Sister Carolyn Schallenberger grew up in a small town south of Pittsburgh. But when people she knew got especially sick, they would go to one place: Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.
And when she decided to go into nursing in the 1950s, she knew where she wanted to work.
“Mercy had a star in my head that that’s where I wanted to go,” she says. “I knew that’s where the really sick people went.”
More than six decades later, Sister Carolyn is still there. Along with Sister Placidus McDonald and Sister Sandra Pelusi, she is helping to uphold a legacy that dates back even further.
The Seven Sisters of Mercy founded Mercy Hospital 175 years ago in 1847, making it the first hospital in Pittsburgh. Over the years, hundreds of nuns worked in various departments, helping to treat patients and educate students.
“When I think of the 175 years, I’m filled with awe,” Sister Placidus says. “But I also feel gratitude for the heritage that the sisters have given to us, for their sacrifices, for all the accomplishments that have happened through the 175 years. For our outreach to the poor and to the many people in the city and throughout. And through the different innovations and how we’ve touched many different lives.”
Today, Mercy Hospital is now UPMC Mercy. And Sisters Carolyn, Placidus, and Sandy are the only three remaining Sisters of Mercy at the hospital. But they continue to carry out their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and a special fourth vow of service.
UPMC Mercy is a faith-based hospital, and the sisters continue to dedicate themselves to that mission.
“People, I think they look more at how people treat them as opposed to what the religion is,” Sister Sandra says. “They tell me they can feel the difference here. They can feel the mercy here. And I hope that continues.”
Sister Carolyn: ‘Not a Day Do I Regret It’
What began as a desire to leave her hometown and go someplace where people didn’t know her became a lifelong career for Sister Carolyn.
She came to Mercy Hospital as a student nurse in 1953. Within a month, she knew she wanted to join the Sisters of Mercy. She transferred to Mount Mercy College — which is now Carlow University — where she completed her bachelor’s degree. She completed her master’s degree at The Catholic University of America.
Since 1959, Sister Carolyn has worked in a variety of roles at the hospital. She’s been a staff nurse and manager, a teacher and associate director of the School of Nursing, the director of the School of Nursing, and the vice president for Nursing.
“I’ve done it all,” she says.
Today, Sister Carolyn is the new hire support at UPMC Mercy. She follows up on the hospital’s new hires to see how they’re doing, provide information about the hospital, and give them support if they need it.
After breaking her back a few years ago, Sister Carolyn moves around the hospital in a scooter that a different hospital department decorates each month. In October, the scooter was decorated with a Ghostbusters theme — complete with a replica of the ghost Slimer on the front. She passes out candy to any employee she passes in the hallway.
“That makes me welcome wherever I go,” she jokes.
Sister Carolyn remembers that her family had misgivings about her joining the Sisters of Mercy. But she never had any doubts.
“It wasn’t what my father planned for me, but it was what God planned for me,” she says. “That’s why within a month I made up my mind, and then another month I was in the community. Not a day do I regret it.”
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Sister Placidus: ‘It’s Been a Wonderful Experience’
Sister Placidus grew up northwest of Pittsburgh in Aliquippa. Although she knew of Mercy Hospital, her family didn’t travel to the city often.
Interested in pursuing science as a career, she enrolled in Mount Mercy College’s medical technology program. She joined the Sisters of Mercy a year later, in 1959.
“I was interested in science, and I also was interested in being a sister,” she says. “But I didn’t know where I was going to be a sister. I had gone to Mount Mercy for one year, and I was attracted to the Sisters of Mercy from there — even though the thought of being a sister was in my mind from when I was much younger.”
Sister Placidus came to Mercy Hospital in 1964 after graduating from Mount Mercy with degrees in biology, medical technology, and secondary education. She’s worked in the lab ever since in various roles, including the blood bank, microbiology, and hematology. She’s still working in the lab today, analyzing blood and urine samples.
The biggest change in Sister Placidus’ job has been technology. She says lab work used to involve much larger samples. Workers did testing manually and entered results on paper.
Computers changed that.
“Computers have made life much, much easier — more complicated when they’re not working, but on the whole, they make life much easier,” she says. “Most of our instruments are computer-driven, but you still need a human operator to validate the results.”
Despite the changes, Sister Placidus says she’s enjoyed her lab work the entire time.
“It’s been a wonderful experience, and I am very grateful to still be employed in health care and working for our mission of mercy,” she says.
