Sister Mary Baptist Russell cowgirl magazine
Photo courtesy of Western Fictioneers.

“Five Sisters of Mercy Arrived in Grass Valley from San Francisco.”  

Headline on the front page of the Grass Valley newspaper The Union – August 20, 1863.

Sister Mary Baptist Russell and four other nuns from the Sisters of Mercy Convent weaved their way around a parade of scruffy miners, traveling salesmen, and saloon girls crowded on a sturdy dock that was hugging a shore in San Francisco.  Wearing black habits complete with scapulars, veils, and coifs, the women stepped aboard the steamer boat that was splattered with mud and dirt.  The deck of the vessel was a swarm with prospectors en route to their diggings down river.  Some were sleeping, others were playing cards or discussing their mining claims.  The Sister inched their way to a clearing near the bow and grabbed hold of the railing as the small craft moved slowly away from the landing.  

The scene around the bay in August 1863 was chaotic.  News of the discovery of gold north of the city had prompted people of every kind and description to pour into the place to gather supplies before rushing to the hills.  Men, women, and children were living in shacks, or sleeping on the ground under blankets draped over poles.  The noise and pandemonium lessened considerably as the boat continued on past abandoned ships, old-riggers, and new vessels anchored and waiting patiently for more eager passengers to come aboard.  

The nuns smiled pleasantly at their fellow travelers before turning their attention to the golden brown landscape on either side of the clay-colored water.  The furious mining activities in the mountains had left the one time clear and clean river muddy and rolling, and fast receding flood waters had left the channel that use to be deep, shallow and treacherous.  Sister Russell spotted a steamer in the near distance that was stuck in the bars and lifted her heard to heaves in a silent prayer that their boat would not suffer the same fate.  

If the vessel did not get lodged in the mud or a boiler did not explode, the trip between San Francisco and Sacramento was six hours.  The intense heat and savage mosquitoes and fleas the nuns were forced to fight off made the trip seem longer.  Sister Russell referred to the riverboat as that “miserable steamer” and had it not been for the fact that the ladies were dedicated to care and educate children in the isolated mining camps, none would have chosen to ever leave the comforts of their San Francisco based order.

The nuns who dared to make the journey had proven to the leaders of the church to be the most qualified for the job.  They were strong, resourceful women who had provided food to hungry pioneers who had lost everything coming west, tended to cholera patients, and taught school to orphans.  

Sister Russell had endured a number of hardships on her way from Ireland to California and was the leader of the group of traveling Sisters.  Born in County Down, Ireland in 1829, she was only twenty-five years old when she came to America to help develop the rugged west.  Like all the Sisters of Mercy she devoted her life to the service of the poor, the sick, and the ignorant.  As a member of the Sister of Mercy order in San Francisco she helped establish St. Mary’s Hospital, the oldest Catholic hospital in existence in California.

After a full day and night in the steamer, the nuns arrived in Sacramento.  On August 20, 1863, they boarded a stage to take them on to their final destination, a mining camp called Grass Valley.  The bells of St. Patrick’s Church heralded their arrival and Father Thomas J. Dalton, the pastor who requested that the Sister come to the area, welcomed them with open arms and a blessing. He graciously gave up his home to the women and for more than three years the location served as their convent.        

After moving their things into the makeshift convent the women were escorted to the church and a small school that had already been built.  Miss Johanna Fitzgerald was the sole educator of the 120 students that were enrolled and her salary was $30 a month.  As more wagon trains arrived in the area the rate of new pupils increased and more teachers were required.  Sister Russell and the other nuns were to oversee the daily operations of the church parish and school as well as assist with the additional teaching duties.  In exchanged for their services the Sisters of Mercy were promised $50 a month along with the fruits and vegetables from Father Dalton’s garden.  

Mount St. Mary’s Academy, as it came to be known, was modeled on the Irish school system.  There were three distinct levels of education:  primary, secondary, and tertiary.  The school was open to all children between the ages of 6 and 15 years.  The majority of the pupils who were attending the school at the Academy in 1863 were girls and more than half of the student body were orphans.  Mining accidents, disease, illness, starvation, hostile Natives, and inclement weather led to the demise of thousands of family members.  Their ultimate deaths left countless children without a mother or father or both. Struggling widows who had to provide for their helpless families looked to the church to keep a watchful eye on their youngsters while they worked.     

