Sisters of Mercy – Sandy Point/St. Georges
July 28, 1893
by Charlotte Fitzpatrick,rsm
On Friday, July 28, 1893, the SS Harlow docked in Sandy Point on Newfoundland’s west coast. On board were Bishop Michael Francis Howley, Vicar Apostolic of St. George’s, four Sisters of Mercy from Providence, Rhode Island – Sisters Mary Antonio Egan, Mary Corsini Dempsey, Mary Veronica Payne, Mary Sylvester Carver – and Mrs. Henrietta Brownell, their friend and sponsor. Bishop Howley must have been beaming with delight as he escorted his missionary band down the gangplank to the crowds of people waiting on the dock. His dream and that of his predecessors was finally being realized. The west coast of Newfoundland had its first community of nuns.
The Evening Telegram of August 13, 1893 describes in glowing terms their arrival at “the beautiful and picturesque settlement of Sandy Point”. An excited and enthusiastic crowd, salvoes of guns, arches, wreaths and flags and addresses of salutation made the event lively, colourful and welcoming. This was obviously an occasion of great joy, anticipation and celebration for the people of Sandy Point.
What must the new Mercy community have been feeling as they landed in this strange, new place? The excitement of a new venture – most likely; the sense of being welcomed into people’s hearts – surely; the shiver of anxiety in the face of the unknown – perhaps; the shock of reality as they looked around them – likely.
Though Sandy Point was at this time a bustling port, it lacked any of the amenities to which the sisters had been accustomed in Providence, Rhode Island. The political and economic difficulties associated with the French Shore kept this area largely undeveloped until the early part of the twentieth century. When the sisters had time to look around, they would have seen rough paths instead of roads, crude shelters for most of the homes and many other signs of poverty and neglect. But they did not seem to be dismayed, and from the very beginning they set about meeting the people, visiting the sick and preparing for the opening of school. They had come to help effect change, and they kept looking forward, seeing what could be done and taking steps, however small, towards making it happen.
The school at Sandy Point was small and roughly built, vastly different from the stately, well-equipped academies the sisters had left behind in Rhode Island.
When school opened in September, about fifty children came, most of whom were poorly fed and poorly clad, and lacking in any basic knowledge of the faith.
From the beginning there was a language barrier that made instruction difficult on both sides – the sisters’ strange accent and the patois used by the children.
What must it have been like for these sisters to try to cultivate a love of learning in children who were hungry, tired and listless? Can we imagine what they were faced with as they trudged through mud-paths, braving the sharp winds of Bay St. George to visit the sick and poor in their homes? Did they ever long for the conveniences they once took for granted – things that would make life so much easier.
This new set of circumstances in which the sisters now found themselves must have called forth from each of them great compassion, generous flexibility, a keen sense of humour and a deep commitment to the call to mission. What stories they must have shared as they gathered at nightfall in the lamplight – or were they too tired to share at all? Did the glorious sunsets so characteristic of the West, lift their hearts? What were their thoughts as they watched the ebb and flow of the tides on the Sandy Point sandspit? Did they speak to one another about who and what they missed, what they loved, what they hoped for, what they feared …
The leader of this pioneer missionary group was Sister Mary Antonio Egan, a woman of culture and refinement and an excellent educator, described in the Annals of St. George’s as “one of the ablest teachers in the country.” As early as April of 1894, the convent school treated the people of Sandy Point to a concert, which The Evening Telegram described as being “of superior quality” and in which the musical portion of the program was managed by Mrs. Brownell. Indeed because of the sisters’ concern for an all-round education for the children and the generous sharing of Mrs. Brownell’s musical abilities, music became the hallmark of the convent school.
In 1899, with the coming of the railway the Sisters moved to St. George’s, and the new St. Michael’s Academy opened. Under the wise and efficient leadership of Sister Mary Antonio and her competent and dedicated staff, the school flourished, and before long St. Michael’s became known for its broad-based curriculum and innovative teaching practices. In 1900 St. Michael’s welcomed its first two resident students, and the fledgling community also began to attract new members. Drawn to the flame of Mercy, these young women brought generous hearts and ready hands to expand and enrich the mission entrusted to the pioneer sisters.
The story of the St. George’ s foundation is the story of courageous women, women grounded in faith, steeped in a sense of mission, committed to bringing about God’s reign wherever and however they could, all the while strengthened by the mission itself and by the love and support of the people they had come to serve. This, of course, did not mean that the difficulties of daily life in their new homeland did not affect them, discourage them at times or cause them to question their choices. They were human and, like us, had to deal with life as it unfolded each day, both with its predictabilities and its surprises. Sister Mary Antonio and her sisters have left us a rich heritage, a heritage shaped by vision, passion, compassion and dedication. We are immeasurably blessed by the life and ministry of these great women of Mercy, who illuminate the pages of our Mercy story.