Sister Sandra: ‘I Wouldn’t Think of Going Anywhere Else’
Sister Sandra knew she wanted to be a sister from a young age. She became familiar with the Sisters of Mercy because her mother had cancer and she traveled with her for appointments.
She also had a talent for music, starting piano lessons when she was 4 years old. And when she learned about music therapy — a therapeutic approach that uses music to improve people’s mental health and well-being — it allowed her to combine her interest in music with her desire to join Mercy.
“I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else except Mercy,” she says. “It was just a part of me from when I was a child.”
After becoming certified as a music therapist, Sister Sandra came to Mercy in 1976 — the same year the hospital’s tower opened. Mercy became the first hospital in the region to provide music therapy. Sister Sandra did her work in the rehabilitation and psychiatric units.
“I can see how music brightens most people,” she says.
Mercy ended its music therapy program in the early 2000s, but Sister Sandra still does a music class for patients once or twice a month in the rehabilitation unit. She also became a chaplain in 2005. She leads prayer groups in the rehab unit and also manages Eucharistic ministers, making sure they are going around to patients.
Sister Sandra believes in the hospital’s faith-based mission.
“I hear so many people tell me what a difference it is, that it’s so wonderful to be coming through and be able to see a chapel and to have mass here,” she says. “It gives complete holistic care. And I think that means a lot to people. They can talk about their religion, they can talk about the Lord, and that’s OK, and it’s accepted.”
‘They Can Feel the Mercy Here’
Sisters usually take three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience. The Sisters of Mercy added a fourth vow — of service.
“Service to the poor, to the sick, and to the uneducated,” Sister Placidus says. “That has been part of our history since the beginning.”
Since the founding of Mercy Hospital on Jan. 1, 1847, the Sisters of Mercy have strived to live up to that mission. They provide care for the sick, education, and social work.
“It leaves me with a sense of awe that I have been blessed enough to be able to follow it,” Sister Carolyn says. “I’ve always prayed that I did the right thing at the right time. I asked for guidance of the Holy Spirit to keep us faithful to what we promised and what went into us working for the Lord.”
Officially, UPMC Mercy is a Catholic hospital. But Sister Sandra describes it as a faith-based hospital where all are welcome.
“People, I think they look more at how people treat them as opposed to what the religion is,” she says. “They tell me they can feel the difference here. They can feel the mercy here.”
UPMC acquired Mercy Hospital in 2006. The merger became official in 2008, with the hospital becoming officially known as UPMC Mercy. But although the name changed, the mission remains the same.
‘There Is Still That Tug at the Heart’
At its peak, Mercy Hospital had about 40 sisters working various roles at the hospital. Now, there are three — Sisters Carolyn, Placidus, and Sandra.
They all work in different departments, but they still feel a connection.
“There is still that tug at the heart that we are Sisters of Mercy, and we are happy to be here,” Sister Sandra says.
The hospital has seen many changes over the years — technology, the building, even the name. Many of the educational courses previously taught went into the public domain.
Another change will come in late 2022, with the scheduled opening of the new UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Tower at UPMC Mercy. The facility will care for patients who need physical rehabilitation, as well as patients with eye diseases or visual impairments.
Through all of the changes, UPMC Mercy has fulfilled the original Seven Sisters of Mercy’s mission. It is the only Catholic hospital in Pittsburgh, with specialty services that include neurosciences, Level I trauma and burn services, orthopaedics, and physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“We’ve tried to keep up with all the innovations in health care and what has been best for the people,” Sister Placidus says. “There have been sacrifices made through the years to have these things happen. I’m very grateful that I’m part of it.”
Sisters Carolyn, Placidus, and Sandra know they are likely to be the last three Sisters of Mercy to work at UPMC Mercy. But they see the Sisters of Mercy’s mission being carried out by younger employees at the hospital, and they’re confident that will continue after they’re gone.
Not that they’re leaving anytime soon. All three plan to stay as long as they can.
“It’s open-ended,” says Sister Carolyn, the longest-tenured of the three current sisters. “I’ve told my superiors and coworkers, when you see me failing and I don’t know it —because that does happen — you need to pull me aside, tell me it’s time to move on, and I’ll move on. I’ve made that reconciliation with myself that I would move on whenever I fail to be able to do my work.
“And so my goal is to keep on going as long as the good Lord allows me.”
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