Sisters of Mercy celebrate jubilees, recall many decades of service

Sisters of Mercy / Catholic Courier    |    11.03.2020
Category: Vocations


The following Sisters of Mercy are celebrating jubilees in 2020.

75 Years

Sister Mary Faith Francione

For Sister Mary Faith Francione, the sound of ringing bells at St. Michael Church in Rochester was her childhood call to attend Sunday Mass.

“It was wonderful growing up connected to the sisters and priests at St. Michael’s,” she said. “I had devoted parents, four brothers and three sisters. We were very close and entertained family and friends frequently. St. Michael’s Church was so beautiful, and the parishioners were like extended family.”

She credits her Catholic upbringing with her decision to enter the Sisters of Mercy in 1945, and with further direction from the late Bishop Lawrence B. Casey, after she graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School.

Sister Francione earned a bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College and a master’s degree from Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Mich. She taught at St. John the Evangelist, Holy Cross and of Our Lady of Mercy, Rochester; St. Joseph, Penfield; St. Cecilia, Irondequoit; and Holy Family, Auburn. She also served as principal at St. Joseph and Holy Family.

After teaching for 50 years, she volunteered for hospital and prison ministries, was office assistant at Our Lady of Mercy High School and worked in the spiritual apostolate at Mercy Center between 2001 and 2016.

“I have had the opportunity to work in several ministries, hoping to inspire people and communicate the importance of Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” she said, but added, “I truly loved each ministry to which I was called over the years. I have met Jesus in all of them and continue to do so now at this point in my life.”

Today, Sister Francione finds joy in living in community and praying the rosary.

Motto: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph I give you my heart and soul”

Sister Mary Schum

Growing up on Clifford Avenue in Rochester in the 1930s, Sister Mary Schum spent her childhood playing baseball, basketball, tennis and bowling along with her older brother, George,

parishioners of St. Ambrose Church.

“I definitely was a sports person,” she admitted. “While a student at Our Lady of Mercy High School, I noticed right away how easily the Sisters of Mercy smiled. They showed how happy they were with their lives, and I wanted to be like them. Sister Maureen Flood became a mentor. My favorite subject was science, which undoubtedly accounted for my eventual interest in nursing.”

Upon entering religious life in 1945, Sister Schum earned a liberal arts degree from Nazareth College and went on to receive a nursing degree from St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1951.

For the next 35 years, she devoted her passion for nursing at St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell and eventually full time at the Mercy Center infirmary.

In 1984, she and nursing classmate, Sister Mary Howard Cowan, combined their nursing specialties and established the Mercy Care Center, an adult day care, in Elmira. Due to age and infirmities — “my football knee,” Sister Schum joked — the sisters closed the center after 23 years but resided there until 2012.

“My favorite ministry was taking care of the motherhouse sisters in the infirmary, ministering to the sick and dying. They brought me closer to God,” she said.

In this, her 75th jubilee year as a Sister of Mercy, she prays the beatitudes, saying, “ This brings to me the memory of visiting the Holy Land, the site of Jesus’s giving His sermon on the beatitudes, and the Sea of Galilee, where I was privileged to travel many years ago.”

In her retirement at Mercy Center, she said, “The Sisters of Mercy have helped me to lead a good life.”

Motto: “My God, I love you”

70 Years

Sister Kathleen Bayer

The job description read: “Full-time (40 hours/week) twelve-month position with flexible hours.”

The pastoral assistant job, to which Sister Kathleen Bayer applied in 1983, involved visitations to the sick, homebound and bereaved; liturgical and social activities; parish staff meetings; decision-making; budgeting; overseeing volunteers; conducting vigil services; and numerous other commitments.

She already had completed 23 years of teaching in seven Diocese of Rochester schools, earned an associate’s degree from Catherine McAuley College and a bachelor’s degree in education from Nazareth College when she undertook further studies in pastoral care at St. Raphael Hospital, New Haven, Conn.

Sister Bayer studied pastoral care between 1978-83 at St. Louis University Hospital in St. Louis, and later at Rochester General Hospital.

“My favorite ministry was being a pastoral assistant (Ss. Peter and Paul Parish) in Elmira, N.Y. (1983-2006). It was satisfying to visit with people and minister to them in many different ways. They inspired me to find a variety of ways to serve them,” she said.

From 2006-13, Sister Bayer served as eucharistic minister to the sick and homebound at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Elmira.

