History of the St. Xavier Nature Preserve

The St. Xavier property has a rich heritage as the site of the Sisters’ of Mercy former St. Xavier Academy and Convent.  The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy started in Dublin, Ireland in the 1820s when Catherine McAuley made use of an inheritance to build a house as a shelter and school for poor girls and women.  In 1828, the name “Sisters of Mercy” was chosen for the women assisting with the shelter, and in 1829 the Sisters of Mercy unanimously decided that the group would become a religious congregation.  In 1831, Catherine McAuley, Mary Ann Doyle, and Mary Elizabeth Harley professed their vows, thereby founding the religious order.

Throughout the 1830s and early 1840s the order established 11 additional facilities in England and Ireland that offered shelter to poor women and children and provided nursing assistance during outbreaks of cholera.  The first Convent of Mercy was established in 1839 in London.  Sisters established a congregation in Newfoundland in 1842, in Pittsburgh in 1843, in Australia in 1846, and in New Zealand in 1850.

Invited by Bishop Michael O’Connor of the Catholic diocese in Pittsburgh, seven Sisters traveled to the United States from Carlow, Ireland in 1843:  Frances Warde, Josephine Cullen, Veronica McDarby, Elizabeth Strange, Aloysia Strange, Philomena Reid and Margaret (Agatha) O’Brien.  The sisters settled in a building on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh, where they organized a convent and grade school.

In 1844, Henry Kuhn offered a 108-acre farm near Latrobe to the Sisters, and in 1845 Frances Warde opened Mount St. Vincent Academy for Young Ladies at this location.

When the Benedictine monks came to the St. Vincent property, the Sisters constructed a new building and in 1847 the Academy moved to the new building, named St. Xavier Academy to honor Sister Frances Xavier Warde.  Pittsburgh Sisters also went on to teach at St. Paul’s parochial school in Oakland, establish Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, and travel to build convents, schools, and hospitals in many locations throughout the United States and beyond.

St. Xavier Academy and Convent grew until a fire destroyed the buildings in 1868.  After that fire, the Sisters rebuilt with the help of local benefactors.  The new buildings of the Academy and Convent operated continuously as a well-respected and well-loved institution until the the buildings were again destroyed by fire on March 16, 1972.

Discussion of the property’s conservation started in July 2018.  From that time WLT worked in collaboration with a Committee of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy to develop a vision for the future of the land.  Members of the Sisters’ Committee were Sheila Carney, Bonnie Heh, Mary Joy Haywood, Kathleen Sweeney, Jeanne Snyder, Susan Welsh and Pat Whalen.

Tom Guelcher (The Property Manager for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, NY, PA, and Pacific West Community) coordinated this effort. meetings and discussions along with the Sisters’ 1993 “Principles Governing Stewardship of St. Xavier’s” provided guidance.

Throughout 2020 planning the property’s conservation continued, and on January 28, 2021, WLT and the Institute Leadership Team of the Sisters of Mercy at that time (Sister Patricia McDermott, President and Sisters Patricia Flynn, Judith Frikker, Aine O’Connor and Anne Marie Miller) entered into agreements for conservation of the St. Xavier property.

In December 2021, Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources awarded a grant of $1,100,000 to WLT to purchase the property.  On August 26, 2022 the Sisters of Mercy conveyed the St. Xavier property to the WLT and also made a significant contribution for ongoing maintenance of the property.  The Katherine Mabis McKenna Foundation provided significant funding for initial conservation work on the property, and for development of a master plan for the nature preserve.

WLT has been honored to assist the Sisters of Mercy in securing conservation of this land as a profound legacy of the Sisters, and is deeply grateful to all who have supported or assisted with this acquisition.