The Sisters of Mercy constitute the largest community of religious women in the Roman Catholic Church. Founded in Dublin, Ireland in 1831 by Mother Catherine McAuley, the sisters sought “to care for the poor, the sick, and the uneducated.” Over the following century, the “walking nuns,” as they were called, journeyed to various continents around the world, establishing networks of healthcare facilities and schools ranging from elementary through the college and graduate levels.
Until a short memory ago, the Mercy colleges and universities in the US were led, managed, and staffed in majority by Sisters of Mercy. As the number of religious sisters has declined sharply over the past 40 years, the Sisters have addressed the dilemma of sustaining the values they imparted through their vast educational system. In 2002, they established the Conference for Mercy Higher Education (CMHE) to reinforce the bonds of Mercy traditions and to strengthen the Catholic identity and Mercy charism at all colleges and universities well into the future.
The Conference is located at the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy offices in Silver Spring, Maryland. Staffed by a full-time Executive Director (Moya Dittmeier) and an assistant (Rita Waters, RSM), CMHE is a national organization bringing 17 Mercy colleges and universities into a common network and providing oversight for the sponsorship relationship between the Sisters of Mercy and the institutions they have so lovingly founded and supported.
The Conference’s relationship to its 17 member institutions (15 full members and two associate members) is unique and based upon relationships that previously existed on a more local level before the consolidation of communities nation-wide. In most instances, the Conference functions as the Member of the Corporation, with the corresponding reserved powers. CMHE approves the appointments of presidents and members of the local institutional boards, as well as all changes to the mission and philosophy of the institution. The Conference also has the responsibility to approve borrowing in excess of $5.7 million at most of our institutions. The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy has an indult (permission according to Canon law) from the Vatican for a debt ceiling (collective indebtedness of all sponsored members in CMHE) of $500 million.
In addition to the reserved powers and issues of sponsorship, the Conference has offered and is further developing mission-related programs. Students attended four-day programs at the UN (“Mercy Meets the UN”) in 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2016); a DC Justice Immersion program was held in May 2012 for 41 students from nine participating colleges and universities and again for seven institutions and 24 participants in August 2015. Since 2007, three symposia around issues related to Catholic, Mercy higher education have been held at various campuses, and "Mercy the Princial Path," a mission program for senior leaders and board members, has been developed and offered on three occasions, with the most recent program held in Baltimore, MD October 2016. In addition, a decennial mission peer review process for each of our institutions is underway, with six reviews now having been conducted since fall 2012. In 2013, the Presidents Council engaged a research firm to study and determine the distinctive characteristics shared among our Mercy colleges and universities.
The Structure of CMHE
Effective in June 2014 and to streamline the work of CMHE, the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy has delegated the sponsorship function and related responsibilities to the CMHE Board (11 board members). In past years, these responsibilities were delegated to the Sponsor Council who oversaw the work of the CMHE Board. The Board’s primary goals are to ascertain the strength of the Catholic identity and Mercy mission at each institution in addition to acting on the reserved powers as needed and required. The CMHE Board meets annually with the Sponsor Council and the Executive Director provides reports as requested or requiredby the Institute Leadership Team. Two members of the Presidents Council serve as ex officio members of the CMHE Board.
The Conference is funded by three revenue streams—sponsorship fees from the colleges and universities, the Sisters of Mercy’s annual contribution, and grants and gifts in support of programs.
There is an increasing sense among our CMHE Board members as well as the Presidents and Sponsors that the Conference is maturing in its efforts and taking steps to realize the goals for which it was founded. A new strategic plan, Vision 2010, process seeks to clarify boundaries and responsibilities for CMHE vis-à-vis the member institutions. CMHE exists to ensure that the interests, concerns and spirit of the Sisters of Mercy are preserved and strengthened at each institution, and that the future of each college and university as a Mercy ministry is secure.