St. Mary’s Cemetery is shady spot along a quiet road just west of Fort Scott. And in this tranquil place lies a rich Fort Scott history that few folks may know. Here, 79 modest tombstones give recognition to the women who founded, built and maintained the Mercy health care legacy in southeast Kansas and expanded it beyond its humble beginnings.
In 1886, two Sisters of Mercy opened a 10 bed hospital in Fort Scott. There hadn’t been a hospital in the area for more than 30 years, and the closest one was 90 miles away in Kansas City.
Both Sr. Theresa Dolan and Sr. Mary Delores Drew had previous nursing experience in Michigan and they were at home organizing and opening the new hospital. They set about caring for the sick with two lay women; one a night nurse, the other as business manager. The Sisters also made daily home visits to the sick.
Since that time, more than 90 Sisters of Mercy have served tirelessly, committing their lives to meet the health care needs of those in southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri.
The Sisters vowed their lives to service and celibacy so they leave no spouse or children to tend to their final resting place. So who kneels in respect for the women who dedicated their lives to God’s service and endless sacrifice for the healing of others? Fortunately the Mercy Associates, inspired by the Sisters of Mercy, heed to a spiritual calling for service.
The Mercy Associates are a handful of women and men who desire a personal quest for spirituality and service to others.
“We are a group of individuals who have chosen to deepen our Baptismal call by a formal association with the traditions, spirituality and ministries that have shaped the Sisters of Mercy,” says Doloris Sonntag. She along with Charlotte Rhynerson serve as Mercy Associate co-coordinators.
Over the last decade, not too long before the Sisters of Mercy in Fort Scott were to close their convent on Burke Street, the lay members of the Mercy Associates began setting out flowered crosses at each sister's grave for Memorial Day. Sonntag explains, “The Sisters living in the convent at that time were too few to continue this task of love. Under the guidance of Sr. Concetta Cardinale, the Mercy Associates met at St. Mary's Cemetery the week before Memorial Day and placed the crosses for them.”
The Mercy Associates continue that tradition each Memorial Day with a prayer service and by reading each Sister’s name who is buried in St. Mary’s cemetery.
Sr. Concetta remained in Fort Scott until retiring in 2010 at the age of 86. She now resides in St. Louis.
“Our passion to widen the circle of God's mercy calls us all to mutual accountability and responsibility for the gift of mercy, uniquely expressed in the life and spirit of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy,” continues Sonntag. “By living as Mother Catherine McAuley advocated in our daily lives, we strive to be mercy to all.”
Jim Gladbach has been a Mercy Associate for 27 years. He says, “As I age, I’ve learned the best rewards in life are doing thing for others.”
The Kansas Mercy Associates began in 1986 when Patricia Robinson and Adin and Wilma Leach were received into the program in Independence. The Leachs were leaders in a Bible study group sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy. Sr. Jude Marie Piazza initiated the program with the three associates. Six Sisters of Mercy from Fort Scott served as mentors: Sisters Mary Loyola Cavanaugh, Julita Leinhard, Barbara Karleskint, Terence Fitzgerald, Concetta Cardinale and Jude Deitrich.
Although Sisters of Mercy no longer grace the hospital halls, the values of the Sisters are instilled in all co-workers through a formal formation process and the pursuit to carry on the Mercy ministry.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years and today many family members and friends remember their passed loved ones (military and non-military) by placing flowers at grave sites.