In 1856 in Switzerland, a Franciscan priest named Theodosius Florentini founded the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross. “I shall send my sisters where their presence is most badly needed,” he wrote, “to the poor, to those hungry for education, to the sick, the orphans, the neglected, the factory-children and industrial workers.” In response, several women took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to give their lives to the needy, forfeiting prospects for marriage, family and worldly success. A capable young woman named Mary Theresa Scherer became the first superior.
The congregation grew rapidly. When Mother Theresa died in 1888, she was survived by almost 2,000 sisters. Presently there are over 3,000 Holy Cross Sisters serving on five continents.
Mother Theresa “wanted to send her daughters to the people of the New World…” and actively corresponded with a priest in Wisconsin, but the possibility of sending sisters never materialized during her lifetime. Mother Aniceta Regli, a successor of Mother Theresa, inherited her “enthusiasm for America.” In 1912, as a response to the request of Bishop V. Wehrle OSB, she was able to send sisters to staff a hospital in Dickinson, North Dakota. A few years later the sisters were invited to manage the hospital in Breese, Illinois. In 1923 city leaders invited Holy Cross Sisters to Merrill, Wisconsin, and in 1926 the sisters dedicated Holy Cross Hospital.
Local women joined the Holy Cross Sisters and along with working in the three hospitals they taught in grade schools, high schools, and colleges. They also worked in an orphanage and continued to expand and serve in various ministries throughout the United States. The “Mission Territory” was made a province in 1954.
In the early 1980s, a request came from laypersons who appreciated the sisters’ charism and wanted a closer relationship with the community. In 1983 the sisters officially began an associate program to establish that relationship. At present, there are 28 lay women and men who live out the Holy Cross charism as associates.
In 1987 the Holy Cross Sisters sold their three hospitals. In 1990, responding to a rising need for elderly care, they remodeled their convent in Merrill into a community-based residential facility for the elderly. Bell Tower Residence, a sponsored ministry of the Holy Cross Sisters, provided quality care to the sisters and the public. In May of 2019, Bell Tower Residence was sold to Wisconsin Illinois Senior Housing (WISH). Many of the retired Holy Cross Sisters reside at Bell Tower Residence or in the Sister's Housing on campus.