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Community Portrait: Sister devotes life to God, foothills community

By: Michael Kirby, Auburn Journal
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It was in 1952 when Sister Margaret Ann Walsh arrived in Auburn from Blarney, Ireland. In her heart she had the desire to be a missionary and had journeyed a long way to begin her spiritual training at the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Auburn. A family tragedy while Walsh was a teenager created a strong call in her to serve others. As a young person, I saw the shortness of life, Walsh said. The Mercy Novitiate, which is a training school for young sisters in the Catholic Church, was located on the grounds of the Sisters of Mercy Convent off Sacramento Street. The Sacramento Diocese had purchased a 33-acre fruit farm in 1940 with the idea that a training school for sisters would be built on the grounds to educate sisters to serve in the Catholic Diocese. At that time, in my years, there were quite a few of us, about 30 young women wanting to become Sisters and serve the Lord, training at the Novitiate. Many more than are interested today, Walsh said. The Sisters of Mercy Order just commemorated 150 years of service to people of need in California last year, having been established in Sacramento in 1857. As Walsh sits and talks about her life, a life dedicated to God and helping people, her Irish accent still pronounced, she seems comfortable and at peace so many years later with the decision she made as a young woman to dedicate her life to helping others in the name of God. After taking religious vows in 1956 at the completion of the Novitiate, Walsh became a professed sister. At that time for most women, not just sisters, career choices were limited, you could teach, become a secretary, or go into nursing. I chose teaching, Walsh said. She began training for teaching parochial school in the Sacramento Diocese. Later, she moved to Redding and Anderson and taught for many years in what she refers to as the first half of my career. Recalling her teaching career, she remembered having Ronald Reagan Jr., the son of former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, in her fifth grade class during her time in Sacramento. For the next 15 years of her devoted life, Walsh worked in Mercy Hospitals in Redding and Red Bluff, offering pastoral care to hospital patients and their families at their point of need. She retired from health care at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Red Bluff, where she was in mission services as a spiritual presence in the hospital for the medical staff. Walsh next took some time on sabbatical, continuing her education at the Franciscan University in Ohio and training for spiritual direction in Florida. Today, the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Auburn is divided into two facilities. One part operates as the Mercy Center Auburn and offers and supports opportunities to enhance prayer life and spiritual growth, according to their mission statement. The Mercy Center Auburn hosts mainly Catholic groups, though all religious denominations are welcome to participate in seminars with a wide variety of spiritual topics, two of which Walsh currently leads. While Walsh considers herself semi-retired, she leads retreats throughout the year and manages the small bookstore and gift shop on site. The other side of the Sisters of Mercy Convent is a special place where sisters who have dedicated their lives to others come to rest at the end of their careers. Approximately 20 sisters live on site active-retired or infirmed. Trained nursing assistants attend to the sisters that need assistance and many of the sisters like Walsh are still active and involved in various ministries. We're really blessed with the beautiful grounds in a place hallowed with prayer, Walsh said. Walsh recently celebrated her Golden Jubilee commemorating 50 years of service to the people of God. She attends Mass everyday at the chapel on site, loves art, likes to read and garden, and is active in the community. The Sisters here are my family, she said.