Mother Mary Baptist Russell of California
A biography written by Jeanne Reichart rsm
Katherine Russell never met Catherine McAuley but she shared her passion for the poor and her zeal for the works of mercy. So alike in heart and spirit, the two women were worlds apart in background and contexts for ministry. One would be revered as the courageous, visionary woman who gave birth to the order of Mercy, the other as a pioneer foundress living out the Mercy charism in the wild rawness of Gold Rush fever. The bond of their spirits is the legacy of Mercy in California.
Before her marriage to Arthur Russell, Katherine’s mother had been married at a very early age to John Hamill, a successful merchant, who left her a widow with the responsibility of rearing three sons and three daughters when she was not yet thirty years old. Five years later she married Arthur Russell. This second union was also blessed with six children, four girls and two boys. Perhaps the fact that all were children of the same mother, and that she was the woman she was, explains the strong bond and enduring interest of all the members of the household.
Katherine Russell, the third child of Arthur and Margaret, was born on April 18, 1829 at Newry, a town beautifully set in a valley where the Glanrye winds its course to Carlingford Bay, but due to her father’s poor health the family moved to Killowen by the Sea. Here, in the year 1841, the year of Catherine McAuley’s death, she made her first communion. In the seclusion of the countryside, she developed a deep love of nature and of the sea. The Russells provided their children with the best education possible. Instructed by private tutors and within private schools, Kate’s foundation in philosophy, the arts, French and the sciences gave her an intense love for education.
This idyllic childhood was brought to a close in her teens by the death of her father. Mrs. Russell moved the family back to Newry. That decision came in 1845, the year the potato blight was first recognized in Ireland. The starvation and poverty birthed by the famine called forth Margaret Russell’s deep compassion for those in distress. Kate joined her mother’s efforts. Before the ordeal was over, she was convinced that hers was a vocation to serve God in his less fortunate creatures, and early in 1848 she sought her mother’s permission to consecrate her life to God in the religious state. Katherine first turned to the Sisters of Charity, founded by Mary Aikenhead, but her mother’s interest in the new Mercy Institute founded by Catherine McAuley, led her into the Sisters of Mercy.
In November 1848, Katherine entered the convent in Kinsale. For this nineteen year old postulant there was no violent change in her life, although the parting with her family was keenly felt. She received the habit of a Sister of Mercy on July 7 1849 and the religious name of Sister Mary Baptist.
The famine crisis had not yet passed when cholera struck in 1848 and the young novice was allowed to tend the suffering.
In Kinsale, Katherine met Mother Frances Bridgeman who would become her lifelong mentor.
When Father Hugh Gallagher, a delegate of California’s Bishop Joseph Alemany, arrived at Kinsale seeking apostles for the West, his stories seemed beyond belief. He painted a picture of lawlessness, disregard for common civility and abandonment of religious practice. The Church’s condition could best be described as dismal. Clergy was scarce; there was no one to care for the needy poor. Fearing the sisters would be scalped, Mother Bridgeman was not inclined to accept the mission.
Then compassion overcame fear. Twenty-nine sisters volunteered for the mission. Mother Frances chose eight naming Sister Mary Baptist - at twenty-five the youngest professed sister in the group - as superior.
The eight thousand mile journey across the Atlantic, south to Nicaragua where the route across the isthmus as made by wagon, and then north on the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco took three months. Quickly the sisters learned that the new country was not Ireland. During her childhood and in Kinsale, Katherine had experienced poverty, despair, cholera and famine. But nothing prepared her for what she was to find in California.
The sisters came to San Francisco in its turbulent infancy; the government was weak and municipal services correspondingly so. Bigotry and prejudice were unexpected factors facing the sisters after their arrival in San Francisco. The Know-Nothing Party had elected a Know-Nothing governor. The mood of the vigilantes was unpredictable. Members of the group drilled outside the convent bringing a sense of constant danger.
Into this unfriendly, volatile scene Mother Baptist guided the sisters into their labours of home visitation of the sick, jail visitation, comfort of the sick and dying in the pest houses, and endless other works.
No matter how limited the funds or circumstances, Mother Baptist found it impossible to refuse to assist anyone who was suffering. She gave her own mattress away in a gesture of personal generosity.
With great courage, she and the other pioneer sisters in San Francisco opened a House of Refuge, a House of Mercy, The Widows’ Home, an orphanage, and the Magdalen Asylum to assist women and children in difficult circumstances. These houses of refuge were open to all, regardless of religious affiliation or lack of it! Perhaps the crowning touch was the opening of St. Mary’s Hospital in 1857, the first Catholic hospital on the west coast. It became the centre of all Mother Baptist’s social ministry and refuge for all in need. It was to be the only Catholic hospital in San Francisco for over thirty years.
Love for the poor was the consuming passion of Mother Baptist’s life. Her world was always bigger than the city in which she lived and laboured for forty-five years.
She considered education vital, and believed in day schools, but because she felt that academies and boarding schools diverted focus from the poor, she and Frances Warde disagreed with regard to this aspect of the ministry of education. Adult education and technical training were high on her agenda because they assisted persons in moving out of poverty. In Sacramento, she established the first subscription library containing two thousand books.
The funeral of this gentle woman of God who died on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1898, was attended by thousands. Father R. E. Kenna, S.J. summed up the life of Mother Baptist in these words:
Gentle as a little child,
she was brave and resolute
as a Crusader. Prudence itself,
yet she was fearless
in doing good to the needy,
and in advancing the interests of religion.
All who met her
were forced to admire;
and those who knew her best
loved her most.