Catholic Herald staff
“The need for time is the will of God. “
This is how the motto of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross is read, words which have guided them through many decades of prayer, service and sacrifice in the diocese of the Superior.
Now the sisters are preparing for a new chapter in their story. Beginning this month, the community of Merrill – which became a province in the 1950s when vocations increased – will become a home, and the sisters will continue to plan for the future, which Sr. Pat Cormack, Provincial, identifies. as “the completion of our mission.
Founded in 1856 in Switzerland by Capuchin Fr. Theodosius Florentini and their first Mother Superior, Bl. Maria Theresia Scherer, in response to the needs created by the Industrial Revolution, the congregation first sent sisters to the United States in 1912.
The first Sisters of Holy Cross arrived in Merrill in 1923, beginning nearly a century of service here, primarily in education – religious, primary and secondary – and health care, first in the hospital qu ‘they opened in the 1920s, then at the Bell Tower Residence, the residence they sponsored for nearly three decades. The sisters also worked in countless other ministries in their community, in the diocese and in other states.
The international religious congregation maintains provinces on five continents, said Sr. Pat. They have a world population of around 2,800, of which about a third live in India.
Here in the United States, “the calling numbers are changing,” said Sr. Pat. Despite years of active recruiting, they haven’t had a new vocation since 2003, which has brought the community to a situation that mirrors the experience of many American religious communities. Looking to the future, they must discern the best way to take care of the elderly religious, to downsize and transfer their ministries to other organizations.
For the Merrill sisters, preparing for the future has been an ongoing project. In 2012, the general management of the order in Switzerland began to inquire about their plans for the future. Nine years ago, they began discussing changing their status from province to home, a process that is both canonical and civil, said Sr. Pat. The decision to do so was taken jointly.
“It’s not a happy choice, but this is where God is leading us at this point,” she added.
Choosing to be proactive gave them some opportunity to get involved in the process instead of having these decisions made for them, said Sr. Pat.
Likewise, as members of the Wisconsin Religious Co-operative, they have collaborated with other aging religious communities to ensure their continued viability by consolidating staff to share the costs of day-to-day management, among other arrangements.
History in Merrill
The Sisters of Holy Cross were invited to come to Merrill to establish a hospital in 1923. Holy Cross Hospital opened in 1926 and the sisters lived in the old TB Scott Mansion, a historic residence – and according to the local legend, haunted – which they turned into a convent.
In addition to the medical service, the sisters were teachers and catechists. Our Lady of the Holy Cross High School opened in 1936 and trained local students and boarding schools until 1968 when the school became a college until it closed in 1975.
The sisters continued to serve in the hospital until 1987, shortly before embarking on their next big project – converting much of their convent into the Bell Tower Residence, one of the first assisted living facilities in the region in 1990. They sold Bell Tower. in 2019.
Scott Mansion, which had also been a student dormitory, provincial seat, and novitiate, among other uses, was sold in 1990 along with the hospital. The 19th-century mansion was demolished, despite public outcry, earlier this year.
Beyond Merrill, the sisters traveled through the diocese for many years during the summer vacation, catechizing students from communities without Catholic schools. In the first years after Vatican II, the sisters also organized workshops around the diocese to train teachers. Given the rural nature of the diocese, they met an important need, reported Sr. Pat.
“It was very important for us and a way to contribute to the diocese,” she said.
Currently, 20 sisters live in community in Merrill. Their ages vary – the youngest is not yet 70 and the oldest 97 – but none of them consider themselves retired. Even those who cannot participate in many activities “still maintain a very strong circle of support in prayer.”
“None of our sisters are in paid positions,” she added, then cited another sister’s observation: “Sisters don’t retire.”
The Sisters of Holy Cross volunteer with the local pantry and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul and donate their time to the local free clinic and ministry in prison, as well as many other functions. said Sr. Pat. They care for one another, serve as librarians and archivists for one another, help with liturgical celebrations and more. Some continue their ministries beyond Merrill, promoting social justice and educating the public about human trafficking.
“They are still as committed as they can be,” she said.
Nevertheless, since Bell Tower Residence is no longer under their sponsorship, they have reduced their staff this year – longtime communications director Russ Mancl, who is also an associate of Holy Cross, has retired – and they helped accounting staff find new positions. They shut down their website because no staff were available to update it. Some sisters weren’t happy with the decision, but they just don’t have the resources to keep the site going, she explained.
A difficult year
The transition from the province to the house follows a particularly difficult year and a half for the sisters. Protecting their elderly and vulnerable from the ravages of the pandemic has kept all women in prolonged detention; Sr. Pat has not left Merrill since March 2020.
Religious communities around the world have been affected by epidemics and deaths, but luckily no one in their community has fallen seriously ill, she said; they observed quarantine requirements and maintained a protocol to ensure security. But they haven’t been able to use the Bell Tower Chapel, which they rent, since March 2020, and the sisters can barely sneak into their boardroom with social distancing.
They also had a few staff absences due to quarantine, but they were successful, she added. In addition to attending the funerals of family members, the 20 sisters in Sr. Pat’s care did not come out.
“It wasn’t fun,” she concluded.
She also found all the “bickering” about the coronavirus vaccination and masking baffling; less than 50 percent of Lincoln County residents had been fully immunized by mid-October.
“Sometimes you wonder if we’ll ever get to the other side of the issue if we don’t use vaccines well,” she commented.
During this time, the sisters prayed – for their religious community, their Catholic community and their civil community.
Some of their proudest accomplishments are pictured on a billboard displayed in Merrill. In the photo, four buildings: the Scott Mansion, the original hospital, the high school and the convent which was later converted into a bell tower.
“The buildings represent some of the main ways the sisters got involved in the Merrill community,” she observed.
Of all the work the sisters have done in nearly a century, Sr. Pat is most proud of their presence in Merrill.
“They could count on us to intervene when needed,” she added.
As for the long-term fruits of their dedication to the community, she sees clues to the impact of their service to the poor – through the Vinnies, the pantry, and the free clinic, for example – as well as the benefits of their service to the poor. will. volunteer and provide financial support.
Time will tell how their accomplishments will be remembered.
“You are not planning your own legacy,” she said.