Mercy Housing was founded by eight communities of Catholic Sisters in 1981, and since then we have incorporated their founding values of respect, justice, and mercy into every aspect of our work.
We acknowledge and celebrate these Catholic beginnings, which is why, in honor of National Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14, 2017), we present the following facts about women religious and their history with Mercy Housing.
1. Nuns and Sisters are not the same thing!
Though often used interchangeably, the words “nun” and “sister” mean different things within Roman Catholicism. According to A Nun’s Life Ministry, a Catholic nun is a woman who lives a contemplative life in a monastery, while a Catholic Sister is a woman who lives, ministers, and prays “within the world.” Both nuns and sisters can be called “women religious.” (And yes, by these definitions, the title of this article is a misnomer.)
2. Mercy Housing’s has had three CEOs, two of whom were Sisters!
In 1986, Sister Mary Terese Tracy retired as CEO, and was succeeded by Sister Lillian Murphy, who led Mercy Housing for 27 years until her retirement in 2014. Jane Graf, formerly Mercy Housing’s President, became CEO in June, 2014. Graf has been with the organization since 1992, and brings more than 35 years of affordable housing development experience to her position.
3. Sister Lillian’s mother was convinced that the Sisterhood was not for her daughter.
“The day I entered the convent, my mother predicted I would be home in two weeks!” she said. “That was more than half a century ago, and I’m still here!”
4. Sister Lillian believes that the movie “Dead Man Walking” most realistically depicts the Sisters.
“Dead Man Walking,” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, details the friendship that blossoms between a convicted murderer on death row and a woman religious. The movie, released in 1996, was based on a memoir authored by Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph who worked with death row inmates and who, to this day, advocates against the death penalty.
5. Catholic Sisters have established hundreds of hospitals and schools in the U.S.
Catholic Sisters are known for their social work and have influenced the development of healthcare facilities and schools worldwide for hundreds of years. According to an article published in The Boston Globe, in the U.S. alone, they founded more than 500 hospitals between 1866 and 1926.
6. Sisters don’t have to wear habits.
Before the Vatican council reforms in the mid-1960s, many religious communities decided that the habit was not an essential part of one’s commitment to God. “The habit tended to be intimidating, and create more of a barrier to people than ‘contemporary’ clothing,” Sister Lillian has said. “I found that the habit was not welcoming and inviting to people; and while it was an outward sign of our calling, it was counter-productive to open conversation and is not essential to the life of a Sister and the vows that we make. There are some Sisters and other lay persons who disagree, and would prefer that all Sisters wear habits, including one of my brothers!”
7. The number of women religious in the U.S. is declining.
There are just under 50,000 women religious in the U.S., compared to 180,000 in 1965. As women religious age, and as new women religious fail to take their place, many communities involved in healthcare, housing, and other social enterprises are looking to ensure that their legacies are continued. Such thinking led to the transfer of ownership and management of Franciscan Ministries, Inc. (FMI), in 2016.
“As the Sisters age and our numbers decrease, we wanted to transfer our corporate ministries while they are healthy, fiscally sound, and have a strong sense of mission and values,” said Sister Pat Norton, Chair of the Sponsor Member Board. “We chose Mercy Housing to assume stewardship of our housing ministry to ensure the continued health of these communities.”
Mercy Housing is an equal opportunity housing provider, dedicated to helping residents regardless of religion, sex, gender, national origin, disability, race, age, marital status, sexual orientation, or gender expression.