Sister Mary Mercy Hirschboeck, MM
Born: March 10, 1903
Entered: October 8, 1928
Died: Sept. 20, 1986
Today we, as a Community, have the privilege to pay our last tribute to an outstanding Maryknoller: a great woman and religious missioner, Sister Mary Mercy Hirschboeck. Her death marks the passage of another era in our Congregation’s history wherein Sister Mercy had a significant role for 58 years as a prime mover and leader. Her deep love for Maryknoll was clearly evident in her abiding sense of loyalty and fidelity to everything Maryknoll stands for and in her on-going interest, right up to these last years, in the Congregation’s directions in mission and ministry. However, the many things Sister Mercy accomplished in her life would be empty without mentioning the one thread that wove it all together: her unconditional love for God and personal closeness to Jesus.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on March 10, 1903, and baptized “Elizabeth Josephine” five days later, she was the only daughter of 3 children born to Stephen and Katherine Heiser Hirschboeck. Elizabeth attended Saints Peter and Paul Grammar School and St. John’s Cathedral High School. In 1928 she was among the first women who graduated from the Marquette School of Medicine.
On December 2, 1922, while a student at Marquette, Elizabeth survived a serious automobile accident. She was convinced that God spared her life so she could consecrate it more fully to Him as a religious. She expressed her desire to join the Maryknoll Sisters at that time; however, Mother Mary Joseph encouraged her to first complete her medical studies. In October 1928, after her internship at St. Francis Hospital in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Elizabeth became the first medical doctor to join our Community.
At Reception time she was given the name “Sister Mary Mercy.” She made her First Profession in 1931 and was assigned to Korea that same year. In Yeng You, Gishu and Shingishu, Sister Mercy’s medical skills and love for the people were quickly recognized and appreciated. In 1940, on her departure for the States, the sentiments of the people were expressed in a letter from Maryknoll Father Gervis Coxen, which reads in part: “She will be sadly missed by the Koreans here, for they loved her in a very special way. The women especially will feel her loss… for she was to them not only a doctor but a saint.”
For the next three years, Sister Mercy worked as Motherhouse Infirmarian. She yearned to return to Korea, but the fulfillment of that desire had to wait. In 1943, Sister Mercy, along with three other Maryknoll Sisters, pioneered the opening of a new mission in Riberalta, Bolivia. In that isolated Beni region of Bolivia, Sister Mercy started working out of a small, one-room clinic. The increasing number of patients soon outgrew the facilities of the tiny clinic, and, in 1944, the Bolivian Government began construction of a hospital. When it opened on January 1, 1946, Sister Mercy was its first administrator. In 1950 when she left the Beni, the facility was described by the country’s President as “the best run hospital in Bolivia.” News of her reassignment caused much sorrow among the people of Riberalta, who petitioned their President to intervene and request Maryknoll to let Sister Mercy continue her ministry in the Beni. This he did, but to no avail, for Sister had been asked to go to Korea which at that time was engulfed in a war. No civilians were being allowed into the country, but Sister Mercy wrote to General MacArthur and received his permission for herself and two other Maryknoll Sisters to enter Korea.
Early in 1951 the Sisters went to Pusan to help the thousands of refugees from North Korea who were flooding the area. Working with many volunteers, religious and lay, they were soon treating what the press called “the longest charity line in the world.” The book, Her Name Is Mercy, tells the story of those years in Korea. In 1952, Marquette University honored Sister Mercy with the degree of Doctor of Science, Honoris Causa, “for the example of courage and charity she affords for this troubled world…” When she left Korea in 1955, she was cited by the Mayor of Pusan for her selfless service to the Korean people and for “…the great example she has given of the practical workings of the faith she represents.”
Back in the U.S., Sister Mercy was appointed administrator of Queen of the World Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, the first fully integrated general hospital in that city. She left this position in 1958, when she was elected Vicaress General of our Maryknoll Sisters Congregation. In this capacity she served the Community for 12 years, many of those years characterized by the changes in the Church and in our own Congregation which in many ways produced growth, but in some ways created problems that were challenging especially for the leadership of that tine, who had to make difficult choices and decisions.
After completing her term on the General Council in 1970, Sister Mercy continued serving the Community as Unit Coordinator of our Senior Sisters here at the Center. She initiated with them what she termed “prayer ministry” – each one praying daily for a particular region or ministry of our Congregation.
In September 1973, at the age of 70, Sister Mercy was ready to begin another ministry – this time on the Lower East Side of New York City. She went there with Sisters Regina McEvoy and Eileen McIntyre to live a prayer presence among the poor. She considered this the fulfillment of her life as a missioner and deeply cherished it. She lived there 13 years with Sister Eileen, and being joined for a period of time over these years by several other Sisters. In 1984, Sister Robert Marie King joined their community. Eight days ago, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, they commemorated the anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in their chapel by Father Father Edward Keehan, their former Pastor in St. Brigid’s Parish. Father was able to join the Sisters and their friends in giving thanks for these past 13 years.
Sister’s death came as a surprise to many of us, but, I think, to Sister Mercy it was perfect timing – to go to Heaven on the Feast of the Korean Martyrs, and to be there to celebrate with Sister Regina McEvoy her birthday yesterday, and her own Feast Day tomorrow – Our Lady of Mercy.
We welcome Father Edward J. Keehan, and Father Frank Scanlon of St. Brigid’ s Parish, who will celebrate with us this Eucharistic Liturgy of thanksgiving and remembrance.