Like a Tree by Running Water

Mary Katherine Doyle, RSM

The Story of Mary Baptist Russell, California's First Sister of Mercy

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She did it all! These words summarize the story of Katherine Russell better known to Californians as Mother Mary Baptist Russell, pioneer founder of the Sisters of Mercy in California. The story of this remarkable woman is one that speaks of courage in the face of opposition and hardship, of dedication to those society has forgotten, of ingenuity and creativity in responding to the crises and needs of post Gold Rush California.

Born in pre-famine Ireland, Mary Baptist learned about hardship and poverty through the experience of the Irish people. Moved by an urgent longing to be of service to the poor and by a desire to dedicate her life to God, she entered the Sisters of Mercy in Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland in 1848. Just six years later she set out with seven of her sisters on a journey which would make her one of the "pioneer makers of Northern California." Her story, even 150 years later, is one that stirs in the reader a sense of wonder and amazement at the breadth of her accomplishments.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1854, Mary Baptist started the first Catholic Hospital in California, negotiated with the State to care for its young women delinquents, its indigent sick and its aged. No challenge was too much for her or for her sisters. They quickly responded to the health care needs of the city during the cholera epidemic of 1855 and again in the small pox epidemic of 1868. She built a House of Mercy to shelter domestic servants and protect them from exploitation, ministered to women caught in the web of prostitution and addiction, set up elementary schools and academies. Mary Baptist was the first women to be given permission to visit prisoners in San Quentin. Her work did not end there. She established a registry office to find jobs for willing workers, provided food for the unemployed during California's severe depressions, and found time to set up natural history museums and educational displays.

Mary Baptist did not confine her work to San Francisco. She established a convent and school in Sacramento in 1857 where her sisters quickly became an integral part of the city. They were its first visiting nurses and opened St. Joseph Academy where generations of women were educated for leadership and service. During the great flood of 1861, with the city under water for almost six months, the sisters ministered by boat to those in need. In 1863 Mary Baptist extended her works to Grass Valley, concentrating on education and care for orphans.

In the midst of all this activity, Mary Baptist found time to write lengthy letters to friends, family and governmental agencies. These letters have been collected in this work and join with her story in presenting a woman worth remembering, one who was called by her contemporaries the "best known charitable worker on the Pacific Coast."


"The final chapter of Like a Tree by Running Water is entitled "A Life that Speaks." This is an apt description of the entire book which presents the reader with the story of Mary Baptist Russell, Foundress of the Sisters of Mercy in California. Hers is a life that spoke with dedication, service, courage, kindness and foresight. Sometimes a hint of craftiness crept in as she figured out ways to meet the needs of persons who are poor without being impeded by the more cautious and cost conscious. As the needs of San Francisco and Sacramento for health care and education called out, her life spoke in response with energy, clarity and graciousness, accented by the mercy of God which flowed through her. In an age whose needs are no less serious or demanding, the message conveyed by her life continues to resound, to inspire and to urge others to similar dedication." Sheila Carney, RSM, Mercy Historian and author of Praying in the Spirit of Catherine McAuley.

"Sister M. Katherine Doyle provides a much-needed biography of one of the giants of pioneer San Francisco and California, Mother Mary Baptist Russell. She ably documents the contributions of Mary Baptist and the Sisters of Mercy to the establishment of the basic institutions of what we now call the social safety net--health care, education, care for the elderly, the poor, the outcast, and more. This wonderful study brings the breadth of Mary Baptist's vision to life, a vision which 'included the healing of the whole fabric of society.'" Jeff Burns, Archivist for the Archdiocese of San Francisco

Table of Contents


Part I
Chapter One: Out of the Green Earth
Chapter Two: Touched by the North Wind
Chapter Three: To a Far Distant Shore
Chapter Four: Together on the Journey
Chapter Five: Hearts for Healing
Chapter Six: Outward from the Center
Chapter Seven: Befriending the Social Outcast
Chapter Eight: No Greater Work
Chapter Nine: Opening Doors to the Future
Chapter Ten: A Life That Speaks

Part II: The Letters of Mary Baptist Russell, 1854-1898
In Her Own Words: 1854-1860
In Her Own Words: 1861-1870
In Her Own Words: 1871-1880
In Her Own Words: 1881-1890
In Her Own Words: 1891-1898
Fragments and Undated Letters
Remembrances and Tributes



Understanding the character and vision of Katherine Russell, called in religion Mother Mary Baptist, requires us to journey back in time to another century and another world, the world of the nineteenth century Ireland. The century's political, social, economic, and religious climate, with its curious blend of romanticism and realism, emerging social consciousness and economic harshness, was a significant factor in shaping Katherine's response to the world around her, both before and after her entry into the Sisters of Mercy. The intersection of these Victorian currents and the Russell family story creates a portrait that is captivating and intriguing.

The recollections of the Russell family life left to us by Matthew and Sarah Russell, Katherine's brother and sister, are important elements in reconstructing this portrait. Their rich insights into the style and pattern of Russell family life provide clues to the outstanding success of its family members. The family gave to the world four Sisters of Mercy: Lily, Sister Mary Aquin; Sarah, Mother Mary Emmanuel; and Katherine, Mother Mary Baptist and their aunt Sister Mary of Mercy Russell. Matthew Russell, S.J., the youngest of the family, was founder and editor of The Irish Monthly, while his older brother Lord Charles Russell, in 1894, became the first Catholic since the Reformation to hold the office of Lord Chief Justice in England.

The Russells were a blend of Norman and Celtic ancestry. Arthur Russell, Katherine's father, was a descendant of Normans who settled in Lecale in the 12th century when, as a reward for military service, an early ancestor was awarded lands in this County Down barony. Two centuries later, in 1316, the first Russell was created Baron of Killough, a little seaport in the eastern part of the county. The Russell clan expanded through the years and broke off into four distinct branches, each of which is credited with faithfulness to their Catholic heritage, deep patriotism for Ireland, and political savvy. These qualities would take root in the Russell children, descendents of the Ballystrew branch of the family.

The vicissitudes of Catholic landholders were part of the family story, a story of forfeited estates, oppression and ultimate restoration through the support of Protestant friends, and the determination of Russell women. One such story was the tale of Mary Russell, whose husband died in the Cromwellian wars and whose lands were confiscated as a result. Mary was not the type to give up without a struggle. Like the persistent widow of the Gospel, she decided to appeal directly to Charles II, the English monarch. She walked from Holyhead to London and, as the story goes, flung herself before the King asking for justice. Her appeal was successful.

Over and over again the Russell family stories tell of the price paid for seeking freedom and justice. Members fighting against the oppressive rule of their times often met defeat or death. The family was then subject to loss of property or punishment. The bonds of friendship experienced by the Russells must have transcended any sectarian lines; however, for each time friends of the Protestant tradition intervened to assist the family in retaining lands and property for the next generation. This intervention was necessitated due to the penal laws, which limited Catholic land holdings.

Blue Dolphin Publishing, 2004

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