Mercyhurst Magazine Spring 2014

It takes a community By Sue Corbran When Lisa Mary McCartney entered the Sisters of Mercy, she soon discovered that Erieites were a bit unclear on the sisters’ identity. They thought she’d joined the Sisters of Mercyhurst. It was a natural mistake – for several decades, the Sisters and the college they had founded in 1926 were so intertwined that it was hard to determine where one stopped and the other began. The order’s Mother Superior automatically served as president of the college, and Sisters flled nearly all the teaching jobs and administrative posts. They lived on campus, some supervising the residence halls. The college didn’t even keep separate books, and the Sisters living in convents all over northwestern Pennsylvania sent every extra penny home to Erie to support the young college. The Sisters owned the land where the college stood. But in the decades that followed, the physical presence and infuence of the Sisters of Mercy on campus gradually declined. The Sisters kept their leadership roles even as the number of men on the faculty rose during the ‘60s, but fewer of them lived on campus. Many had moved to the new Mercy Motherhouse, and others into individual homes to ofer direct service to their neighbors. And by the time men were admitted to Mercyhurst in 1969, some traditions the Sisters had cherished – like the annual May Crowning and weekly formal dinners – had disappeared. The number of religious women was at its highest point ever when Sister Lisa Mary joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1968, but in just a few years the number of Sisters plummeted. The efects of this worldwide phenomenon were soon felt at Mercyhurst. With more and more options open to them, fewer women were choosing religious life. Those who did also had more options in the years following Vatican II. Sisters still took a vow of obedience, but they were encouraged to recognize and nourish their own gifts. Many chose parish work and ministry to the poor over teaching and nursing. When Sister Carolyn Herrmann retired as Mercyhurst’s president in 1972, there was no Sister of Mercy waiting in the wings to succeed her. For the frst time, the college looked outside its founding order to fnd a new president and hired Dr. Marion Shane – the frst lay person, the frst man, and the frst non-Catholic to lead the school. Every president since has been a lay man. Sister Carolyn had launched a lay advisory board to help as the college grew. It evolved into today’s Board of Trustees, which must include fve Sisters of Mercy, according to its bylaws. As the successors of the founders, the Sisters still wield persuasive infuence and the other 30 or so trustees still consider “What do the Sisters think?” But the order no longer controls the direction that Mercyhurst will head. The Sisters have a voice, but not a veto. Only two Sisters – Vice President for Mission Integration Sister Lisa Mary McCartney and Registrar Sister Patricia Whalen – work full time at Mercyhurst now. Both believe it’s an important part of their jobs to be sure that Mercyhurst refects their Catholic tradition and Mercy charism even after they’re gone.

They think that John R. Wilcox – writing last fall in America magazine – may have come up with a workable solution to an issue that afects so many religious schools. His proposal: a “mission community,” a group of administrators, faculty and staf who commit themselves to the future of Catholic higher education at their universities. In the same way that “it takes a village” to raise a child, perhaps in the future it will “take a community” to keep the spirit of the Sisters of Mercy fourishing at Mercyhurst. “The genius of the founding congregations was their ability to have a presence across the entire campus,”Wilcox wrote. With few or no religious left on campus, “there is a need to create a new, living endowment,

one that will transform the sharply reduced living endowment of the founding congregation.”

How that might look, he’s not sure. But he envisions a mission community – open to anyone with an interest – that would “meet regularly, pray in a manner that respects diversity, provide mission education for administrators, faculty, staf and students, ofer reviews of college policy and strategic planning and foster a palpable Catholic culture as shaped by the religious heritage of the founders.” The “mission community” conversation is just getting started, but the Sisters believe it’s crucial. “Without our faith-based mission, we’re no diferent than hundreds of other mid- sized universities,” Sister Lisa Mary says. “Our mission and heritage are what make us unique.”


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