The Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross came to Merrill in 1923 and opened Holy Cross Hospital in 1926. A group of sisters stand together in this photo taken in the 1920s. (Submitted photo)
Catholic Herald staff
“The need of the times is the will of God.”
So reads the motto of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross, words that have guided them through many decades of prayer, service and sacrifice in the Diocese of Superior.
Now, the sisters are preparing for a new chapter in their story. Effective this month, the community in Merrill – made a province back in the 1950s, when vocations swelled – will become a house, and the sisters will continue to plan for the future, which Sr. Pat Cormack, provincial, identifies as “the completion of our mission.”
Established in 1856 in Switzerland by Capuchin Fr. Theodosius Florentini and their first mother superior, Bl. Maria Theresia Scherer, in response to needs created by the industrial revolution, the congregation first sent sisters to the United States in 1912.
The first Holy Cross sisters arrived in Merrill in 1923, beginning nearly a century of service here, primarily in education – religious, primary and secondary – and healthcare, first in the hospital they opened in the 1920s and then at Bell Tower Residence, the assisted living facility they sponsored for nearly three decades. The sisters have 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, Sr. Pat said. They have a worldwide population of approximately 2,800, with around a third of them living in India.
Here, in the States, “vocation numbers are shifting,” Sr. Pat explained. Despite years of active recruitment, they haven’t had a new vocation since 2003, which has led the community to a situation that mirrors what many U.S. religious communities are experiencing. Peering into the future, they must discern how best to care for elderly religious, downsize their staffs and shift their ministries to other organizations.
For the Merrill sisters, preparing for the future has been an ongoing project. In 2012, the order’s general leadership in Switzerland began inquiring about their plans for the future. Nine years ago, they started discussing changing their status from province to house, a process that is both canonical and civil, Sr. Pat said. The decision to do so was made jointly.
“It’s not a happy choice, but it is where God is leading us at this point,” she added.
Choosing to be proactive has provided some opportunity for them to be involved in the process instead of having those decisions made for them, Sr. Pat said.
Similarly, as members of the Wisconsin Religious Cooperative, they’ve been collaborating 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
Holy Cross sisters were invited to come to Merrill to establish a hospital in 1923. Holy Cross Hospital opened in 1926, and the sisters lived in the former T.B. Scott Mansion, a historic – and according to local legend, haunted – residence they converted into a convent.
In addition to medical service, the sisters were teachers and catechists. Our Lady of the Holy Cross High School opened in 1936 and educated local and boarding students until 1968, when the facility became a junior college until its closure in 1975.
The sisters continued to serve in the hospital until 1987, not long before they embarked on their next major project – converting much of their convent to Bell Tower Residence, one of the first assisted living facilities in the region, in 1990. They sold Bell Tower in 2019.
The Scott Mansion, which had also been a dormitory for students, a provincial headquarters and a novitiate, among other uses, had been sold in 1990 with the hospital. The 19th-century mansion was demolished, despite public outcry, earlier this year.
Beyond Merrill, the sisters traveled around the diocese for many years during summer breaks, catechizing students in communities without Catholic schools. In the first years after Vatican II, the sisters also held workshops around the diocese to educate teachers. Given the rural nature of the diocese, they were addressing a significant need, Sr. Pat reported.
“It was very important for us, and a way to contribute to the diocese,” she said.
Currently, 20 sisters live in community in Merrill. They range in age – the youngest is not yet 70, and the oldest is 97 – but none of them consider themselves retired. Even those who cannot participate in many activities “still maintain a very strong circle of prayer support.”
“None of our sisters are working in paid positions,” she added, then quoted another sister’s observation: “Sisters don’t retire.”
Holy Cross sisters serve as volunteers with the local food pantry and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and give their time at the local free clinic and in prison ministry, as well as in many other capacities, Sr. Pat said. They care for one another, serve as librarians and archivists for each other, help with liturgical celebrations and more. Some continue their ministries beyond Merrill, promoting social justice and educating the public about human trafficking.
“They’re still as engaged as they’re able to be,” she said.
Still, given that Bell Tower Residence is no longer under their sponsorship, they downsized their staff this year – longtime communications director Russ Mancl, who is also a Holy Cross Associate, retired – and they helped accounting staff find new positions. They shut down their website, as no staff members were available to update it. Some sisters were not happy about the decision, but they simply don’t have the resources to maintain the site, she explained.
A difficult year
The transition from province to house comes on the heels of a particularly challenging year-and-a-half for the sisters. Protecting their elderly and vulnerable from the ravages of the pandemic has kept all of the women in lengthy lockdown; Sr. Pat has not left Merrill since March of 2020.
Religious communities all over the world have been hit with outbreaks and deaths, but fortunately, no one from their community became seriously ill, she said; they observed quarantine requirements and maintained protocol to ensure safety. But they have not been able to use the chapel at Bell Tower, which they lease, since March 2020, and the sisters can barely squeeze into their meeting room with social distancing.
They also had some staff absences due to quarantine, but they managed, she added. Beyond attending funerals for family members, the 20 sisters in Sr. Pat’s care have not been out and about.
“It hasn’t been fun,” she concluded.
She’s also found all the “wrangling” over coronavirus vaccination and masking to be disconcerting; fewer than 50 percent of Lincoln County residents had been fully vaccinated by mid-October.
“Sometimes you wonder whether we will ever get to the other side of this if we don’t make good use of the vaccines,” she commented.
Meanwhile, the sisters have been praying – for their religious community, their Catholic community and their civil community.
Some of their proudest accomplishments are photographed on a billboard posted in Merrill. Pictured are four buildings: the Scott Mansion, the original hospital, the high school and the convent that was later converted to Bell Tower.
“The buildings represent some of the main ways the sisters have been engaged 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 step up whenever there was need,” she added.
As to the long-term fruits of their dedication to the community, she sees hints of the impact of their service to the poor – through the Vinnies, the food pantry and the free clinic, for example – as well as the benefits of their willingness to volunteer and offer financial support.
Time will tell how their accomplishments are remembered.
“You don’t plan your own legacy,” she said.