Throughout her ministries she took with her the prayer, “Be with me, Lord.”

Attending St. Ambrose School in Rochester with her three brothers and three sisters, she recalled, “My first Communion teacher made a strong impression on me while preparing for reception of the Eucharist. Her kindness and devotion made me think I might like to become a sister when I grew up.”

Following graduation from Our Lady of Mercy High School in 1950, she entered the Sisters of Mercy. Over the years, she brought into the Mercy Associates her sister, the late Rita Bayer, and her former pastoral administrator and friend, the late Millie Ziminski.

Motto: “To refuse God nothing”

Sister Phyllis Bernardo

“The 1930s were depression years, but we were grounded in faith and family values: parents at home, meals together, fresh air play time, study at kitchen table, baseball in the street, bicycles and skates. Surely, a different rhythm and pace from today — a cultural shift,” wrote Sister Phyllis Bernardo.

That cultural shift was to come later in her life after graduating St. Mary’s Business School, where she experienced the “gentle, affirming” instruction of Sister Carolyn Lattinville, who was instrumental in her entering religious life in 1950.

Sister Bernardo earned education degrees from Nazareth College and SUNY at Brockport and taught for 23 years in five Rochester diocesan schools. She was a secretary at Catherine McAuley College, served in social services at the Joseph Avenue Center and began fieldwork at the Office of Black Ministries for the Rochester Diocese.

In 1978, she traveled to Selma, Ala., and worked in social services with the Edmundite Southern Mission, a long-established ministry geared to assist African-Americans of the Deep South. Prison ministry was among her endeavors.

She and the late Sister Concepta Walsh relocated to Indianola, Miss., in 1982 as pastoral ministers in rural ministry for 20 years in a small, African-American parish. Between 1984 and 2001, she received service awards from Queen of Peace Church, Selma, Ala.; Sunflower County Community in Mississippi; and the Service to the Catholic Church award.

“We shared in joyful events, soulful liturgies, family burdens and reverses, boycotts and union strikes for human rights,” she said. “The experience was awesome, and we were grateful to God for allowing us to be in that vineyard.”

Motto: Christus regnat (Christ reigns)

Sister Jacqueline DeMars

Sister Jacqueline DeMars entered from St. Alphonsus Parish in Auburn in 1950, shortly after graduating from Holy Family High School.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Nazareth College and a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame.

Teaching and administrative assignments in the Diocese of Rochester in elementary and high school levels included: St. Thomas the Apostle, Irondequoit; Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Rochester, where she was principal; Cardinal Mooney High School, Greece; and Our Lady of Mercy High School, Brighton.

During her 40 years at Our Lady of Mercy until 2008, she served as treasurer of the Sisters of Mercy of Rochester from 1970-74, as director of academics and as chief financial officer, all while teaching mathematics classes.

Between 2008-16, Sister DeMars was coordinator of the NyPPaW archives in Buffalo and served on the board of the Institute Central Archival Research Center in Belmont, N.C.

Motto: I can do all things in Him who strengthens me

“Without a doubt, my whole religious life has been a mystery of faith, a mystery of God’s unconditional love for me,” said Sister Gertrude Erb.

Sister Gertrude Erb

It was through the influence and example of her uncle, the late Father Charles Erb, SVD, a military chaplain and a well-noted missionary in Ghana, West Africa, and the late Sister Mary Edwina Butler, her music teacher at Our Lady of Mercy High School, that Sister Erb entered religious life after she graduated in 1950.

She said it was their dedication, service and joy that modelled her motto, “Serve the Lord with joy.”

Sister Erb earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Nazareth College and a master’s degree in teaching of mathematics at Villanova University.

She began a 30-year teaching ministry in Rochester diocesan schools: Holy Cross, Rochester; St. Salome, Irondequoit; Holy Family, Auburn; Cardinal Mooney High School Greece, and Notre Dame High School, Elmira.

For the next 30 years beginning in 1984, she performed pastoral ministry at St. Agnes in Avon, and Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Ambrose, Roman Catholic Community of the 19th Ward and Peace of Christ, Rochester.

At St. Ann’s Community at Cherry Ridge in Webster from 2005-18 Sister Erb was recognized for her dedication as pastoral-care coordinator.

Through the years, her “spiritual anchor” has been words from Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know well the plans I have for you, says the Lord … plans to give you a future full of hope.”

“This promise of God to me has always been a source of encouragement and trust in God’s ever-present care,” she said.

