A Sainted Nun

Only twenty-five and a nun for a mere six years, Sister Mary Baptist Russell was chosen as Superior when a group of eight Sisters of Mercy from the Kinsale Convent in Ireland accepted a plea from the newly created Catholic Diocese of San Francisco to fill an urgent need for missionaries in that city. Their journey was perilous, but so were their challenges on arrival in December, 1854: nursing the sick and aiding the destitute of all faiths with tireless devotion in the face of extreme anti-Catholic bigotry. Over the next 44 years of her life, Mary Baptist started the first Catholic hospital in California, negotiated with the state to care for young women delinquents, built a shelter for domestic servants, founded elementary schools and academies, established a registry office to find jobs for the unemployed, cared for orphans, and set up natural history museums and educational displays. She also found the time to provide wedding dresses for brides too poor to purchase them, and visited men in prison. Thousands attended her funeral when she died in August 1898, at age 69. Father R. E.  Kenna summed up her life in a letter to her bereaved Sisters: “Gentle as a little child, she was brave and resolute as a crusader. Prudence itself, yet she was fearless in going good to the needy…all who met her were forced to admire; and those who knew her best loved her most.”  March is National Women’s History Month.


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