Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland in 1831 to respond to the desperate poverty of Ireland’s Catholics under the British penal laws. Catherine used her inheritance to open Baggot Street House, where she and like-minded women instructed children and taught young women the skills they needed to become independent. They visited the sick in hospitals and in their homes and became known in Dublin as “The Walking Nuns.” The community was formally recognized by Rome in 1841, shortly before Catherine died.
Frances Warde, one of the first women to profess her vows as a Sister of Mercy, came to the United States in 1843 in response to requests from the bishops to minister to Irish immigrants. In 1864, Frances sent seven of her Sisters from New Hampshire to Omaha, a small town on the banks of the Missouri River. The Sisters immediately set about opening a school, visiting the sick and imprisoned and caring for orphans.
As the Mercy community of Omaha grew, the Sisters continued to dream of the day they could educate their own Sisters to carry on the work of Catherine McAuley. They wanted a university where they could provide an education to women desiring to become teachers and health care providers. Catherine had said, “No work of charity is more productive of the good of society than the careful instruction of women.”
In 1923, College of Saint Mary opened its doors at 15th and Castelar Streets as a junior college. In 1955, the College moved to its present campus and became a four-year college. The first baccalaureate degrees were granted in 1956. Master’s programs began in 2005 and doctoral programs were added in 2007.
Today, College of Saint Mary is operated by an independent board of directors inclusive of the Sisters of Mercy. The founding beliefs established by the Sisters of Mercy still guide CSM and were reaffirmed in 2004 by the formal affiliation of CSM with the Conference for Mercy Higher Education (CMHE). CMHE is comprised of the eighteen colleges/universities in the U.S. founded by the Sisters of Mercy.
Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy and an early 19th century Irishwoman, had a bold vision. She believed that “nothing was more productive of good to society than the careful education of women...since their example and advice will always possess influence.” Omaha’s College of Saint Mary is one of those schools.
Mother Mary Leo Gallagher, another Sister of Mercy, carried on the tradition and opened the doors of College of Saint Mary in 1923. In Omaha’s old Continental Hotel at 15th and Castelar Streets, the work began. The church schools needed teachers. To be effective in these positions, Mother Gallagher believed women needed a strong liberal arts education. Mother Gallagher accomplished this feat when women had won the right to vote just three years prior. Many at the time viewed educating women as a frivolous gesture, but a woman with a vision will not be deterred.
The dynamic leadership of women such as Mother Gallagher, the first president of the College, and Sister Mary Constance Walsh, the first academic dean, brought high standards to the fledgling two-year teacher’s college and led to its growth. Their dedication served as an example for those who followed.
In November 1950, the Sisters purchased 80 acres of land for $150,000 next to a dirt road named 72nd Street and what would then become Mercy Road. The land was split evenly between College of Saint Mary (40 acres) and the Sisters of Mercy (40 acres). A $3 million construction project began in March 1953 and by May 1955, College of Saint Mary was a reality. That year, 255 students enrolled and by 1958 College of Saint Mary had become a four-year fully accredited college.
Today, CSM is proud to continue its tradition of educating female leaders formed in the values of service and compassion according to the Sisters of Mercy. CSM today enrolls over 1,000 students and hosts both graduate and undergraduate programs.