Motto: Serve the Lord with joy

Sister Mary Sullivan

Grateful for her 70 years as a Sister of Mercy, Sister Mary Sullivan hopes the sentence, Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est (Where charity and love are, there God is), has meant more in her life than simply engraved words on her silver ring.

“I have received many helps and blessings from the Sisters of Mercy — opportunities for graduate study, research, writing and travel. These gifts carry obligations which I have tried to fulfill,” she said.

With a PhD in English from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s in theology from the University of London, Sister Sullivan has published five books on the life and thoughts of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, and one on the friendship of Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing, and Mary Clare Moore, an early Sister of Mercy.

After teaching in Catholic elementary schools, Our Lady of Mercy High School and Catherine McAuley College, she taught at Marymount College, Tarrytown, N.Y., and an evening program in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

In 1969, she joined the faculty of Rochester Institute of Technology, teaching literature and writing, and retiring as professor emerita in 2002. At RIT, she also served as dean of the College of Liberal Arts from 1977-87 and as chair of the Academic Senate from 1996-99. In 1991, she chaired a review panel appointed by the college’s trustees to examine the relations between RIT and the CIA.

Today, Sister Sullivan writes articles and gives traveling lectures on Catherine McAuley and on the current climate crisis. She also is an active member of Mercy Focus on Haiti, a ministerial initiative of the Sisters of Mercy.

“In these efforts, I find the example of Catherine McAuley both beckoning and consoling,” she said.

Sister Janet Wahl

Sister Janet Wahl’s religious motto has guided her entire life: “Pray, love, sacrifice.” During her 70 years as a Sister of Mercy, and in all her various ministries, Sister Wahl said she has tried “to do good and to share what she had, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb.13:15-16).

With graduate degrees in American history, religious education and health education, Sister Wahl served wherever she was needed, teaching in four Diocese of Rochester elementary schools, at Our Lady of Mercy and Cardinal Mooney high schools in Brighton and Greece, and then as vice principal of Elmira Notre Dame High School.

As assistant superior general for the Sisters of Mercy in Rochester between 1973-77, Sister Wahl led the transformation of part of the motherhouse’s McAuley wing into an infirmary. Then in 1977, her missionary heart blossomed; she joined the Mercy mission in Santiago, Chile’s capitol and largest city, serving among the Chilean people for five years and leaving much of her heart among them when she departed.

After becoming certified as a physician’s assistant, for 13 years she served the health needs of people in the Southern Tier, chiefly through the Cameron Valley Health Center.

In 2001, she joined the Encuentro Ministry, serving migrant farmworkers and Hispanic immigrants living in the Rochester area. With her wealth of experience and knowledge, she volunteered for eight years in the Brockport Migrant Education Outreach Program.

When one visits Sister Wahl today at Mercy Center, one is struck by her cheerful serenity and the long history of her willingness to “Pray, Love, and Sacrifice” for those needing to experience the merciful care of God.

60 Years

Sister Jeanne Marie Collins

At two childhood junctures, Sister Jeanne Marie Collins knew that she wanted to be a Sister of Mercy.

“St. Louis School (in hometown Pittsford) opened in 1950. I was in the third grade, and I had Sister Mary Joseph (Sister Ann Miller). It was the first time of having Sisters of Mercy, and I wanted to be one of them some day,” Sister Collins recalled.

Then four years later, “Sister M. Matthew Kruchow taught me in seventh grade, and I was even more inspired to become a Sister of Mercy. While I was in high school (Our Lady of Mercy), we kept in touch through letters,” she said.

After graduation in 1960, she entered the Sisters of Mercy, earned an associate degree at Catherine McAuley College and started a 30-year teaching ministry. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Medaille College in Buffalo, and a master’s degree in elementary education at Nazareth College.

She taught at St. Cecelia and St. Thomas the Apostle, Irondequoit; St. Charles Borromeo, Greece; Annunciation and St. Andrew, Rochester; and St. Rita, Webster. She also taught at St. Matthew in East Syracuse from 1991-93.

Leaving the classroom in 1993, she became pastoral associate and music/liturgy coordinator at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish and moved on to caregiving for the elderly through Sisters Care in East Rochester. She served as a home hospital teacher for the Rochester City School District for six years and joined Home Instead as a caregiver until 2011.

A three-year visitor at Rochester General Hospital’s dialysis center until 2018, Sister Collins was known and admired for her close personal and phone contact with the many patients.

