As Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, lay dying in 1841, grieving sisters gathered around her bed to ensure a loving passage. As the story goes, she urged them to “get a good cup of tea when I am gone and comfort one another.”

It’s why, for many years, the sisters at the Uptown hospital founded by the religious order (now UPMC Mercy) would wheel carts through the halls to greet visitors with hot tea and cookies on Mercy Day, Sept. 24, marking the anniversary of the opening of the first House of Mercy in 1827 in Dublin, Ireland.

“Even on her deathbed, [Catherine McAuley] was thinking of others. That’s kind of a symbol in our community,” says Sister Carolyn Schallenberger, who has worked at the hospital since 1959 after joining the convent and graduating from nursing school at Carlow University, then Mount Mercy College.

“There’s a sense of hospitality that’s evident here. People find it warm and welcoming,” she says. “Even employees who have transferred from other UPMC programs will say, ‘I like it here — people are really friendly.’”

Photo courtesy of UPMC Mercy.

Sister Carolyn, 86, is one of three sisters remaining on the UPMC Mercy payroll from the dozens who once staffed Pittsburgh’s first hospital. Seven Sisters of Mercy came here from Ireland in 1843 and, in 1847, set up the first ward in a Downtown concert hall where they lived until the hospital building was finished.

On Monday, May 9, Sister Carolyn, who provides support to the hospital’s new hires; Sister Sandra Pelusi, its music therapist and chaplain; and Sister Placidus McDonald, a medical technologist; will be among the staff celebrating Founder’s Day to mark the date in 1848 when the hospital moved into its building on Locust Street.

Along with its spirit of hospitality, Mercy’s mission statement speaks to the strong relationship between health care and a commitment to social justice. From the start, the Sisters of Mercy cared for the poor during Pittsburgh’s typhus epidemic.

“Hospitals didn’t have good reputations in the 1840s — they were known as the pest house,” Sister Carolyn says. “People were afraid of hospitals. The first year, 25 beds out of 60 were put to use and out of them, the average patient census was 14,” two-thirds of whom did not pay.

Mercy Tower construction, 1973. Photo courtesy of UPMC Mercy.

Sister Carolyn’s nursing days are over, but she still visits with patients and their family members when someone asks, especially Catholics seeking spiritual support.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of listening,” she says. “Most of the time it’s just being supportive. You don’t have to say much of anything. You say, ‘I’m so sorry. My name is Sister Carolyn and I’ve been here a long time. I can understand a little of what you feel. Tell me what’s bothering you.’ When we talk about our problems, we often solve them while we’re talking about them.”

Four years ago, Sister Carolyn broke her back, and although she can walk, she rides a scooter while at work. It’s decorated monthly by employees from different departments who vie for the chance to do so, choosing themes to match holidays or seasons.

“We have a lot of fun with it,” she says. “It lightens everybody’s spirit and makes for teamwork.”

She worries that nurses and other health care workers across the country don’t want to continue in their professions because of burnout exacerbated by Covid. Last month, University of Pittsburgh researchers released a survey of thousands of Pittsburgh hospital workers that found 93 % of them are thinking of quitting.

Photo courtesy of UPMC Mercy.

During the pandemic, many nurses nationally became “travelers,” Sister Carolyn says, when institutions offered bonuses to them to move. Her role with Mercy includes helping with recruiting.

“The best part of my job is meeting young people and encouraging them in what they do, finding out what they’d like to do and seeing that they fit in their jobs,” she says. “If somebody wants to be in the emergency room, that’s where you want to place them, if it’s possible.”

Schallenberger grew up in a family with two other nurses. They lived in Jacobs Creek and then Smithton in Westmoreland County when she was young. She chose Mercy for her nursing education in 1953 because she wanted to go where nobody knew her.

“I said, I want to build my own reputation — I don’t want to be anybody’s niece. I came in on the first of September and had heard about the Sisters of Mercy and I made up my mind on Oct. 3 [to join] and by the 20th of November, I was in the community,” she says. “When I make up my mind, that’s the way it is. My dad thought I had lost my mind.”

Photo courtesy of UPMC Mercy.

After graduation, she did graduate work at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and, after returning to Mercy, she later ran its School of Nursing for 23 years.

“I’ve done it all — nurse’s aide, teacher, director, manager, vice president and now new hire support,” she says. She’d like to be remembered as someone who ensured that “people are compassionate as well as competent. Competency is important, but compassion is equally important. You either have it or you don’t. I tell new hires, ‘If you don’t like it here, don’t stay. We don’t have time for unhappy people.’ We’re all better for supporting each other and knowing each other.”

At its Founder’s Day celebration, UPMC Mercy also will be looking to the future. HOK architects are working on the newest project — the UPMC Mercy Pavilion — that will offer care for people who need physical therapy and rehabilitation or those who have vision impairments or eye diseases. The hospital is known for its burn center.

Sister Carolyn believes Mercy’s philosophy of offering hospitality along with comprehensive health care will survive.

“We have a mission council, a group of people who want to be part of it. They will keep the mission,” she says. “People say to me, ‘If you leave, I’m leaving,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re staying right here. We have work to do.’”

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.