St. Joseph’s Convent, the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy in Maine, between McAuley High School and Baxter Woods, was opened in 1909 and generations of nuns lived and died here until it was unofficially closed in 2004. The convent has a long, rich heritage, but only a few highlights can be told as we pass this way.
The Sisters of Mercy, who had been stationed at their convent on Free Street since 1872, removed to their home on Stevens Avenue in 1909. In 1881, Bishop James A. Healy purchased seventy acres of the former estate of F. O. J. Smith in Deering and established St. Joseph’s Academy for girls and a home for aged women, known for many years as St. Joseph’s Old Ladies Home. A St. Joseph’s Chapel was later built nearby. Sister Mary Petronilla O’Grady, superior and director of the academy, officially opened the school March 19, 1882. The old ladies home also opened on this date and accepted Mrs. Tierney and Mrs. Ann Ring as its first residents. Another early resident was Irish emigrant Mrs. Susan Ferguson who died there December 10, 1884, aged 106.
Sister M. Jane Doyle, Boston-bred, was the Mercy superior of the home from 1882 until 1914, when the residents were transferred to a new home on Locust Street, near the Cathedral. In the early years she was ably assisted by Sisters Mary Lawrence Killmurry, M. Alexis Keenan, M. Julianna McCann, and M. Damian O’Connell (see “For Love of Mercy,” Mary Raymond Higgins, 1995). Sr. Lawrence died young and is buried in the Sisters’ Lot near Bishop Healy in Calvary Cemetery.
In 1906 Bishop Louis Walsh realized that a new, far larger Motherhouse for the Mercy Sisters was needed and suggested to the Rev. Mother Margaret Mary that plans be enacted to build one on the Sisters’ Deering property (a wish Bishop Healy had voiced many years before). In March 1907, a ground-breaking ceremony was held near St. Joseph’s Academy after the purchase of an additional twenty-one acres of the old Smith property and then in the hands of James P. Baxter. The cornerstone was blessed on October 4, 1908, witnessed by three to five thousand, including 400 members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of Columbus. Among the artifacts placed under the cornerstone were photos of President Teddy Roosevelt, Portland’s first four bishops, St. Joseph’s Academy, and the old motherhouse on Free Street, as well as various coins, statutes, and lists of the Mercy Sisters and their pupils (see Evening Express, 5 Oct 1908).
The new Motherhouse was dedicated September 8, 1909, with a Mass celebrated by Right Rev. Michael C. McDonough, Vicar-General, and presided over by Bishop Walsh. Those in attendance were deeply moved and impressed by the massive new structure, which was topped by a tripled-based gilded cupola and gold Celtic cross. The four-story building was designed in the Italian Renaissance style that was popular at the time. The chapel, with ash finish and maple floors, could seat two-hundred.
St. Elizabeth’s Academy in town Portland was closed at this time and joined with St. Joseph’s Academy, which graduated 1246 girls before its own closure in 1969. Eighty-seven of these students decided to follow the example of their teachers who resided nearby and joined the Sisters of Mercy.
In 1949, Sister Mary Evangelist Ward was elected mother superior of the Sisters of Mercy in Maine. She was born in Portland, the daughter of John J. and Mary Healy Ward and was a sister to Monsignor Edward F. Ward and a cousin to Wall Street tycoon James A. Healy. A graduate of St. Elizabeth’s Academy and St. Joseph’s College with a degree in education, Mother Ward also attended the Julliard School of Music, among other schools. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1908 and taught in the music departments at Kavanagh School, the Catholic Institute, King’s Academy, and St. Joseph’s Academy.
Mother Mary Evangelist was partly responsible for the Mercy Sisters receiving canonical status as a pontifical institute. She was received in an audience by Pope John XXIII in 1962 and retired as mother general in 1967. In 1972, Ward was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from St. Joseph’s College, Standish. She passed away at the Motherhouse in January 1980, aged 90.
Another prominent Maine Sister of Mercy was Sr. Mary Raymond Higgins (1915-1999), born in Boston to Matthew and Margaret Carr Higgins who spent part of her youth on military grounds in the Canal Zone. She graduated from schools in Hawaii and completed a bachelor’s degree in English at St. Joseph’s College in Maine. Sr. Mary Raymond entered the Portland Sisters of Mercy in 1936 and made her final vows in 1942. She received a master’s degree in history from Catholic University, Washington, D.C.
Sr. Mary Raymond taught for thirty years at all levels of education in Maine, including at John Bapst High School in Bangor and Cathedral High School in Portland. She received many awards and accolades before she retired and accepted the position of Mercy Community Researcher Historian. A natural storyteller, Sr. Mary Raymond carried out extensive research on the Sisters of Mercy in Maine which resulted in her 1995 book, “For Love of Mercy: Missioned in Maine and Andros Island, Bahama,” a massive, sometimes unwieldy, but fascinating look at their long history.
The Mercy Sisters who called the Motherhouse home originated from all over the State of Maine and beyond. Many residents taught at nearby McAuley High School, as well as at local parochial schools and St. Joseph’s College, Standish. Many, of course, were long employed at Mercy Hospital and other Mercy-sponsored institutions. After retirement, the house offered security and solace and a rewarding sense of community. Deceased Sisters of Mercy are interred in several designated sections of Old and New Calvary Cemetery. As of 2006, the Irish-bred order had ninety-four remaining members in Maine, with sixty still active in ministry.
In the late 20th Century, with the ever dwindling population of Mercy nuns and ever increasing costs to maintain the structure, it was greatly apparent that this giant, impressive old building would have to inevitably be put to another use. After 2004, it became mostly vacant and by August 2006, the Mercy Sisters had iniatied plans to work with developer John Wasileski to transform the complex into a community for senior citizens. Most of the nuns had already removed to various senior citizens’ homes in Greater Portland (see “Convent Heading for retirement,” Portland Press Herald, 8 August 2006). Its current status is unknown at the time of this writing.