40 Years of Leadership – Sister Mary Terese Tracy

“I always wondered what gave her the courage to take on a ministry with no organization.” 
– Patricia O’Roark, Founding Sister, Mercy Housing Inc.

Mercy Housing – A New Chapter Begins

Sister Mary Terese was born in 1924 in Great Falls, MT. Her mother, a teacher prior to getting married and having seven children, made sure her kids were well versed in their catechism, sending each of them to “vacation school,” which was taught by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Following her graduation from high school in 1941, Sister Mary Terese enrolled at St. Anthony School of Nursing, which at the time was operated by the Sisters of Mercy. It wasn’t long before she fell in love with them and declared that religion was her calling. The next year, she packed her bags and set off for Mount Loretto Novitate, nearly 1,000 miles east in Council Bluffs, IA.

From Healthcare Administrator to CEO

In 1981, while she was working as a nurse and hospital administrator in Idaho, Sister Mary Terese was approached about becoming Mercy Housing’s first CEO. Her challenge was to turn the idea for Mercy Housing into an operating nonprofit organization.

A black and white photo of Sister Mary Terese Tracy standing at the entrance of a building, smiling at the camera

Sister Mary Terese had vast experience in healthcare.  She was on the board of directors of every major Catholic healthcare system in the country (whose hospitals provided care in every state in the nation).  She had been the head administrator of the Mercy Medical Center in Nampa, Idaho where she introduced services to extend care into the surrounding communities.  In response to the need for homebound seniors to access nutritious food, she introduced a Meals-on-Wheels program that served local communities.

“Shortly after the proposal to establish housing as a sponsored ministry was approved by [our community] in the fall of 1980, I received a phone call…asking whether I would consider helping to put together a plan of action to implement that decision… My assignment was to facilitate the development of a plan to address the housing needs of the poor.” –  Sister Mary Terese

Sister Mary Terese was considered the ideal leader to establish Mercy Housing.  Her move from health care administration to affordable housing would set a pattern for many of the Sisters of Mercy who became involved with Mercy Housing in the years to come.

Sister Mary Terese Tracy with kids on a playground

“Some of the Sisters are asking ‘How is your building project coming along?’ I thought I had better tell you we haven’t built a building YET, but we have begun to construct an excellent plan!”  – Sister Mary Terese’s first report, 1981

Finding Inspiration from Catherine McAuley

Sister Mary Terese was inspired by the example of Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. Catherine saw the exploitation of women and children and envisioned building housing and creating an organization of women that would be social workers.  In 1823, she built and opened a House of Mercy, which provided housing, education, and services to poor women and children who were being exploited. In order to sustain the House of Mercy into the future, she became a nun and founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1827. The lives Sisters of Mercy are focused on responding to unmet needs through direct service as well as seeking ways to change unjust systems.

Sister Mary Terese and the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha drew upon this inspiration as they established Mercy Housing.  As the new (and first) CEO, Sister Mary Terese purchased the first Mercy Housing properties, located in Nampa, Idaho. Prior to the purchase, these properties were initially going to be sold and converted to market-rate housing.  Mercy Housing acquired them to preserve the affordability.  Shortly after this purchase was complete, she recruited the Sisters to manage the new properties.

She embodied confident humility and core values in everything she did

Sister Mary Terese recruited Sisters who were trained as nurses and teachers. They were well educated but knew nothing about housing. However, Sister Mary Terese was inspiring, and her confidence gave the Sisters the courage to dive in despite their lack of expertise in the housing field.

“We sent out a simple flyer in our province mailing asking for Sisters to respond if they were interested in housing management, housing development, or neighborhood organizing. Six Sisters of Mercy stepped forward. [These] valiant women included: Sisters Joan Martin, Jeanne Christensen, Regis Leahy, Joan Marie Martin, Jeanne Ward, and Marilyn Ross.”

Through a year-long internship at nonprofit housing organizations, the six Sisters learned the basics about the housing industry. As word got out about the new ministry, they received requests from all over the country for help. The need was everywhere.

The Legacy of Sister Mary Terese Tracy

Headshot of Sister Mary Terese Tracy, smiling against a grey background

Sister Mary Terese transformed an idea into reality. Her list of accomplishments is long. She led with the spirit of service and compassion.  She embodied the core values of respect, justice, and mercy. Though she stepped down as Mercy Housing’s CEO In 1986, she established a regional office in Idaho and continued her work to expand affordable housing for people with low incomes.

When talking about Mercy Housing, Sister Mary Terese once said, “As for planting the seed, that seed of Mercy is planted in our hearts. I will leave the rest of the story for others to tell.”

She passed away in 2006, in Great Falls, MT at age 81. Her vision and legacy live on through our core values: respect, justice, and mercy.