The first Sisters of Mercy came to Cedar Rapids from the Iowa towns of Davenport and Independence where communities had been established in 1869 by sisters from Chicago .
Three sisters, Mary Isadore O’Connor, Mary Boniface Daly, and Mary Gertrude McCullough, came to Cedar Rapids from Independence on July 22, 1875, and four more came from Davenport two weeks later, in response to a request for teachers for the new St. Joseph Academy, a boarding school for girls and a parochial day school. The only transportation to the town was by steamboat or rail, with rail being the mode from Independence, making for a hot, dusty and tiring journey.
The academy was to be housed in a new building near the commercial center of the city. When the sisters arrived the building was not only unfurnished, but unfinished! Upon viewing the building, one sister is said to have exclaimed, “The windows are not in!” Another playfully replied, “Well, we won’t have to wash any windows today.”
Eager to get the building ready for the school year, the sisters rolled up their sleeves to help the carpenters, laying floors and installing windows. In addition to the academy, the building would also serve as the convent and novitiate for the next 30 years.
The first elected superior of the Sisters of Mercy Cedar Rapids Regional Community was Sister Mary Agatha Mullany from 1883 through 1895 and again from 1898 until 1904. Sister Mary Gertrude McCullough was her assistant and later, a superior from 1904 to 1910 and again from 1913 until 1919.
As early as 1894, the sisters opened their first hospital, which was located in the rural Iowa community of Anamosa. In 1900, because the only hospital in Cedar Rapids was consistently filled beyond its capacity, the sisters opened a 15-bed hospital in a converted house.
Response from the citizens was overwhelming and by 1903, after much scrambling for funds, the sisters moved Mercy Hospital to a brand new building with 100 patient beds and the most advanced technology of the day. A year later they welcomed their first class of students to the Mercy School of Nursing. They later added schools of Medical Technology and Radiology.
By 1906, their convent, novitiate and school were all bursting at the seams and the search began for a larger site. Eventually, the sisters located and leased the Judge Greene mansion, which was then beyond the city limits. Over the years, the property had at times been home to three shady horse thieves, an alleged counterfeiter, and finally, a Supreme Court judge. Judge George Greene was responsible for having the mansion built and was the first legally recognized owner of the property, the others being considered squatters.
The mansion had been vacant for about ten years, used only as an occasional shelter by hunters, with the ballroom being used for grain storage. After signing a lease, the sisters once again rolled up their sleeves to lovingly prepare the mansion for their motherhouse, novitiate and the fall opening of their girl’s boarding school, Sacred Heart Academy . St. Joseph Academy would continue to operate in its original location as a day school.
It is interesting to note that the sisters’ closest neighbors were so far away, that when the sisters were out picking strawberries from the farm berry beds, dressed in their black and white habits, the neighbors were later heard to comment on the nice looking herd of Holsteins they saw grazing at the farm.
The year 1906 was busy as the sisters also opened St. Berchman’s Seminary in Marion , Iowa . Originally planned as a day school for boys and girls, by 1915 it was exclusively a boy’s boarding school, which it remained until closing in 1942.
The farsighted leadership of the Cedar Rapids Sisters of Mercy elected to buy the Greene property in 1907. Future years saw remarkable growth in Sacred Heart Academy boarding school for girls, as it became Mount Mercy Academy in 1924, a junior college in 1928, a four-year college in 1960, and went co-ed in 1969.
Although it would seem the Cedar Rapids sisters were busy enough in the early 20th century, in their spare time they also managed to build, furnish, open, staff and operate hospitals in Oelwein, Iowa and Kalispell, Montana.
Since their arrival in Cedar Rapids, the Mercys have been dedicated to the education of the young. Over the years, they taught and served as administrators in many Iowa parochial elementary and high schools: a total of six different schools in Cedar Rapids; two in Marion; three in Waterloo; and in 13 other rural districts. Outside of the state of Iowa; Edina, Minnesota and Kalispell, Montana were also blessed with the Sisters' teaching ministries.
From 1964 to 1969 the sisters operated St. Ann’s Home, a residence for single expectant young women. The radical changes in social attitudes that swept the country in the 1960’s ultimately made St. Ann’s superfluous.
One of their newer sponsored works is the Catherine McAuley Center , established in 1989. The Center offers transitional housing for women without children. They also provide free tutoring in basic skills and language for men and women. Many of the clients now seeking tutoring are new immigrants to the US . CR Mercys dedicated a House of Mercy in Waterloo, Iowa in late 2003 and are co-sponsors of Mercy Housing, Inc.
Through the years, the sisters divested themselves from their involvement with all the rural hospitals. Day-to-day operations/management of Mercy Medical Center, Mount Mercy College and the Catherine McAuley Center have been turned over to each organization’s Board of Trustees. A true continuity of the Mercy mission is maintained by having sisters serving on each board at all times. A director of Mission Integration, who is liaison for all three sponsored works, also ensures that Mercy values will remain the primary focus at each of the sponsored ministries.