Bishop Andrew Byrne searched high and low for folks to help him build up the nearly non-existent Catholic population of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. Being an Irishman, he turned first to the Sisters of Mercy, whose willingness to work with the poor and commitment to the Catholic faith he had known since childhood.
On November 30, 1850, four Sisters, Mother Teresa Farrell, Sister Mary Alphonsus Carton, Sister Xavier Nolan, Sister Aloysius Fitzpatrick and a few postulants set sail on the cramped “John O’Toole” for the two-month sea voyage from Ireland to New Orleans. Never wasting time, the Sisters taught children on board during the day and at night they held evening classes for adults, using what little free time they had to study and prepare for their new mission.
After one violent storm and a strong bout of sickness, they docked safely in New Orleans on January 23, 1851. A fortnight later they began the second leg of their journey, traveling up the Mississippi to Little Rock on board a steamboat, where they rubbed elbows with wealthy plantation owners, simple farmers and soldiers alike. Once in Little Rock, they set to visiting the sick and teach.
One evening, two years later, Bishop Byrne returned from visiting a frontier family overwhelmingly inspired. He asked the Sisters to start a foundation in the town of Fort Smith, the last outpost of civilization on Arkansas’ western boundary. Mother Teresa Farrell agreed and led a small band of Sisters on the four-day steamboat journey to their new home.
Their first school, St. Anne’s Academy, quickly became the center for education and culture in the small frontier town. Classes for local children, including six Indian Princesses of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes, went beyond traditional academics of the day to include needlework, music, art and etiquette.
The Civil War brought a temporary halt to the Arkansas schools and all were converted into makeshift hospitals where the Sisters nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers. The seeds of a health care ministry were planted, and in 1905 the 30-bed St. Edward Infirmary was opened by some of the very same Sisters who had nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
Today, Mercy Fort Smith has grown by over 300 beds and serves 400,000 residents in 13 counties.