Largest Chamorro religious community

The Religious Sisters of Mercy, commonly called the Sisters of Mercy or Mercy Sisters, were the first permanent community of Catholic religious women on Guam and the first to accept local vocations. They soon became the largest community of Chamorro religious women after their arrival on Guam on November 5, 1946.

Mother Catherine McAuley founded the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Ireland in 1831 to assist in the spirit of mercy to the spiritual and corporal needs of many uneducated and destitute Irish in the nineteenth century. Besides the three standard vows of all religious, the Mercy Sisters take a fourth vow to serve the uneducated, sick and poor. From Ireland, the sisters spread primarily where Irish immigrants lived (North America, Great Britain and Australia) and eventually reached many other parts of the world. Now an international community, the sisters are found in over twenty-five countries.

For many years, the bishops in charge of the Guam mission before and immediately after World War II tried to enlist the help of religious women. For a brief time, one such community worked on Guam in the early 1900s. Mission leaders lamented for many decades the lack of religious women in the local church. Bishop Apollinaris Baumgartner, OFM Cap., the newly appointed head of the Guam Catholic mission in 1945, began in earnest to seek religious women willing to serve on Guam.

After approaching several communities, the Belmont, North Carolina, community of Mercy Sisters, under the leadership of Mother Maura Buchheit, agreed to send missionaries to Guam in 1946. The community included a native of Guam, Sister Mary Inez Underwood, whose background augured well for that agreement. Sister Mary Inez was the daughter of James and Ana Martinez Underwood, prominent benefactors of the local church. James Underwood was also a native of North Carolina.

Founded the Academy of Our Lady

Three pioneer Mercy Sisters made up the group that arrived on Guam in 1946: Sisters Inez Underwood as superior, Mary Annette McBennett and Mary Louise Wiesenforth. Bishop Baumgartner asked that the Mercy Sisters establish Guam’s first permanent Catholic school. On September 8, 1949, the Sisters opened the doors to the Academy of Our Lady of Guam, a girls high school, and the Cathedral Grade School, a primary school for boys and girls, both located in Hagåtña. Sister Inez served as co-founder and first principal of both schools. While the Academy accepted students only for the ninth grade during that year, it eventually became a four-year high school.

The small trio of Mercy Sisters quickly recruited young local women into the community. On December 6, 1947, the Mercy Sisters accepted the first twenty local candidates into the community in Hagåtña. In just a year’s time, the growing number of vocations warranted the building of a second convent in Tai to accommodate the ten novices who entered in 1948. In 1951, the present Tai convent was dedicated and became for a while the central house for the Hagåtña and Tai sisters, as well as the administrative and formation centers for the community.

Convents built in Inarajan, Dededo

In 1949, the Mercy Sisters extended their ministry to the southern villages of Guam by opening a convent in Inarajan. This enabled the sisters to teach catechism in the parishes of Inarajan, Malojloj, Merizo and Umatac. Sister Redempta Thomas became the first superior at the Inarajan convent.

As more Chamorro women joined their ranks, the sisters increased their ministries. In 1950, they opened a convent in Dededo and founded Santa Barbara School, with Sister Redempta Thomas as the first principal. In 1952, the same Sister Redempta assumed leadership of the Guam community and opened the Infant of Prague Nursery and Kindergarten in Tai. Sister Alvina Aflague, a Chamorro sister, became the first administrator of the nursery.

In 1953, another Chamorro nun, Sister Roberta Taitano, became principal of both the Academy of Our Lady of Guam High School and the Cathedral Grade School. When enrollment in both schools increased, separate principals for the schools became necessary. Sister Mary Callista Camacho stepped in as principal for the primary school. 1955 marked the first final professions of Chamorro sisters into the community.

In 1959, the sisters returned to live in Hagåtña in the newly constructed convent. Sister Roberta Taitano was the first superior of this community. In 1957, the sisters began to make summer trips to Rota to work in catechesis. In 1961, their work brought them to Wake Island to minister among the children of military personnel.

In 1960, the Mercy Sisters established their third primary school at St. Anthony parish in Tamuning. Sister Bernadette Marie Leon Guerrero was its first principal.

That same year, Sister Mary Callista Camacho succeeded Sister Inez as the next Chamorro superior of the Guam community. In 1965, the Oka Tamuning convent opened where the Guam Memorial Hospital now stands. One of its purposes was to serve as the Aspiranture, or residence, for new candidates in the community. The Mercy Heights Nursery and Kindergarten also opened at the same convent. In 1975, the convent and nursery moved to a new building in Perezville, Oka Tamuning, where it stands today.

As the community continued to grow in numbers, Guam became a region of the Belmont community. In 1967, Sister Mary Mark Martinez was appointed the first regional superior and in 1972, Sister Evelyn Muna became the first elected regional superior. Sisters Evelyn Muna, Mary Cabrini Taitano and Angela Perez, Mercy Sisters from Guam, also served in the Belmont headquarters as councilors to the Belmont leadership at different times.

In 1986, the Mercy Sisters assumed responsibility for Bishop Baumgartner Middle School in Sinajana. The school, originally called St. Jude School, began in 1955 under the guidance of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, in partnership with St. Jude parish. In 1995, the Cathedral Grade School in Agana merged with Bishop Baumgartner Middle School. As a result of the amalgamation, Cathedral Grade School moved from Agana to Sinajana, and the new entity was renamed Bishop Baumgartner Memorial School.

Work extends through Micronesia

The work of Mercy Sisters extends throughout Micronesia. They ministered in Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands) as administrators and teachers of Mt. Carmel School, and currently work in Chuuk (Federated States of Micronesia) in the Saramen Chuuk Academy. In the past, sisters have worked for the Carolines Diocese. In 1989, Sister Mary Benedict San Nicolas, a Mercy Sister and native of Rota, founded the Eskuelan San Francisco de Borja on that island. Several Mercy Sisters staffed that school for a number of years until it was turned over to another administration.

Some Chamorro sisters have also worked in the U.S. mainland and today there are four sisters from Guam working there. On Guam, the Mercy Sisters have worked extensively in Catholic schools and parishes as administrators and teachers. They are involved in several offices of the Archdiocese of Agana, and they hold various positions at local institutions including the University of Guam, the Guam Community College, Guam Memorial Hospital, Catholic Social Services, Alee Shelter, the Guam Public School System, and the Senior Citizens Division of the Department of Public Health and Social Services. At their numerically largest, the sisters numbered about sixty-six; today there are some forty-five sisters in the Region.

By Eric Forbes, OFM Cap.

For further reading

Mercy Celebrates Sixty Years: Guam Region November 5, 1946-2006. Hagåtña: 2006.

Sisters of Mercy of the Americas “Who We Are.” (accessed August 9, 2010).

Sullivan, Julius, OFM Cap. The Phoenix Rises: A Mission History of Guam. New York: Seraphic Mass Association, 1957.