Despite sale of Farmington Hills campus, Sisters of Mercy intend to keep serving

Sr. Linda Werthman, RSM, poses for a photo with Emma, a guest of the Pope Francis Center in Detroit. Sr. Werthman volunteers weekly at the Pope Francis Center, one of many examples of the Religious Sisters of Mercy continuing their presence in Detroit, despite the sale of their Farmington Hills campus. (JD Lesada | Pope Francis Center)

With fewer sisters inhabiting 53-acre campus, religious community chooses to focus on ‘mission over maintenance’ as it looks to future

FARMINGTON HILLS  For 61 years, the Religious Sisters of Mercy have called a sprawling, beautifully landscaped campus in Farmington Hills their home in Metro Detroit.

While that might be changing, don’t expect the sisters’ work in Metro Detroit to be finished anytime soon. 

Since moving to Detroit’s suburbs in 1960, the Sisters of Mercy have operated out of the Farmington Hills campus as the headquarters for the Detroit province of the religious community, which also hosts the all-girls Mercy High School. 

But with the number of sisters declining in recent years, an offer from developer Edward Rose & Sons of Bloomfield Hills to purchase the 53.66-acre site and turn a portion of it into a senior living community proved to be too good to pass up, said Sr. Mary Ellen Howard, RSM. 

The Sisters of Mercy campus is pictured in Farmington Hills. Of the 53-acre campus, a majority is an environmental easement that will be under the care of Mercy High School, according to a proposed deal. (Christine Stechschulte | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“In 2016, there were about 30 sisters living on our campus of seven buildings,” Sr. Howard, a retired Sister of Mercy who has served in health care as a nurse and hospital administrator, told Detroit Catholic. “These buildings were very underutilized, and we were concerned about our carbon footprint. Our campus advisory committee looked at the property, its utilization and costs and potential uses for the property.” 

Worldwide, there are an estimated 2,300 Religious Sisters of Mercy, a community founded by Sr. Catherine McAuley, RSM, to serve the poor in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831. Since the community’s expansion to the United States, the sisters have built countless schools and hospitals and have served the needs of thousands. 

But with fewer sisters than years prior, the community has had to readjust its resources to continue the mission, said Sr. Susan Sanders, RSM, an institute minister for the Religious Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. 

“We had six campuses that were the original sites in the West-Midwest congregations, which at points were very large and now aren’t so large,” Sr. Sanders said. “We look at our property and decided it was time for us to think critically about these huge pieces of property where we once had hundreds of sisters.” 

Then-Archbishop Edward A. Mooney of Detroit consecrates the grounds on the corner of Southfield and West Outer Drive for the establishment of Mercy College in 1941. (Photo courtesy of the Religious Sisters of Mercy West-Midwest Province)

Plans to sell the property to Edward Rose & Sons are still being finalized between the developers and the city of Farmington Hills, but one plan would see 15.57 acres of the complex, which formerly housed the sisters’ residences and other buildings, turned into a senior living community. Another 34.18 acres are set aside as a conservation easement — a goal in keeping with the sisters’ dedication to the environment — and would be entrusted to the care of Mercy High School, which would use the site for environmental science classes. 

If the senior complex is built, some of the retired sisters may maintain a presence there, but in the meantime, the Sisters of Mercy and its associates still plan on meeting at Mercy High School and maintaining its connection with the school and Farmington Hills community. 

“I assure you, individual sisters will have a presence in Detroit,” said Sr. Maria Klosowski, who recently moved to Detroit from Omaha, Neb., where the sisters have another community, and currently lives with three other sisters in the former rectory of St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish on Detroit’s west side. “We are a presence in the parish and neighborhood.” 

Sr. Klosowski pointed to Sr. Howard, who currently volunteers with the Detroit-based People’s Water Board Coalition, as well as Mercy Corps volunteers in the city, as examples of the community’s involvement, as well as its ongoing sponsorship of Mercy High School and the University of Detroit Mercy. 

Religious Sisters of Mercy, such as Sr. Mary Ellen Howard, RSM, a retired sister who works with the Detroit-based People’s Water Board Coalition, will continue to serve, advocate and be involved with causes they care about in the Detroit region despite the pending sale of the community’s Farmington Hills property. (Photo by Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

When the Sisters of Mercy moved from their original Detroit location on Southfield and Outer Drive in 1960 to the 11 Mile Road location, as many as 80 sisters were ministering “through direct service and influence to relieve misery, address its causes and support person who struggle for full dignity,” said Sr. Linda Werthman, RSM, who continues to serve in various ministries throughout the area, including as a volunteer at the Pope Francis Center, located next to SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Parish in downtown Detroit. 

