By SISTER DEBORAH KENNEDY, RSM
For The Catholic Week
“Here I Am Lord … I have heard you calling … I will go … I will hold your people in my heart,” the words of the opening song, as Sisters of Mercy Elizabeth Ann Cannon, Judith Dianne McGowan and Mary Eileen Wilhelm celebrated 60 years of religious life on Sept. 7 at St. Mary Parish in Mobile.
The Sisters of Mercy, founded by the Venerable Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831, are distinguished by a 4th Vow of Service to those who are poor, sick and/or uneducated. The three Jubilarians embodied and modeled this throughout their religious life.
Sister Elizabeth Ann taught for 15 years as an elementary school teacher, with 12 of those years being at St. Mary Catholic School. Later she shifted her ministry to health care and became the director of Plant Management at Mercy Medical for 20 years. Noted for great love of animals, later in life Sister worked at a veterinary clinic. It is her commitment to the beautification of God’s world through plants and flowers that is characteristic of her continuing ministry today, as well as her visitation of sick and shut-ins for St. Mary Parish.
Sister Mary Eileen is noted in this area for her leadership in the field of health care. As a nurse and an administrator at Villa Mercy in Daphne and later, as it became to be known as Mercy Medical, Sister was its CEO for a total of 35 years. Along with her twin sister, Sister Mary Ann, they developed a concept of comprehensive health care that had not previously been conceived locally – post-acute care that encompassed, a rehab hospital, hospice inpatient and home care, long-term care, skilled care, assisted living, independent living and home health services. One of the most remarkable achievements was the first free-standing Memory Care facility locally.
As president of the Board of the Catholic Health Association, Sister Mary Eileen had the privilege of welcoming Pope John Paul II to the U.S. in 1987.
Sister Judith Dianne devoted all of her Religious Life to the ministry of education as a teacher and administrator. For nearly 40 years as a principle in various schools staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, Sister taught at St. Ignatius School in Mobile for a time. Presently, she volunteers in an After School Program for a Parish in an economically deprived area in Birmingham. Sister Judith Dianne is known and respected in the Diocese of Birmingham for having mentored many beginning teachers and principals.
The Sisters of Mercy came to Mobile from New Orleans in 1884 at the request of Bishop Dominic Manucy, the 3rd Bishop of Mobile, to open St. Joseph School. The Sisters immediately begin to care for those who were sick and poor, visited those imprisoned and instructed children. Over the years Sisters of Mercy have staffed numerous elementary and high schools throughout Alabama and northwest Florida. In the field of healthcare, the former Blessed Martin de Porres Hospital and Mercy Medical were served by the Sisters.
Today there are 17 Sisters of Mercy residing in Alabama. There are 15 in the local area of Mobile and two in Birmingham. Many reside at Convent of Mercy retirement residence, where they continue their ministries of Prayer and Good Works at Mercy LIFE, Ozanam Charitable Pharmacy, Alabama Arise, St. Mary and Corpus Christi parishes.