The Sisters quickly recognized a need for an orphanage and a larger school and made plans to build such a facility a top priority.  They managed to handle the overcrowded classrooms and lack of permanent housing for needy children for two years before the cornerstone of a new structure was laid.  According to Sister Russell the plans for the combination convent, school, and orphanage consisted of three working stories with the lower floor being designated for the kitchen, dining room, store rooms, laundry, lavatory, and primary school rooms.  On the middle floor were more classrooms, the library, parlors, and a Chapel for the Sisters at the south end.  On the third floor were the children’s dormitories, the Sisters’ sleeping quarters, and the infirmary.  The building was to measure 100 feet by 40 feet.

The doors of the new school and orphanage opened on March 20, 1866.  The cost of the construction was of major concern to the nuns who felt entirely responsible for the more than $19 thousand debt that had been incurred.  They were adamant that the funds needed to pay the bills would not come from the indigent who attend or live at the academy.  

The school’s 1865 directory notes that, “There will be no charge for tuition under any circumstance in the Orphan Asylum, but where parents or guardians can afford it, the children boarding at the Orphanage will be charged for board at a rate of not exceeding $15 a month.”  

Believing that God would supply them the necessary capital to continue on with their endeavors, the Sisters took in their first orphans on April 2, 1866.  Another group of children arrived a few days later.  The orphanage records indicate that they were “four most miserable creatures, blind and lame and poverty stricken in the extreme.”  A mere eight months after the school and orphanage had started there were 69 children, 14 boys and 55 girls, under the nun’s care.  Through the help and support of a few benefactors, the Sisters of Mercy were able to furnish the facilities with desks, beds, blankets, bedspreads, a kitchen store, and $150 worth of utensils.

An unexpected, tragic event occurred before the school year ended in 1866.  A seven year-old girl whose parents had wanted her to have a Catholic education and had boarded her at the Academy had contracted pneumonia and died.  The child’s mother and father, her classmates, and the Sisters were overcome with grief and there were talks of postponing the completion of the term.

After a great deal of prayer the nuns decided to continue on and the first commencement exercises were held in July 1867.  More than 300 people attended the ceremony.  

At the conclusion of the commencement program Sister Russell turned her daily duties over to another capable Sister, and then returned to the convent in San Francisco. She had served her post well, but the order needed her considerable managerial skills at home.  It was with a heavy heart that she left the Academy she so loved.  

As Mount St. Mary’s grew in size so did its financial burdens.  Small amounts were donated to sustain the school and orphanage, but creditors pressured the Sisters to pay their bills in full. Although they knew Sister Russell would have objected, the nuns reluctantly decided the only way to get out of debt was to open a “select school for young ladies” and charge them a fee to attend.  For several months local residents who had to send their daughters far away for training at select academies had been petitioning the parishioners to start such a school.  An advertisement announcing the Sisters’ intention to open a new institution appeared in the local newspaper in September 1868.  

“Educational:  To parents and guardians.  The Sister of Mercy, Grass Valley, realizing very sensibly the great pecuniary embarrassment under which the Institution under their control now labors, and anxious to contribute in every way possible to its success, have determined to open a select Day School for Young Ladies, which will be select in every particular and in which will be taught in addition to the English branches, the French and German languages, and vocal instrumental music.  They are also prepared to accommodate a number of Boarding Scholars upon terms quite reasonable.  They will endeavor to render complete satisfaction to persons entrusting to them the education of their children, and at reasonable rates of compensation.”

The school would eventually be a profitable venture, but the bill collectors would not wait.  The public rallied around the Sisters hosting various fund raisers that netted enough to pay off most of their responsibilities.  On the second anniversary of Day School the remaining debt was settled entirely.  

By 1872, the Sisters of Mercy were maintaining three institutions, the school for boys and girls, the orphanage, and the boarding school for select young ladies.  The staff of 20 nuns nurtured and educated more than 200 students.  Space to adequately teach the large number of incoming pupils dwindled so by 1875 that a wing had to be added to the existing structure.  Railroad service into the Grass Valley area a year later brought even more children to the school and forced the Sisters to transform dormitories into temporary classrooms.  

Further additions were made to the Academy in 1877 and 1878.  

