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History of Service, Future of Possibilities: Leading in Education

Meet two brilliant Mercy educators, each with a commanding presence.

Mother Borgia Egan, founder of Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, not only stood six-feet tall in the habit that Sisters of Mercy wore in 1920s America, but she also attracted people with her take-charge personality and wit.

Sister Mary McCarthy, president, principal and dean of studies at Mercy High School in Middletown, Connecticut, over the last 45 years, stands out both for her sartorial style—she is known for wearing colorful shoes and suits—and her joyful, no-nonsense leadership.

Both women have used their intellect, will and charm to make Mercy education a transforming force in the lives of countless young women and men. Each in her own way has furthered the mission of Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley, whose ministry with impoverished people in 19th century Dublin, Ireland, convinced her that education is key to human dignity and wholeness.

The Sisters of Mercy have made their hallmark educating women and children in need, as well as caring for those who are sick and meeting the diverse unmet needs of struggling people. During Catholic Sisters Week 2020, we celebrate the impact of these Mercy ministries on the world.

When the Sisters of Mercy arrived in the United States in 1843, they started teaching poor immigrant children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As the sisters established foundations nationwide, Mercy schools became synonymous with academic rigor, marketable skills and Christ-like compassion.

Mother Borgia, born Catherine Egan in 1876, entered the Sisters of Mercy at age 15 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. She took the name of Saint Francis Borgia, founder of the Jesuits’ first university.

Her skills as an educator-leader became apparent when, as a young high school principal, she obtained state accreditation for her school. She also ran night classes at the school for immigrants and other adults wanting to better themselves.

“Mother Borgia had remarkable vision,” says Joseph Howard, Mercyhurst’s vice president for enrollment and a school graduate who is passionate about preserving and transmitting the Mercyhurst story.

Elected as mother superior in 1918, Mother Borgia dreamed of starting a Catholic women’s college. She was delighted when Bishop John Gannon of Erie supported her vision and Jesuit Father Thomas Gasson of Boston College encouraged her to build a college on a hill overlooking water, to attract and inspire students (as he had done). The sisters bought a hilltop farm with a Lake Erie view; drawing on the English word “hurst” (“wooded hill”), they named it Mercyhurst.

Mother Borgia insisted on elegant architecture for the college. She also sent her “pioneering sisters” to the University of Notre Dame and Catholic University to obtain advanced degrees, as she wanted a sister-faculty that was second to none. “She had a grand vision of a university with gravitas and permanence,” says Mercyhurst’s Howard.

Two weeks before Mercyhurst was to open, its construction workers went on strike, in solidarity with laborers in an unrelated dispute. Mother Borgia and the sisters finished the college themselves. “They hung the doors, assembled the furniture and varnished the floors,” Howard says, noting that sympathetic workers advised them.

The college opened on time, on September 20, 1926, with 23 students.

In an era when women’s colleges were often like finishing schools, Mercyhurst offered both a classical liberal arts education and classes such as home economics. “Mother Borgia bridged traditional and progressive expectations for women,” Howard says. “She wanted students to be deep thinkers, to read Shakespeare.”

Until she had a stroke in 1956, Mother Borgia served as Mercyhurst’s president, as well as a professor and dean. When she died at age 85 in 1962, the student newspaper noted her “towering stance, ready sense of humor…[and] intellectual prowess,” calling her “an unforgettable woman."

Today, says Howard, “We maintain that same sense of grit and determination at Mercyhurst that drove Mother Borgia… We are always aspiring for more.”

Just a few years shy of its centennial anniversary, Mercyhurst continues to respond to the needs of the times in true Mercy spirit. It went coed in 1969, achieved university status in 2012, and is highly ranked by U.S. News & World Report for its graduate programs.

Mother Eustace Taylor, Ph.D., a member of Mercyhurst’s first graduating class in 1929 who later served as its president, noted in her 50th anniversary history of the college, “Mercyhurst lived first in the desire and will of a remarkable woman—Mother M. Borgia Egan.”

For that, Mercyhurst’s numerous students, alumni, faculty and staff are grateful.

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Born into a large Irish-Catholic family in Waterbury, Connecticut, in 1942, Sister Mary McCarthy entered the Sisters of Mercy at age 18 because she loved “their spirit and welcoming presence, their commitment to the poor.” She relished her first assignments as an educator, including at The Academy of Our Lady of Mercy, Lauralton Hall, in Milford, Connecticut.

When she went to Mercy High School in 1975, Sister Mary never imagined she’d still be there in 2020. Although she will retire in June, at age 78, what has kept her at the school has been her passion for transforming girls into “Women of Mercy” who, in the spirit of Catherine McAuley, live meaningful, loving lives in service to others.

“Catherine’s charism has so much to give to young women and that’s exciting for me,” says Sister Mary, who has studied and lectured extensively about Catherine’s life and education ministry.

In her address to Mercy High’s “freshwomen” each year, Sister Mary tells them that they will hear the term “Women of Mercy” often over the next four years and that this is what she expects them to become. Time and again, she has been moved by how the girls take her words to heart.

Once, she summoned to her office some senior girls who had made fun of other girls. “I did my good Irish guilt trip on them,” says Sister Mary drily. “I said you will soon walk across the stage at graduation and I won’t be able to look you in the eyes as Women of Mercy.” She was surprised and touched when each girl came back to her office that day and asked what she needed to do to prove that she was a Woman of Mercy.

Mercy High has graduated some 9,000 students since its 1963 founding; Sister Mary guesses she knows about 8,000 of them. “Working with teenagers today is different than when I started,” she muses, noting that students face more peer and parental pressure, increased college competition, less stable homes and “a culture that doesn’t always respect religion and faith, that shows kids a lot of violence.”

Students feel safe at Mercy High, continues Sister Mary. And the way the school approaches academics, social justice and other diverse dimensions of student life says a lot about how it forms Women of Mercy.

While academic excellence is emphasized—Sister Mary pushed math and the sciences, including computer science and a competitive robotics club, long before STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects were popular—so is the ideal of each girl working to her potential, no matter her level of achievement.

The school’s commitment to social justice is legendary. Ever since Sister Mary visited Haiti in 2001, Mercy High has supported an orphanage there, with the school raising $15,000 to $25,000 annually. Every season and holiday finds students helping others in need, whether it’s baking apple pies for soup kitchens at Thanksgiving, buying and wrapping Christmas gifts for poor children and senior citizens, or running a “Souper Bowl” drive that recently provided Middletown’s two soup kitchens with nearly 3,000 cans of food.

Mercy High also provides scholarships and financial aid to students in need. And in an era where some question the value and expense of Catholic girls’ education, Sister Mary fearlessly makes the case for it. “Girls become leaders here; they become Women of Mercy for others,” she exclaims.

A “founding mother” of what is now the Mercy Education System of the Americas (MESA), which provides trainings and resources to Mercy educators, Sister Mary has received such honors as the Pro Ecclesia et Poniface Medal (“For the Church and the Pope”), the highest papal award given to a layperson. She’s also been awarded the Middletown Exchange Club’s Book of Golden Deeds for service to the city. A retirement gala for Sister Mary is planned for June, and Mercy High has launched the Forty-Five Scholarship Fund, a campaign to raise $450,000 in honor of her 45 years there.

As she prepares to retire, Sister Mary’s wishes are simple.

“I just hope that the students continue to be strong Women of Mercy,” she says, “That they keep Catherine’s legacy alive.”

Thanks to Mercy educators like Sister Mary and Mother Borgia, Catherine’s legacy enlivens the world today as never before.

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Created By
Catherine Walsh
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All photos were provided to the Sisters of Mercy for use.