Sisters of Mercy Chapel in Belmont, North Carolina

The soul craves beauty in religion.  It is a real treat to see evidence like this of a cozy and distinctly real religious atmosphere in a convent chapel that inspires and thrills with its own delightful soul-uplifting charm.  A beautifully furnished church is an inspiration to all for generations.  

Here is an example of a small convent chapel wherein all appointments are designed with architectural correctness according to the impress of its time and location.  The altar furnishings are artistically proportioned and symmetrical.  The execution of every detail is precisely harmonious.  Beauty and balance reign unrestricted and unconfined.  Great artistic brilliance reflects a harmonious faith while outer elements parallel the inner experience of worship.  Indeed, the arts have each a proper place in the fostering of this worship.  Catholics should be led to contemplate the supreme experience of the image of Christ offering Himself in the court of Heaven before the cloud of witnesses.  

As all devotion in a church centers on the altar, that furnishing logically becomes the most essential part of the church planning and design.  It is symbolic of Christ and is at once the most important and conspicuous detail of the interior.  Upon its successful realization in an artistic sense, the beauty of the entire church depends.  Beginning with beautiful altars, all other furnishings follow in a fitting harmony as in natural sequence.  

This chapel belongs to the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order founded in Ireland in 1831 by Catherine McAuley (1787-1841).  The reverend foundress, Mother McAuley, was an orphan herself, adopted at an early age by a wealthy Protestant couple.  As an adopted child she flourished and her faith grew over time.  She went from being a lax Catholic to a fervent one and even succeeded in bringing to the Catholic Faith the beloved parents who adopted her.  

She went on to found in Dublin, with her own funds, her own order for the aim of works of charity and religion (assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and protecting women of good character).  The sisters will forever be remembered both in Ireland and the U.S. for their heroic good works, especially in pioneer days of difficulty.   

In 1843 the first sisters known as the "Valiant Seven" left the land of their birth and braved the perils of the deep to engage in the arduous work of transplanting the Order of Mercy to American soil.  For the glory of God and the salvation of souls they came to America from Ireland and went to Pittsburgh, gradually spreading across various parts of the country, establishing schools and hospitals.  They worked in the south among Catholics who were few in number, poor, and lacked good schools.   

In 1887 the sisters were given a 90 acre parcel of land in Belmont, North Carolina to found a convent and girls school south of a newly established Belmont Abbey.  At that time Catholics were less than 2% of the local population.  The Benedictine monks from the Abbey started Belmont College for men and the sisters went on to start Sacred Heart Academy and later Sacred Heart College for women (closed in 1987).

The first five sisters arrived in Belmont on September 1, 1892 to open their newly built convent school for girls known as Sacred Heart Academy.  The Academy began primarily as a southern finishing school with an emphasis on music, art, literature, and dramatics.  The first students were 12 boarders and 9 day students.  

Mercedes Hall was completed in 1899 as a three-story convent and novitiate building for the sisters, complete with a beautiful little chapel.  The chapel was for 50 years the spiritual "nerve center" and heartbeat of the community of nuns and students.  Inside the chapel, with its interior decorated in Gothic revival style, the nuns made their religious professions.  Here the nuns had early morning Mass.  And from here they missioned - were sent out as missioners - to bring mercy to all throughout North Carolina, New York, Florida, and Guam, and beyond.  In this chapel the female students also came to pray and sing in the choir with the sisters.  The monks of Belmont Abbey served as chaplains.    

The plaster statues and rigalico altars (made of hard composition, cast in bronze molds) are from the Daprato Statuary Company of Chicago, Illinois.  The statue of the Sacred Heart in the middle was donated by the graduating classes of 1941, 1942, and 1943.  The main altar has a rare interesting design, with two sections jutting out on either side that once held statues of angels holding lit candelabras.  The chapel, attached to the western portion of the convent building, is one and one-half stories with a tin interior ceiling and a slate gable roof, round arched windows, and a simple side door.     

The creative style of the convent building resembles an American barn, a charming idiom of the time built with a gambrel roof.  This style building has a gable at the top with two slopes on each side, the upper being less steep than the lower.  The roof is crowned by a cupola, with a three-bay central block in the front that is capped by a gambrel front pavilion.   This design reflects the distinctive American heritage of the time.   

Construction of the new three-story brick veneered convent with attached chapel was completed in 1899.  What externally appears to the be apse of the chapel is actually the sacristy.  This is the earliest extant building on campus, today part of a roughly L-shaped complex of buildings connected to the administration building that was added in 1928 to house Sacred Heart College.  Today all the buildings are part of the extension of the nearby Belmont College campus, a co-educational college with an enrollment of about 1,500 students.  

The organ and pipes, since removed, seen below.  

After the sisters opened Sacred Art Academy, they soon after expanded their work to include hospitals to help minister to the sick and dying.  In responding to the needs of the local Church, the sisters opened in 1900 St. Joseph's TB Sanitarium (later turned into a general hospital) in the nearby mountains in Asheville, NC and in 1906 Mercy General Hospital in nearby Charlotte.  The nuns, by their very vocation, were able to pray continually by giving themselves whole, brining to mind a quote from St. Basil the Great: "This is how you pray continually - not by offering prayers in words, but by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so that your life becomes one continuous and uninterrupted prayer."      

The inside of the chapel is an incomparable place for prayer and reflection.  Every church building in village or city should itself be a noble work of art.  There need be no diffidence about the eternal testimony that beauty is desirable and good.      

In the 1962 the sisters opened a new convent with a new and larger chapel next door, Sacred Heart Convent.  Local architect Fr. Michael McInerny, O.S.B. (1877-1963), a nationally recognized monk-architect from Belmont Abbey, consulted on the project.  Earlier in his career he helped develop a variation of the German Gothic Revival that acquired the popular designation of "American Benedictine" architecture.  He also designed for the sisters their Administration Building for Sacred Heart College and nearby Victory Hall on the same campus.   

Today the old Sacred Heart chapel is open for prayer for students and faculty of Belmont College,  a wonderful place to pray that brings to mind wise words from the past, "Forget not the rock from which you were hewn." 

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