My freshman year, I decided to participate in my first Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip to Baltimore, Maryland where I met Karen Schneider RSM, M.D.. The experiences I gained while on ASB with those whom I served as well as sitting around Sister Karen’s kitchen table and hearing her experiences of Mercy helped me to come to an understanding that Mercy is about being compassionate, respecting the dignity of others, serving those who are less fortunate and being hospitable to those who are different than us. Not only did I gain an understanding of Mercy but my eyes, ears and my heart were opened to those individuals who needed it the most and my own small Circle of Mercy began to grow!
Since then, my Circle of Mercy has increasingly grown larger in size and my passion for helping others has grown stronger. However, as my senior year of college and graduation quickly approached I began to wonder, “What’s next?” How will I continue to incorporate Mercy into my daily life? Where does my circle of Mercy go from here?” Only three months after graduation, I still do not have the answer to each of these questions but on July 31, 2014, I was blessed to begin my pilgrimage to Ireland for the Young Mercy Leaders Conference at Mercy International Centre in Dublin where I began to find some direction towards answering these questions.
On the pilgrimage, I was accompanied by eight of my peers, and two faculty members, Ms. Mary Jo Pierantozzi and Ms. Carol Evans. We also had the wonderful privilege of traveling with seven students and two faculty members from Misericordia University, another Mercy institution located in Dallas, PA. It was landing at the Belfast International Airport, where I first began to see the Circle of Mercy at work as strangers from two sister schools became united and new friendships were beginning to form.
With the start of the Young Mercy Leaders Conference still a few days away, we had the opportunity to explore the history and streets of Belfast and Northern Ireland, where we learned about the “troubles” that, sadly to this day, are still occurring between the Protestants and Catholics over political and religious beliefs. Despite having some knowledge in regards to the “troubles,” it was still shocking to see firsthand the Peace Walls and gates that divide the community. We learned that life for those who live in Belfast has become more peaceful in recent years although there is still much work that needs to be done to unite the two communities. However, there is hope that one day the peace walls and gates will be able to be removed to allow the residents of Belfast to live in peace with one another. As we viewed the various murals and Peace Walls we each had the opportunity to join people from around the world to sign the Peace Wall in support that Belfast will soon be at peace.
During our journey through Northern Ireland we also gained a greater understanding of why the land in Ireland is so green, as we trekked through the pouring rain to see some of the Ireland’s most beautiful views as we visited Carrick-a-Rede Bridge and Giants Causeway. Carrick-a-Rede Bridge is a 300 year old rope bridge that many of the GMercyU and Misericordia students had the opportunity to cross despite our fears of the cold water that lay far beneath us as we walked to the other side. Giants Causeway was another beautiful sight to see, despite the rain, and it was interesting to learn the three different theories on how the Causeway was created. Some say that “God made the world and God made the Causeway!” The second theory is that lava under the water moved and caused the earth’s plates to move which resulted in the creation of the rock formation. Lastly, the third theory is a funny Irish tale about a man named Finn McCough who got into a fight with a Scottish man named Brenner and threw the rocks from Scotland to Ireland. Belfast also provided us all the opportunity to enjoy traditional Irish food and a visit to the Titanic museum as well as many other wonderful sites.
Finally, it was time to travel to Dublin and on August 5th we started out on our first walk through the streets of Dublin to the Mercy International Centre, where Catherine McAuley started her mission and the location for which the conference would be held. On our walk to Mercy International Centre I knew we were getting closer as I saw the street sign for Baggot Street, a street I have heard about for the past four years and one I had only hoped to one day have the opportunity to walk down. Then from a short distance I noticed the white building with the big red doors and statue of Catherine McAuley that I have seen countless pictures of and I knew we had arrived! I could feel the chills of excitement run through my body to finally be at the place where Catherine McAuley once called home and where her vision of providing a place where women could find shelter, provide an education to young children and healthcare for those who needed it began. As soon as we walked through the iconic red doors and into Mercy International we were greeted with warm welcomes and hospitality by the Sisters of Mercy and all those who work in the building.
The conference began with an opening ritual in the exquisite Memorial Garden in which Catherine McAuley is buried, where we gathered around the Rill of water that flows through the garden. The Rill was built in 1994 and is filled with water brought from all over the world to symbolize the unity of the Mercy family from all around the world. Each Mercy institution was encouraged to bring water from their individual campuses to incorporate in the opening ritual, once again symbolizing the unity of Mercy. I was blessed to have been chosen to represent our University in the pouring of the water into the Rill. After each school poured their water into the Rill, we processed into the chapel for the remaining of our opening prayer and soon the chapel was filed with joy as we proudly sang the “Circle of Mercy” together and in that moment I have never felt so connected to a group of people, many whom I had not yet had the chance to meet.
The next three days were filled with workshops, prayer, music, reflection and laughter as we continued to learn more about Catherine McAuley and learning about how we could incorporate her mission into our everyday lives. In small groups, we attended six different workshops as well as three keynote presentations as a whole group. Each workshop and keynote presentation had different, interesting themes and had us all thinking about life and others in new ways. I was happy to be reunited with Sister Karen Schneider, RSM, M.D. as we were honored to have her as one of our key note speakers as well as a presenter for one of our workshops. Having the opportunity to once again talk to Sister Karen made me feel as if I had come full circle from freshman year of college to now a Distinctive Mercy graduate. I learned so much from each of the workshops I attended.
During one of the workshops we were given a tour around Mercy International Center where we learned about some of the original rooms and how they were used, including the International Room, Catherine’s Room and The Heritage Room. The International Room was the original classroom that once educated more than 200 students at a time! Catherine’s Room is where she spent her final days and it was interesting to find out that it is the only room in the building with the original floor boards. The Heritage Room is filled with display cases that hold some of Catherine’s belongings as well as other treasures from the original building. In the Heritage Room there are also panels that share the story of Catherine McAuley and how the Sisters of Mercy began as well as how the mission has spread to all around the world!
As I increased my knowledge on Catherine McAuley throughout the conference, especially during a workshop where we had the chance to read her letters, I realized that she was just like you and I. Catherine was a regular person who loved to dance, laugh, help others and even made mistakes. She was scared and nervous at times but her one decision to provide a safe place for women to stay turned into a mission that impacted people all over the world for many years. Knowing that Catherine was an average woman gives me hope that I too can make a difference and that I do not have to do something big to make a positive impact in my world. This brings me closer to answering my question of how I can incorporate Mercy in my everyday life.
I am now beginning to understand that it is the little actions towards another person or things that you do that can truly add up and make the biggest of differences in someone else’s life and it only takes one step to walk in someone else’s shoes to light up their world for the better. While at the conference, I also learned that it is okay to not always know “what’s next” in life. I know that God will direct me in whatever path he sees fit and that it is important to discover what brings you a source of joy to your life. Soon after returning home from the conference, when I least expected it, God led me to my “next” as I now begin my new journey and school year as a full-time special education teacher, something that brings me much joy.
I left the conference and Ireland refreshed and inspired to follow in Catherine McAuley’s footsteps and live by her quote “Resolve to be good today but better tomorrow”. After reflecting on my third question, “Where does my Circle of Mercy go from here?,” I have come to the conclusion that, through my experiences at Gwynedd Mercy University and the Young Mercy Leaders Conference in Ireland, the Circle of Mercy never truly ends. It only grows wider and wider with each person that you meet and each life that you impact. This pilgrimage has truly been an experience of a life time. I thank all who made this trip possible, especially the Alumni Association for blessing me with this opportunity.
-Christie Delhagen '14