The Archivist’s Nook: Sisters of Mercy Mission Tiles

Painted pear tree stump from Mission San Rafael
Painted pear tree stump from Mission San Rafael

“I very much fear they will not reach Washington whole, for they are extra brittle from age and exposure” wrote Sister Mary B. Russell (1834 – 1912), the leader of the Sisters of Mercy in California, in a letter dated May 10th 1893.  Sister Mary was referring to twenty-three large roof tiles that the Sisters of Mercy of San Francisco, California shipped to the fledgling CUA for inclusion in their archaeological museum. Sister Mary might well be surprised that twenty-two of her tiles still survive today, 123 years later!

These roof tiles are precious. Each one came from a different Spanish mission in California, all of which were established by Franciscan priests between 1769 and 1833. Each tile was painted by a Sister of Mercy pupil with an image of the mission from which it came, and almost all bear the Sister of Mercy red seal, “to testify to their authenticity,” as Sister Mary explained.

Sister Mary Baptist Russell
Sister Mary Baptist Russell

When Sister Mary was unable to obtain a tile for the Mission of San Rafael, she instead sent a stump from one of the pear trees planted there by the Franciscans. Painted with the image of the tree it came from, the stump is inscribed: “Pear trees, 100 years old, 3 feet in diameter and 65 ft. high; planted by Franciscan fathers at Mission of San Rafael. Cut down in 1891 to make way for the Odd Fellows’ Building.” That building, or lodge, of the Order of Odd Fellows burned down in the 1950’s. However, that stump can still be found in the museum collection of the Archives.

Some of the tiles are no longer with The Catholic University of America, but have gone on to be displayed across the United States. In 2005, the Sisters of Mercy based in Auburn, California reached out to the Archives to request a loan of the tiles for display in the traveling exhibit: “Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in California.” Nine of the tiles remain with them on long-term loan, and the Mission San Luis Rey tile from San Diego can be viewed on the exhibit’s website. In 2014, another nine of the tiles were given to the Mercy Heritage Center in Belmont, North Carolina for eventual display in their 3,000 square foot exhibition space (which was still being built at the time). It seems fitting that over 100 years after Sister Mary B. Russell generously gave these tiles to The Catholic University of America, the University can return the favor by sharing these cultural artifacts with the Sisters of Mercy today.

Mission San Miguel tile
Mission San Miguel tile

Here at the Archives, we still have four tiles depicting Mission San Miguel, Mission Santa Clara, Mission San Gabriel, and Mission San Buenaventura. Mission San Miguel is currently on display in our Archives Reading Room in Aquinas 101. Stop by soon though, as by mid-March this tile will be on temporary loan to the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut for the upcoming exhibit “Mission of Faith: The Coming of the Gospel to America.”

In Sister Mary B. Russell’s letter of 1893, she practically explains that if the tiles are “smashed entirely” en route to CUA, they can be “pieced with plaster of Paris.” All but one of the tiles has survived to the 21st century. It is impressive to reflect on the longevity of these tiles, the miles they’ve traveled, and the people who have seen them since they were first painted by Sister Mary’s pupils in mid 19th century California.

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