Sisters of Mercy Balance Religious, Professional Lives

The Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., consists of highly educated women: doctors, lawyers, Ph.D.s, etc.

CHICAGO — Does a woman who feels called to the religious life but who has a penchant for working as a professional need to choose one or the other?

Absolutely not, said Sister Joseph Marie Ruessmann, generalate secretary of the Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Mich., who holds an MBA in accounting, a law degree and a doctorate in canon law. Her work includes finance, canon law and civil law matters.

“It is useful for me to be here in Alma,” she said, alluding to an important aspect of the community’s charism — service according to the needs of the Church.

Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley founded the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Ireland in 1831. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Sisters of Mercy profess a fourth: service to the poor, sick and ignorant.

The Alma Sisters were founded in 1973 in response to the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council. The institute has apostolates in eight states and three foreign countries — Australia, Germany and Italy.

In Alma, the sisters co-sponsor the Sacred Heart Mercy Health Care Center, and many sisters work in professional settings. Some sisters are involved in education; some are full-time students, and some work in diocesan chanceries.

But although learning and professionalism are a big part of the community, learning more about God and God’s love is an important part of religious life. There is also joy in “knowing oneself better and being able to bring out the best part of oneself through God’s help,” Sister Joseph Marie said.

According to Michael Wick, executive director of the Institute on Religious Life in Libertyville, Ill., it is a relationship with Christ that has inspired so many young people to explore a religious vocation.

“Pope John Paul II sparked a revival with his World Youth Days and his focus on the future of the Church. He challenged them, called them to a radical embrace of the Gospel.” Young people, under his inspiration, are responding to his challenge. “It has continued on with Pope Benedict XVI on a different level, in a different way.”

Young people are looking for a commitment to Christ, Wick said. “They have a clear allegiance to the Church and a love of the Holy Father. Most people want to work, live and minister within a communal context, and that is so essential.”

Contemplation in Action

While it is part of the charism of the Alma Sisters to achieve higher degrees and advanced levels of education, it is not a requirement.

“Some sisters might think they don’t want to study and they might be asked to study. They might surprise themselves and find they are capable of study, becoming teachers or doctors. There is no guarantee about what work they can do,” Sister Joseph Marie said. Obedience and the spirit of willingness are important, she said.

But how does one live the life of a sister while working as a professional?

“Sisters use different ways to stay recollected. Some, at the start of every hour, might stop for a second and say a prayer or just think about God,” Sister Joseph Marie said. “Other people use set times — after lunch [for example] — for an examination of conscience. … [We have] a few hours of community prayer each day. It is a continual challenge to be more focused, and we work at that.”

These are clearly not the only ways for the sisters to stay recollected. The sisters have learned to see God in the people and events of their day. “The longer one is a religious, they can become more used to seeing God in the events of the day, if they are faithful in trying to do it,” Sister Joseph Marie explains. This faithfulness is evident to those who work with the sisters “in the world.”

“One of the things I love about their community,” said Nancy Werner, chancellor for the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., “is that they know exactly what their role in the community is and what is expected, and they participate in the world. The structure of their community supports being fully engaged and involved in their community and professional life.”

One of the sisters, Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, is vice chancellor in Saginaw.

The sisters offer evenings of reflection and yearly conferences for vocation directors from across the country. Their vocation director has worked with the diocesan associate vocational director on youth conferences and visits for high school students to the cathedral. According to Werner, “It is not a program, but a collaborative relationship between their community and our vocation office.”

According to Sister Joseph Marie, who came to the Sisters of Mercy a little later in life, religious life is better than she expected.

“I defined it too narrowly,” she said. “I expected too little, but it’s given me more.”

But contemplating questions such as “How is God working through me? What is God trying to tell me? What is God asking me?” are “good training to bring everything into the spiritual realm,” she said. “Peace comes from resolving the meaning of life; in a sense, knowing everything is for God. Some people are floundering, frustrated, not realizing that God is trying to talk with them, relate to them, and have them relate to him.”

The sisters are obedient to their superior general, Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan.

“Through her strong spiritual life and knowledge of the women in her community, she is able to give direction to those women that are members of the community, and the women reciprocate obedience to her and the Church,” said Werner. “It is a deep, natural, strong process. When obedience is authentic, what flows is fullness and joy. Not obedience like the world thinks. Not living in contradiction, but living in fullness. It is like nothing I’ve experienced. It is beautiful.”

Janet Cassidy writes from

Grand Blanc, Michigan.