A Heart of Mercy

Sr. Rosemary Connolly and the residents, staff, volunteers, and benefactors of Chicago’s Misericordia

On Sunday, May 21, the University of Notre Dame will award its highest honor, the Laetare Medal, to Sister Rosemary Connolly, RSM (Religious Sister of Mercy), age 92. When the announcement was made on Laetare Sunday, it was accompanied by a video (linked at the bottom of this post).

Previous awardees included President John F. Kennedy (1961), operatic tenor John McCormack (1933), novelist Walker Percy (1989), Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1995), labor activist Monsignor George G. Higgins (2001), jazz composer Dave Brubeck (2006), actor Martin Sheen (2008), Senator Moynihan (1992), Sargent Shriver (1968) and his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1988), and death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean (1996). In its first 18 years, four medalists were women and they were awarded the medal in their own right, not as wife. A full list can be found here: http://archives.nd.edu/research/facts/laetare.html

The minimal criteria for eligibility are that the honoree be Catholic, American, and alive. (An exception was made in 1990 in the case of Sister Thea Bowman, who died between the time of the announcement and the ceremony.) The first recipient was named in 1883. The University currently describes it as the “oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.” It is given to those “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” The medal bears the Latin inscription, “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”).

We can hope that thousands, indeed tens of millions, of American Catholics live lives that defend the truth, ennoble the arts and sciences, illustrate the ideals of the Church, and enrich the heritage of humanity. Among all these millions, why would Sister Rosemary, as she is called, deserve the award? I am reminded of an award once received by Saint Teresa of Kolkata. It was said at the time that the award did not so much honor her as that she honored the award by accepting it. So it shall be with Sister Rosemary.

Then Pope Benedict XIV wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) that truth is a great charity: “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity…” (para. 1). To what truth or truths has Sister Rosemary born witness? Almost 50 years ago, in 1976, she moved 39 children from Chicago’s South Side to the former Guardian Angel Orphanage in Rogers Park, abutting Evanston. Notre Dame’s press release stated:

Misericordia is considered a gold standard in community care for children and adults with disabilities. More than 600 residents live in houses and apartments on its [37-acre] campus or in one of 14 nearby neighborhood homes and participate in the organization’s myriad programs — including art, technology and job placement opportunities.

I have often heard that Misericordia is Chicago’s favorite charity. We can forever hold up Sister Rosemary, her Laetare Medal, and the staff and multitude of volunteers and benefactors of Misericordia to rebut the canard that pro-lifers care about the unborn but not the born.

My wife and I were houseparents in one of the nine homes that make up “Heart of Mercy Village” on just part of the Misericordia campus. My wife was full-time in this position while I had a full-time job in downtown Chicago, making my evenings and weekends full. We lived there three years from when the homes first opened in 1983 until 1986. We had two daughters at the time, and they lived with us. We were responsible for teenaged boys with mental and physical disabilities – eight at any one time, a total of 11 over the three years. After our tour of duty was over, I wrote the reflections that will appear in my next two blog posts. (The initiative of having live-in houseparents ended soon after our tenure.)


The link to Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal announcement video: Heart of Mercy | University of Notre Dame (nd.edu)


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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