“We continue our mission by serving others and continuing to sponsor the institutions that address our enduring concerns and give witness to Christ’s mission,” Sr. Werthman said. “Within these institutions, we, together with our colleagues, our lay colleagues, work to serve and promote systemic change.” 

Drawing on the example of Sr. McAuley’s service to the downtrodden of Dublin, today’s Sisters of Mercy are out in the community, focusing on critical concerns such as preservation of the earth, promoting non-violence, eradicating racism and standing up for the rights of women and immigrants, Sr. Werthman said. 

Sr. Werthman carries on that work at the Pope Francis Center with the men and women she serves weekly, but also at the St. Suzanne/Cody Rouge Community Resource Center, which promotes literacy and educational opportunities for the northwest Detroit community. 

Sr. Linda Werthman, RSM, continues to volunteer at the Pope Francis Center and the St. Suzanne/Cody Rouge Community Resource Center in Detroit. 
With increasing vocations and a need to expand, the Detroit province of the Religious Sisters of Mercy moved to the corner of 11 Mile and Middlebelt in Farmington Hills in 1960. (Photo courtesy Religious Sisters of Mercy West-Midwest Province)

The Sisters of Mercy and their lay associates still serve on the boards of Mercy High School, the Mercy Education Project, the University of Detroit Mercy and the Mercy-sponsored Trinity Health, institutions that will carry on the mission started by Sr. McAuley long after an individual sister is gone, Sr. Werthman said. 

“Selling the property on 11 Mile gives us an opportunity to get outside of a very homogeneous bubble,” Sr. Werthman said. “On Saturday, I was crossing the street where I live to go to the resource center, when a woman stopped in her car in the middle of the street, asking what the rectory was where I left. I explained I was a Sister of Mercy, that four Sisters of Mercy lived there, and what we did in the community. 

“The woman said she had never seen a nun before, except on television or in the news,” Sr. Werthman explained. “Could I have done that if I continued living in Farmington Hills? Probably not as immediately. To be embedded among the people in the neighborhood, people see we look very much like they do.” 

Many of the sisters who still lived on campus required some extra level of care, with a few moving to a senior living community in White Lake and others to a Trinity Health facility in the area. 

While many sisters are retired, that doesn’t mean the community is inactive, Sr. Klosowski said. In many ways, the sale of the property will allow them to do more. 

“I can assure you that in retirement, the Sisters of Mercy are still active in promoting issues both in active participation and writing letters to our senators and representatives,” Sr. Klosowski said. “We’re praying for those critical concerns, responding to the needs of our time. No matter where we are, where we live, the Sisters of Mercy will always address the concerns and needs of the oppressed.” 

Beyond the day-to-day work of feeding the poor, accompanying immigrants or pushing civic leaders to increase access to clean water for Detroit residents, the Sisters of Mercy will continue to leave an invaluable mark on the city through its institutions, Sr. Sanders said. 

The Religious Sisters of Mercy will maintain a presence in the area with Mercy High School, which will become the custodians of a 34.18-acre conservation easement the Sisters of Mercy gifted to the school for environmental science courses. (Photo courtesy Religious Sisters of Mercy West-Midwest Province)

“We have sisters on boards of these institutions who keep the mission of the Sisters of Mercy front and center,” Sr. Sanders said. “Each school, each hospital is faithful to the mission and legacy of the Sisters of Mercy and our founder, Catherine McAuley. Each of our ministries is a Catholic-sponsored ministry, making sure we attend to passing on the faith tradition to those to come.” 

The pending sale of the sisters’ Farmington Hills property is the close of a chapter in the Sisters of Mercy’s history in southeast Michigan, but the story will go on, Sr. Howard said. 

“There is a sense of freedom in getting rid of the property. I feel like I won’t be spending the rest of my life taking care of that property,” Sr. Howard said. “We can use that attention to issues related to ministry. 

“But at the same time, it is hard to let go,” Sr. Howard continued. “It’s been our center for 60 years. It’s been where we come together ... We love each other. We’ve given our lives to each other, to live with each other, to serve next to each other. That will continue, because that is who we are.”