy established another school, St. Catherine Academy in Helena, consisting of a convent and boarding school. It was not a hospitable assignment; just four years earlier an anti-Catholic group called the Know-Nothings had burned Helena’s Catholic church to the ground.
Within a decade, the Civil War reached Arkansas and the schools were largely converted to makeshift hospitals, treating both Confederate and Union soldiers and acting as a haven for children displaced by the fighting. St. Catherine’s was particularly affected as sisters hid refugee slaves in their barns and tended the wounded on both sides for weeks after the Battle of Helena, a conflict that involved 12,000 troops and represented the last Confederate offensive in Arkansas.
The end of hostilities and onset of Reconstruction provided a time of transition and rebuilding for the Sisters of Mercy. St. Catherine’s, the site of the sisters’ Civil War heroics, closed in 1868 because of hard times in the region and the resident nuns returned to Little Rock or Fort Smith.
St. Mary’s, wanting to escape the crowded, noisy downtown, secured 10 rural acres on a ridge in Pulaski Heights as the site to build an all-girls school, convent and accompanying structures, which were dedicated June 11, 1908. Its elevated location also inspired a new name, Mount St. Mary Academy, which is today the oldest continuously-operating school in the state.
St. Anne's Academy similarly grew, completing a three-story classroom and assembly building in 1903. By the 1920s, St. Anne’s expanded the student body to be co-educational, graduating 1,400 students between 1929 and its closing in 1973.
The Sisters of Mercy’s enduring legacy in Fort Smith is one of healing. Building upon their hard-won reputation for treating the sick during the nation’s conflict, the 30-bed St. Edward Infirmary was opened in 1905 by some of the very same sisters who had nursed soldiers on the Civil War battlefield. Today, St. Edward Mercy Medical Center has grown by over 300 beds and serves 400,000 residents in 13 counties.
Feb. 5, the day the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Little Rock, is still observed as Founder’s Day and in 2001, on the occasion of Mount St. Mary’s 150th anniversary, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also declared the date “Sisters of Mercy Day.”
Now organized under the name Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the religious order represents important cornerstones of the spiritual, social, educational and medical history of Arkansas. The brave and determined nuns who helped tame the wild frontier, many of them far from home and barely out of their teens, is an inspiring story of faith and compassion for all generations.
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