Regular school terms were occasionally interrupted to deal with outbreaks of scarlet fever, diphtheria, and smallpox.  Children who were infected by the disease were isolated from the other students.  Some of the nuns would go into quarantine with the pupils to help care for them until the illness past.  During the long hours of separation the Sisters mended clothes, made quilts, read to one another, and reviewed lesson plans.  

It cost fifty-five and a half cents a day to educate, feed, and clothe each child who lived at Mt. St. Mary’s Academy.  In 1879, there were 138 boarders and the cost per year was $26,415.  The Sisters received $9 thousand a year in state aid and had to make up the difference of $17,415 on their own either from donations or benefactors.  An advertisement placed in the Grass Valley Union newspaper in hopes of attracting students whose parents were willing to pay for a quality education ran in the summer of 1880.  It listed the various costs of the programs and services available at the Academy.  

Board & Tuition per year $150.00

Entrance Fee $10.00

Washing per month $2.00

Music per month $6.00

Languages per year $10.00

Fancy Work $10.00

Painting & Drawing per month $4.00

Enrollment did increase and annual budgets were satisfied.  Pupils excelled in their coursework and received high marks in their final examination.  The exceptional standards of learning at the school was recognized in several articles of the Grass Valley Union newspaper.  An item in the June 1886 edition praised the students who received top marks in their class and listed their various classes and their rankings.

An article two years later applauded the accomplishments of the teachers at Mount St. Mary’s Academy and described the school’s 20th graduation ceremony which took place in mid June 1888.  “The commencement exercises at Mount St. Mary’s Academy drew a very large and representative audience.  

In fact the music hall with its tiers and tiers of seats was inadequate to accommodate the throngs and a number of the ladies and gentlemen in attendance were obliged to content themselves with standing room.  The worthy Sisters of Mercy were untiring in their exertions in behalf of their guests, and their thoughtful attentions and courtesies more than counterbalanced whatever inconveniences may have existed by reason of the overwhelming assemblage.  

Flora emblems of the Catholic faith, lace curtains, well-considered illumination and other embellishments graced the hall and contributed to a harmonious effect which incited universal comment.  Above and fronting the semi-circular array of pupils, and over filmy curtains, was suspended the motto, “Success Leads on to Greater Endeavors,” done in gold tinsels.

Delightful symphony and, of course, perfect time, marked the instrumental numbers – a statement containing far more truth than compliment.  When it is considered that as many as ten or twelve young ladies at times engaged in the execution of one selection, the force of these remarks will be more fully appreciated.  The vocal music was good, while the essays were more than good.  In these the choicest rhetoric was notable, and not a few new thoughts were forcible advanced.  As rendered, the program was one of the best ever given in this city, and the instructors at the Academy indeed have reason for self-congratulation. The flattering remarks expressed by cultured ladies and gentlemen of last night’s audience were well justified.  

In response to a pressing invitation, Mr. M.B. Potter, the well-known educator, addressed the graduates and pupils generally, highly complimenting them for their efficiency, as displayed.  He reviewed in brief, the Academy’s rise and progress, enlivened the address with witty references.  Reverend Frank Dalton spoke for a few minutes in very happy vein, and he with Father McDonnell conferred the honors upon the graduates and distributed the various premiums among the pupils.”

In late September 1888, Sister Russell returned to the successful institution she helped found.  She was suffering with a recurring throat condition, but her physicians agreed that a trip to Nevada County would be helpful for her condition.  The Sisters of Mercy escorted the loyal nun around the grounds and showed her the changes that had been made to the school since she had left.  She enjoyed walking under the thick pine trees and watching the orphans happily playing games.  

After evaluating a couple of classes, Sister Russell was then taken to the nearby Idaho and North Star mines and watched the miners extract gold from the bowels of the earth.  

She learned about high-grading during her visit and was amazed that the miners were required to change all their clothes at the end of each shift because some unscrupulous men hid gold in their garments.  The time spent with the Sisters and the pupils at the Academy restored Sister Russell’s health.  When she went back to San Francisco she was feeling well and was able to serve another ten years at the convent.  

Sister Russell died on August 6, 1898.  San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Hospital, Grass Valley’s Mount St. Mary’s and many other Mercy foundations throughout the state of California, stand as a memorial to the work she did and generations of students remembered the years she taught them to read and write.  

Sister Russell was sixty-nine years old when she passed away.