A charism is a gift from God for the ministry of a Congregation in the Church and in the world. The charism determines not only that particular Congregation’s objective, in fact the very reason why it exists, but also the nature of its apostolic work and the spirituality of the entire religious community.
From the start, the Congregation was called by God to work in the field of helping girls and women in need of profound moral renewal. It received this as its so-called ‘charism of foundation’.
“The aim of the Sisters of the Society of Our Lady of Mercy is not only to work on their own sanctification through the practice of Christian virtues and the evangelical counsels, but also (…) to work to restore to the service of God those fallen girls and women given into their charge, they being desirous to amend their lives, (…) However, our work does not include protecting such people from an initial fall (…) therefore the number of girls admitted for purposes of protection is always to be especially limited. In no way can any be admitted as charges or otherwise, who are not classed either as sisters to be or as penitent women. Accepting leadership in prisons and houses of protection would be incompatible with the goal of our Work and with the independence so dear to our institution.”
(Constitutions of the Society of Our Lady of Mercy, 1909, Art. 1.)
The Congregation was initially created to perform a very specific task in the Church, namely to carry out educational work with girls and women in need of moral reform (prostitutes) who voluntarily wished to change their lives (“the charism of foundation”).
The history of the Congregation shows how this charism developed, eventually including the care of other persons whose morality was threatened. Taking into consideration the living conditions of society and the fact that the group under threat of ‘demoralization’ has become ever younger, the Congregation has expanded the scope of its apostolic work to cover not only those already depraved, but also those threatened with moral degradation. The Constitutions of 1930 stated: The houses of the Congregation may also admit those women whose living conditions could lead them to destruction, always provided that their number remains limited.
“Houses of Mercy”, as the houses of the Congregation have been called from the start, are places in which girls and women, morally neglected and voluntarily seeking a profound change of life, have found protection. A family atmosphere, separation from the world, a certain anonymity, prayer and work have brought the desired results. Thousands of girls and women have begun their new life with a sense of personal dignity, self-respect and respect for other people, while some have acquired a mature belief in the value and meaning of human life and its ultimate purpose. The educational system has been based on respect for human dignity and freedom; on the implementation in life of Christian values and prayer; on appropriate use of the sacraments; and on work, which has been not only educational but also vocational and has provided the House of Mercy with the means of earning a living.
In the 1920s, there were more and more young girls among the charges directed to the sisters by the courts, and for these the sisters gradually organized a training programme. And so, Houses of Mercy which were originally places of voluntary work and prayer became over time closed educational institutions with the curricula of primary school and of secondary vocational schools. The girls were referred to the sisters by education authorities and social services, the juvenile courts, and parents or guardians. This form of apostolic work continued in some houses of the Congregation until 1962, but even before that date the communist authorities had already started the process of taking over some institutions, and those they left to the management of the Congregation were transformed into “Caritas” institutions for sick women and for children with impaired mental and psycho-motor abilities. The sisters were only allowed to work with young people in open youth clubs and social centres (in Kraków and Warsaw).
In 1989, that is after the collapse of communism, Poland regained the opportunity to work with girls in need of deep moral renewal in the re-established Youth Educational Centre in Kraków. In this centre the sisters run a boarding house, one middle school (age 12-14) and three vocational secondary schools for girls directed to the sisters by the juvenile courts. Elsewhere the sisters also run houses for single mothers, in which they can include women in need of moral support.