Mother Mary Frances Xavier Warde, 1840-1884, was the American founder of the Sisters of Mercy (R.S.M.). Born in Ireland to fairly prosperous parents, she was orphaned in her teens. At age sixteen she moved to Dublin where she met Catherine McAuley, a social service worker, who established the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 to provide for the education and social needs of poor children, orphans, the sick, and homeless young women. Warde immediately joined the new order and became one of McAuley’s top assistants.
After establishing several convents in Ireland, Warde migrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the request of Bishop Michael O’Connor. Her educational work on behalf of the Irish immigrants in that city prompted Bishop Bernard O’Reilly in 1851 to invite Warde and four nuns under her direction to Providence.
Under Warde’s supervision, the Mercy order undertook the education of most young women in parish elementary schools throughout southeastern New England. Warde founded St. Xavier’s Academy (1851), the first Catholic secondary school in Rhode Island, and she was also instrumental in the founding of St. Aloysius Orphanage. Her Rhode Island apostolate was highly successful despite intense opposition from anti-Catholic nativists. In March 1855, at the height of the infamous Know-Nothing movement, these zealots threatened to burn the Providence convent of “the female Jesuits,” but were repulsed by Bishop O’Reilly and a group of Irish Catholic defenders.
Warde served as superior general of the Mercy order in America until 1858. After her departure from Providence in that year, she continued her missionary work, founding a total of twenty-seven convents in ten states. By the time of her death in 1884 at Manchester, New Hampshire, Warde had been responsible for bringing her new order of nuns to the service of thousands of Catholic immigrants from Maine to California. A well-documented and authoritative biography of this great religious missionary is Kathleen Healy’s Frances Warde: American Founder of the Sisters of Mercy (1973).