Today, she works in the Mission Advancement and Mercy Associates offices and shares this wisdom from Romans 12:12: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction and faithful in prayer.”

Motto: “With joy will I serve”

Sister Audrey Synnott

A faulty residential furnace “was the start of my religious vocation,” said Sister Audrey Synnott, who grew up in Stamford, Conn.

While pursuing a teaching fellowship for graduate study in English at SUNY Buffalo after earning a bachelor’s degree at Vassar, she found herself rooming off campus. It was February 1959 when, because of a cold room, she admitted she began “going to early Mass just to get warm.”

Once there, she said, “I began talking with a priest about the challenges of my life. Talking resulted in going to an interview with Mother Mary Vincentia Vossler, superior of the Buffalo Sisters of Mercy.”

As a result, “I entered in September 1960, having completed my course work and research, but not my thesis,” she said. “I told Mother Vincentia I could give up my master’s degree pursuit (study was losing its charm), but she insisted I finish. My postulant year was writing away in a small room in the basement. I defended my thesis in April 1961 and was received in June.”

Sister Synnott taught composition and literature for 20 years in Diocese of Buffalo schools and Trocaire College. In 1980, she relocated to Rochester and for 14 years was poetry editor for the former national magazine Sisters Today.

The ensuing years saw her assisting in the NW Speech and Hearing Clinic in Rochester, ministering as chaplain in the Spiritual Awakenings program, directing the Mercy Associate program and manuscript writing.

Sister Synnott celebrated her jubilarian year with others in a ministry of prayer at Mercy Center.

Motto: “Love, serve bring peace”

50 Years

Sister Gaye Moorhead

Sister Gaye Moorhead had just graduated from Air Academy High School in Colorado in 1966 and was an English major at SUNY Geneseo when she volunteered at “Project R.E.A.C.H.,” a human-service ministry for health care, poverty and migrant education in Perkinsville.

There, she had her first encounter with the Sisters of Mercy, who came and went as volunteers themselves.

“Several of those sisters remained in close touch with us, and I came to love their spirit, service and generosity,” said Sister Moorhead, who entered the community in 1970.

After graduating from college in 1972, she founded Andrews Center, a foster care ministry that provides a loving home to children with medical, emotional, behavioral and physical needs.

She then returned to academia, earning a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1980 and was an attorney for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. While practicing law, she served as councilor for the Rochester community and later began representing immigrants in removal proceedings and juveniles in Family Court proceedings.

From 1994-2001, as a child welfare lawyer, she coordinated the Mercy Migrant Education Ministry, La Escuela de San Jose, the nation’s first mobile school for the children of migrant farmworkers between Ohio and Florida.

“Our hope was to give the children the skills and instill in them the confidence they needed to stay in school, do well and ultimately graduate,” Sister Moorhead said.

In 2004, she returned to Rochester as regional president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

For six years, she was Mission Services Liaison at St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., before returning to the Rochester area to reside at Mercy Center.

Motto: “Walk while you have the light”

Sister Fran Wegman

“Community life was a natural choice for me,” said Sister Fran Wegman. “I was raised in a community of sorts, growing up with 10 siblings.”

She credits her parents, founding members of Rochester’s St. Anne Parish, with instilling God-centered values and providing faith-oriented education for their children.

Sister Wegman graduated from Our Lady of Mercy High School in 1969 and the following year — recognizing the impact of the Mercy faculty’s “commitment, mission, joy with which they served others and their faith in a compassionate and loving God” — she entered the Sisters of Mercy

Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at SUNY at Brockport, she taught at St. Andrew School, Rochester, then ministered at Andrew’s Center, a foster home for special needs children. That ministry led her to return to school to pursue a degree in nursing.

Her nursing career began at Strong Memorial Hospital in 1984 in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she remains 36 years later, all while serving as director of community care services and formation ministry for her community and later as one of its councilors and vice president.

“Each ministry has enabled me to see the hand of God, leading me throughout my life and calling me to use my gifts in serving others. … The health-care ministries remind me daily of the mystery of life and death … of how we are called to be both healed and healers,” she said.

She shares words from Catherine McAuley: “Our hearts can always be in the same place, centered in God, for whom alone we go forward or stay back.”

And that direction chosen, according to Sister Wegman, “has enabled me to have experiences and take risks I would never have dreamed were possible.”

Motto: “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart”

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