When I was a small child, my mom would keep me quiet and still during Sunday Mass by allowing me to gaze at her diamond ring. I would put her finger very close to my eye, making my vision blur. I was mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colors as the light refracted off the facets of the diamond. I thought it was totally beautiful that God made it that way.
I whispered to her, “Why did God make the diamond filled with colors?” She hushed me and said, “We will talk about this after Mass.”
As soon as she took my hand in hers to leave church, I was focused on my question. “Can we talk about the diamond now?” Getting into the car, she announced to my brother and father that I had a question. She asked me to repeat the question for them. I began, “I was looking at mom’s ring and I wondered by God made the colors in it.” Not being the scientist in the family, my mother turned to my father and said, “Tom, do you want to take a stab at that one?”
As dad turned the corner away from our church to head for home, he explained, “Well, Ger, a diamond found in nature is very different from the diamond in mom’s ring. A diamond is just a kind of rock that someone dug out of the ground. A skilled jeweler takes a special tool and cuts the diamond in a certain way, making sharp edges called facets. When a diamond is cut like that, light bounces off the surfaces and creates tiny ‘rainbows’ within the stone. The colors that you see are parts of the tiny rainbows inside the stone. Sometimes God uses a human being to refine His creation in order to allow the intended beauty to shine.”
I could not help think about this story as I focus on another saint whose heritage has had a great effect on the Diocese of Harrisburg: St. Catherine McAuley. She was the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. According to Diocese of Harrisburg’s centennial book, “the Sisters [of Mercy] came to America [from Ireland] in 1843. In 1869 at the invitation of Bishop Jeremiah F. Shanahan, the Sisters came from Chicago to form an independent congregation in the Diocese of Harrisburg, subject to the Bishop of Harrisburg. The Sisters were called the Sisters of Mercy of Harrisburg. This arrangement continued until 1929 when the Sisters of Mercy of Harrisburg united with the Sisters of Mercy in Scranton.”
The legacy of St. Catherine McAuley is rooted in the four core values of spirituality, community, service, and social justice. Her vision instructed her Sisters to work passionately to eliminate poverty, the widespread denial of human rights, the degradation of earth, the increase in violence and racism, the continued oppression of women, the abuse of children, the mistreatment of immigrants and the lack of solidarity among people and nations.1 The Diocese of Harrisburg was gifted with Sisters that enfleshed her vision. Let me explain.
One of the core values from St. Catherine McAuley was enfleshed by the establishment of boarding houses for women of good character. Mercy Home was established at the corner of Second and Liberty streets, almost in the shadow of the State Capitol. Service to women by the Sisters of Mercy did not end just by providing a place for unmarried women to live.
Because of prejudice against Catholics in Harrisburg, few clerical and professional positions were open to Catholic women – especially to Irish immigrants. Service as domestics in rich homes was even more difficult to obtain. The Sisters at Mercy Home “solved the problem by opening an Employment Bureau: It offered to supply help, highly recommended from the Home. It safeguarded the right of the girls by laying down the rules for their employers in respect to hours of work, wages, and a demand to treat these girls with respect and consideration. On the part of the girls, the rules were alike binding. They were to give conscientious service and to act with propriety. The Bureau was a success and applications for girls, recommended for service from the Home, were abundant.2 Most of the jobs that they obtained were found within the State Capitol building.
In addition to this work, Mercy Home also became the distribution center for the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Associated Aid Agency. Both of these assisted the poor of Harrisburg as well as the surrounding communities. The Sisters’ work did not end here!
Orphans were kept safe at the Home until an opening at the diocesan orphanages or within a family was found. In addition, homeless men were lodged in the basement during times of inclement weather.
The account that I found ends the description of Mercy Home in this way: “It is to be regretted that records of the social service rendered by the Home were not kept on file. The Mercy Home, then and now , has contributed a great share to the social service work of the city.”2
It seems to me that the colors of God’s brilliance were not merely found in the diamond of my mom’s rings, but were enfleshed in countless of acts of love the Sisters of Mercy of Harrisburg quietly performed. They were THE diamonds of Harrisburg!
1From the Sisters of Mercy website: https://www.sistersofmercy.org/about-us/mission-values/
2Mary Veronica McEntee. The Sisters of Mercy of Harrisburg, 1869-1939. (Philadelphia: Dolphin Press, 1939), pp.90-93.
By Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, Special to The Witness