Mary Katherine Doyle, Like a Tree by Running Water: The story of Mary Baptist Russell, California’s First Sister of Mercy. Blue Dolphin Publishing, Nevada City, 2004. $15.95, ISBN 1 57733 149 4 (paperback), pp. vi + 399
Reviewed by: S. Karly Kehoe, Department of History, University of Guelph, 2007.
The work of the Sisters of Mercy began in California on 8 December 1854 when five professed sisters and three novices from Ireland’s Kinsale community arrived in San Francisco. One of them was Mother Mary Baptist (Katherine Russell) and this is her biography. Divided into two parts, the book offers both a narrative of her life and a collection of her personal correspondence.
Part I is divided into ten chapters. The first two provide a background of her life in Ireland and illuminate the prominence of family connections within many of the Irish communities. In Russell’s immediate family four of the thirteen children became Sisters of Mercy, one joined the Poor Clares and another became a Jesuit. They were upper middle class, intensely patriotic and politically conscious with ties to Young Ireland. They embraced a devout religiosity and undertook charitable work for the poor. Whilst discussing Russell’s religious formation, Doyle hints at the control exercised by some of the priests when she explains that Russell’s first wish had been to join the Sisters of Charity, but that her request was refused because the local bishop had wanted a Mercy community founded in his diocese and needed entrants; she agreed to join the Mercies because of their work for the poor. Chapter Three narrates their preparation for their departure to San Francisco and the fourth chapter provides biographical sketches and details their long journey which took them from Ireland to California via New York and Nicaragua. Only in the fifth chapter, entitled ‘Hearts for Healing’, does one get a sense of the kind of work that they would embrace in California because although they were supposed to open a school, they were beaten to the punch by a Presentation community and so had to redirect their energy towards hospital work. Bigotry was a constant obstacle, but their willingness to take risks and their refusal to run a hospital for the city without adequate remuneration led them to open their own: St. Mary’s was California’s first Catholic hospital – it was private, but open to the general public. The sixth chapter shows how they developed professionally and provides information about their House of Mercy for servants of good character and this is followed by a chapter that details their work with prostitutes and prison inmates. The transient nature of the Californian immigrant, the gold-seeker, meant that prostitution and crime became serious problems and Doyle explains how the sisters provided shelter, support and practical employment skills to vulnerable women and that their visits to male inmates in the county jail, and after 1871 San Quentin, was an important source of consolation. Chapters eight and nine focus on education and on the expansion of the Mercy mission to Sacramento and Grass Valley, north east of San Francisco, whilst the tenth chapter concludes with a discussion about her legacy.
Part II is comprised entirely of Russell’s correspondence and is in itself an important resource. Entitled “In Her Own Words”, this section includes 167 pages of letters and reports for the period 1854 to 1898. Each document is included in its entirety thus providing invaluable detail about life and social welfare in nineteenth-century California. The correspondence includes letters to other Mercy communities, to her family, clergy,nfriends and benefactors and to civic officials. Her reports on the Magdalene Asylum are particularly intriguing and show that in 1863, for example, the facility housed women from all over the United States and Europe who ranged in age from 40 down to 10, 9 and even 8 years old.
This book is an interesting read, but it is too hagiographical. More needed to be said about the conflicts with male clerics, the degree to which this impeded the progress of their mission and about Russell’s negotiations with civic officials. That Doyle only notes these issues in passing and does not go into detail or subject them to any kind of critical analysis is a shortcoming. Her claim that these Sisters saw their mission as one of ‘caring first and sharing religious beliefs later,’ will leave many readers unconvinced.
One of the problems lies with the sources and Doyle, who is a Sister of Mercy herself, relies too heavily upon material generated by people who could not be objective: the biographical studies written by her brother, Fr. Matthew Russell, and Volumes Three and Four of the Leaves from the Annals of the Sisters of Mercy edited by Mother M. Austin Carroll. The San Francisco community’s annals were written by Russell herself and this is equally problematic since it meant that she controlled what future historians would see and how they would see it. Biographies of community foundresses are often too celebratory, but the fact that Doyle provides us with a collection of useful primary material that would be difficult to obtain otherwise is a significant benefit. Hopefully this book will encourage more research on the California mission and the role played by women religious.