Sister Mary Baptist Russell

The nineteenth century Newry family, Russell of Dominic Street in Ballybot, played a prominent role not just here in Newry but in far-off California and in England. We have already featured the life of Charles Russell, Lord Chief Justice of England. What of his siblings?

His eldest sister Mary died suddenly at twelve years of age. His brother Matthew became a Jesuit priest. His three surviving sisters became Sisters of Mercy. We will later refer to each in turn. First, Kate.

Kate entered the Convent of Mercy, Kinsale in 1848, the worst Famine Year.

It was agreed with Bishop Blake that when the time came she would return to Newry with her dowry and found a Convent of Mercy there. It was not to be. Her calling by God was much further afield.

In 1854 at the age of twenty-five with seven companions she set off to found the first Convent of Mercy west of the Rockies. She was now Sister Baptist (Sr Mary Baptist Russell) and the designated Superior of the group. They journeyed three months across the Atlantic, down the east coast of America, across the Isthmus of Panama by overcrowded river boats and then a twelve mile mule trip through the steep mountains to the Pacific. Finally they were bodily carried out to a waiting skiff. They arrived in San Francisco at 5 am on 8 December 1854. There was no one waiting for them and no place had been prepared for them to stay.

Their flock was a motley collection of gold seekers, banished miscreants and people of broken lives. Down muddy lanes and rough sidewalks to the festering ghettos and disease-ridden hovels they brought food to the hungry, medicine to the sick and comfort to the dying. 

Their work expanded in all directions: schools for the illiterate, A House of Mercy for shelter and support for vulnerable, unemployed girls, an employment agency that annually placed over one thousand applicants in jobs, an orphanage for abandoned children, a Home for the homeless and unwanted aged poor, a hospital for the sick. 

When the cholera epidemic of 1855 put San Francisco in a panic, Mother Baptist, having nursed cholera victims of the Great Irish Famine at Kinsale, knew what to do. 

When the worst scourge of black smallpox in history struck in 1868 and 1869, Mother Baptist and her Sisters came to the rescue.  In 1898, the year of her death, her expertise was again called upon to stem an epidemic of typhoid and pneumonia. Her organising ability, practical common sense, tireless and efficient nursing saved the lives of many. 

For forty years Mother Baptist had been at the cutting edge of alleviating misery, sickness and deprivation among the inhabitants of San Francisco. It is little wonder that a publication, ‘Makers of California’ included hers in a list of fifty distinguished names. She was also the only woman to be so honoured. In recognition of her heroic work the city of San Francisco granted free public transport to all Religious – a privilege still honoured today!

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