By Bette McDevitt
October 1, 2016
I’ve admired Sister Patricia McCann, of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy, for years, and now I know what makes her tick. “My social justice orientation is faith-based,” she said, “in a very holistic way. We’re supposed to live the gospel.”
Pat grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Her father, a state policeman, and her mother, a homemaker, second-generation Irish, grew up on stories of oppression in Ireland, oppression largely because they were Catholic. “So they were both strong on social justice, “said Pat. “Voting and going to church were two moral obligations, just about equal. My dad felt that the political system could make life better for people and if you were Irish and Catholic in America, you were a Democrat, a member of the party that helped the poor, the working people, the union, and the immigrants. It was all part of the real world, not like here’s church and here’s the world.”
Pat grew up in Bedford, where her father was in charge of the state police force during the early years of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. In grade school, she was the only Catholic child in the class. Attending St. Xavier’s Academy in Latrobe in the 1950’s, she had her first exposure to Catholic social teaching.
“The early encyclicals supporting labor unions and dealing with Nazism made the case that the church should be involved in social justice. Then in the 1970’s came the pastorals on peace, racism, the economy. By that time I was teaching church history at St. Vincent’s and used those pastorals in my classes.” Pat also taught American history at Our Lady of Mercy Academy (no longer existing) to high school students.”
While teaching at Mt. Mercy College, (now Carlow) Pat accompanied four bus loads of college students from Carlow, Pitt and Duquesne to the rally for passage of the Voting Rights Bill, led by Martin Luther King, in March of 1965. The students were stationed to greet the marchers from Selma on the steps of the capital building in Montgomery. “We knew it was going to be dangerous, because a social worker had been murdered by KKK the week before in Selma. We were not frightened, but I became more concerned when we were there. We got nonviolence training on the bus from someone experienced in going to these demonstrations. When we were stopped in Birmingham by the police, one of the faculty members got off the bus and told the police we were on an educational trip, and we were permitted to go on. When we got to Montgomery we went directly into the black neighborhood and to the Baptist church. They fed and housed us, with open arms. I talked with a Marine, a veteran of Imo Jima, who had never voted. Every time he went to vote, he was asked to write the Constitution as a test for registering. It was a very important experience for me and made clear that this had to be included in my teaching.”
The Sisters of Mercy had been involved with the Merton Center since it’s founding in 1972, providing staff and financial support, and when Pat returned to the Mother House in the 1980’s to take a position in administration, she had direct involvement with the Center. “The various orders of women religious adopted the Center as a way to do social justice. We did whatever was needed. Some of our sisters were right on the front line. I would get phone calls that one or another of them was in jail.” It was the Sisters of Mercy, along with the Sisters of St. Joseph, who posted $125,000 in bail so that Molly Rush could be released from jail.
Pat is now involved with the McAuley Ministries, named for the founder of the order, Catherine McAuley. The Ministries provide grants to those in need, in the zip code of Mercy Hospital, allowing projects to come alive that otherwise would never see the light of day. The funds came from the sale of Mercy Hospital to UPMC, providing the Sisters a way to continue their mission of helping the poor.
There is still time for politics, and Pat remains a steady writer of letters to the Post Gazette that go right to the heart of justice. “I have always loved politics, This 2016 election is the first time in my life that I find it very distressing, because of divisiveness, racism, polarization, bigotry, and the anti-immigrant bias. I think we have lost our sense that politics is a vehicle to pursue the common good. And let me say this for the record. Pro-life is a very important issue, but pro-life means a lot more than anti- abortion; it means openness to immigrants, opposition to war, and the death penalty, addressing the issues of health care and affordable housing, recognizing that our obligation as a society is to help reduce poverty. Anti abortion cannot be the only issue we must use to measure the commitment to pro-life. It is important for us to think large.”
Bette McDevitt is a member of the editorial collective.