From the Archives
By Billy Phelan
Frances Ward was born in Bellbrook House Abbeyleix Queen’s County (Laois) in 1810. She was the youngest of six children three sons, and three daughters of John and Mary Ward (nee Maher). Shortly after Frances was born her mother died.
John Ward her father was a very successful merchant and had secured the house and land lease of 51 acres at Bellbrook. As a Catholic it was most unusual to secure such a lease. However, in 1819 when Frances was eleven years old John Vicount De Vesci seized on the lease and had it transferred to Sir Robert Staples who held it in trust for Lord De Vesci.
The loss of Bellbrook House meant the break up of the Ward family. The girls went to live with their mother’s family the Mahers of Killeany near Mountrath, Co. Laois.
Her father died when she was fifteen.
From an early age Frances was educated privately and her aunt assumed full responsibility for the young girl’s religious instruction.
In 1826, Frances went to Dublin and lived with friends where she mixed with the upper class society. She worked part-time in the poor school house of The Mercy in Baggot Street before taking up permanent residence there in September, 1828.
The following January she received the habit of the recently founded Sisters of Mercy in the convent at Baggot Street. She took the name Sister Mary Frances Teresa and was professed on the 24th January, 1833.
The congregation had been founded on the 12th December, 1831.
On the 10th of April 1837 Sr. Mary Frances was appointed superior of the new foundation in Carlow where she established a school for the poor, and the first Mercy private school.
At the request of Dr. Michael O’Connor bishop of Pittsburgh Mother Mary Frances and six other sisters led the first Mercy foundation to the U.S.A. They left Carlow in November, 1843, and travelled in secular dress on the Queen of The West from Liverpool arriving in Pittsburgh on the 21st December. The sisters immediately began work caring for the poor and sick and giving religious instruction.
As a result of her arrival in America convents were founded at Latrode in 1845, Chicago in 1846, and Loretto in 1848. On the 11th March 1858 Mother Mary Frances left to establish a convent in Providence Rhode Island.
The sisters travelled in secular dress to avoid the hostility of the Anti Catholic KNOW NOTHING MOVEMENT who fifteen years previously burned an Ursuline Convent and drove the sisters out of New England.
The Mercy convent windows were frequently broken, mud and insults were hurled at the sisters whenever they left the convent, and their morality was questioned regularly in the local newspapers.
Sr. Mary Frances went to Manchester New Hampshire in July, 1858, and founded a convent where day and night schools were established. In 1859 the sisters began teaching in public schools and receive a salary from the city government. The sisters again wore secular dress when teaching and attending staff meetings.
In 1863, they were allowed to wear their religious habit in school..
Fourteen convents were established from Manchester between 1861 and 1883. Two of these were outstanding in forming new convents Philadelphia (52) and Princeton (15). Mother Frances travelled with the sisters to each new convent and stayed with them for a month. She held the position of Superior from 1837 – 1884 except for 3 years in Manchester 1880 – 1883.
Mother Mary Frances Ward died on the 17th September 1884 in Manchester New Hampshire and was buried in St. Joseph’s cemetery there. A marble cross is erected over her grave with the following inscription;
Reverent Mother M. Xavier Ward.
Foundress of the Order of Mercy in the United States December 21st 1843
And of Mount Saint Mary’s Convent Manchester New Hampshire July 16th 1858
Died September 17th 1884 in her 74th year or age and the 53rd of her religious profession.
Grant to her O Lord eternal rest.
In March, 1966, when Pittsburgh celebrated the 150th anniversary of its charter as a city Mother M. Frances is named as one of the 10 most outstanding women in its history. She is also commemorated in the stained glass window in the chapel of the Catholic University Of America Washington D.C.