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Sisters of Mercy and mettle...

Undeterred by tragedies, sisters served Mecosta County for more than a century 

by Father Dennis W. Morrow

Mother Mary Joseph Lynch was, to put it mildly, a woman of “rare personality and varied gifts,” as an early chronicler described her.
She was born in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, and came to the United States as a Sister of Mercy in 1859, serving for 14 years in Brooklyn. She arrived in Grand Rapids in 1873 with a small group of sisters at the invitation of Father Patrick J. McManus of St. Andrew’s. He was anxious to have sisters to operate a parish school. Mother Mary Joseph, who appears from her photo to have personified the Blessed Mother’s title Virgo potens (Virgin most powerful) assessed the situation and decided to open an independent academy for girls. When the strong Irish personalities of the pastor and the mother superior clashed over the issue, another invitation helped resolve it.
Father Andrew Herbstrit was the second pastor of St. Mary’s in Big Rapids. He had been ordained in Ohio in 1848 as a Precious Blood missionary. Although he left that order in about 1865, he continued missionary work with great zeal. Arriving in Big Rapids in 1874, he immediately saw the need for a
hospital for the hundreds of men working to harvest white pine and hardwood for the lumber industry. A hospital fund was started in the lumber camps, with tickets sold for $5 each to guarantee hospital care
– an early form of health insurance. When Father Herbstrit learned of the school troubles in Grand  Rapids, he invited Mother Mary Joseph to a new apostolate.
A battlefield nurse with a pioneering spirit
Mother Mary Joseph had served as a battlefield nurse in the Crimean War, associated with Florence Nightingale. The care of the sick and the relief of the poor offered more immediate avenues for her pioneering spirit, so she brought her little community to Big Rapids. They purchased 40 acres on the southeast corner of West Avenue and Sherman Street, now the site of the Mecosta County Fairgrounds. There, just two blocks west of St. Mary’s, they erected a log building large enough to house them and their chapel, and to serve as a hospital for the lumberjacks. Mercy Hospital opened in November 1879.
The missionary desire to open up new frontiers in the service of Christ remained with Mother Mary Joseph for the rest of her life. After the Michigan community in Big Rapids was firmly established, she responded to the call to open a hospital in Minnesota. Later, she journeyed west and founded the Sisters of Mercy of Portland, Ore. Mother Mary Alphonsus Thielemann succeeded her as leader of the Big Rapids community.
The first of several tragedies struck Mercy Hospital early on Dec. 21, 1882. A fire destroyed the building in just 10 minutes. It was only through the alert actions of a patient – who happened to be awake and sounded the alarm – that not a life was lost. Mother Mary Alphonsus and her 12 companions heroically helped 62 patients, mostly invalids, to safety.
The sisters and the citizens of Big Rapids lost no time. A wooden structure was built behind St. Mary’s Church to serve as a temporary hospital. Amazingly, a beautiful new Mercy Hospital was constructed within a year, and dedicated by Bishop Henry J. Richter on Nov. 12, 1883. The temporary building was quickly remodeled and became the first parish school for St. Mary’s. Several Mercy Sisters would teach at that school for nearly a century.
Tragedy struck again at the turn of the century. When St. Mary’s Church burned down shortly after noon on New Year’s Day, 1901, it was Mercy Hospital’s turn to accommodate the parish. The congregation worshiped in the hospital’s Immaculate Conception Chapel for almost two years before its new brick church was dedicated by the bishop on Dec. 21, 1902.
On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1908, a fire started in the cupola of the rambling three-story hospital. All 50 patients were removed safely, and the staff of 15 nurses and 40 sisters escaped as well. The water main lacked sufficient pressure to fight the blaze, so the building was a total loss, estimated at $100,000. The hospital had only $30,000 in insurance coverage.
The move to Mount Mercy
The sisters took refuge with parish families, who boarded pairs of sisters until new accommodations could be found. As it happened, the Northern Hotel on Maple Street had just gone up for sale for $30,000. The Mercy Sisters decided to purchase it. The former hospital at the outskirts of the city became the county fairgrounds, and “The Northern” became the new Mercy Hospital and motherhouse.
The arrangement was not to last. Big Rapids was no longer a lumbering town. Seeing limited prospects for growth, the sisters relocated the motherhouse to Grand Rapids. They purchased the Harrison fruit farm and mansion atop the hill on Bridge Street, known ever since as “Mount Mercy.” The motherhouse and novitiate moved on July 14, 1914.
On Monday, Dec. 1, 1919, Big Rapids’ Mercy Hospital was destroyed by fire for the third and final time. The blaze was believed to have started from a shipment of ether stored too close to the furnace,
causing an explosion. This time, five patients lost their lives. The tragedy led the Sisters of Mercy to determine that it was no longer financially possible for them to operate a hospital in Big Rapids, and they did not rebuild.
Father Dennis Morrow is the archivist for the Diocese of Grand Rapids and pastor of SS. Peter & Paul Church, Grand Rapids.