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Sister M. Martina Byrne

c.1858 – 1921

Sister Mary Martina Byrne was a member of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy for more than 40 years. From 1903-1909, she was the sister superior in charge of Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Born in Pittsburgh as Mary Jane Byrne, she was one of six children of Irish immigrants Bernard and Jane Dunning Byrne. Bernard Byrne was a successful businessman who had arrived in the United States around 1854 and worked as a wagon driver before he became owner and operator of a livery stable. He was also a contractor with a street grading business.

Cover of the 1918 history of the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy

The Byrne family lived in lower Lawrenceville, around 38th and Butler Streets. While her family was affluent, Mary Jane Byrne took a vow of poverty upon joining the Sisters of Mercy in April 1878. When Bernard Byrne died in 1884, Mary Jane, now Sister M. Martina, did not personally receive her share of her father’s estate; instead, per Mr. Byrne’s will, the money went to the Sisters of Mercy, to be used for the Sisters’ work among the poor and sick of Pittsburgh.

Sister M. Martina joined the nursing staff of Mercy Hospital in 1884, when the hospital had about 200 patients and two dozen Sisters of Mercy on staff. As she gained experience, she was appointed head of several of the hospital’s departments in the 1890s. In 1903, she was named sister superior and put in charge of the whole hospital.

Pictures of Mercy Hospital circa 1898

The catastrophic injuries presented at Mercy Hospital in the early 1900s were consonant with life in an industrial city. Hospital staff treated victims of train and trolley car crashes, gas explosions, and industrial accidents. When the “J” furnace exploded at Edgar Thomson steel works in December 1904, Mercy Hospital helped heal the injured. Other traumas included gun shot victims, people injured in downtown fires and children bitten by rabid dogs.
Expanding the hospital’s facilities was a necessity. Sister M. Martina oversaw several major construction projects during her term as head of the hospital. The first was the completion of the east wing. Then came St. Anne’s Residence Hall for nurses and a free dispensary for out-patients. A new surgical annex with 14 out-patient clinics and six operating rooms was put in use in early 1907 as soon as it was completed. On average, six operations were being performed daily; on some days, that number was triple.
In 1906, Mercy Hospital had 38 Sisters of Mercy on staff and served 11,845 patients. More than half of them were treated for free. The average cost of in-patient care in 1906 at Mercy Hospital was $9.56 per week.

Picture of St. Xavier's Academy from the late 1800s and picture of Mercy Hospital from Locust Street circa 1918

In 1909, in accordance with the rules of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy which limited terms of sisters in superior positions to six years, Sister M. Martina was reassigned to take charge of St. Patrick’s School on 17th Street. After a year at that school, she became an instructor at St. Xavier’s Academy and Convent in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where she educated young girls in the Roman Catholic faith in addition to a standard school curriculum. She was superior of St. Xavier’s for three of her four years at that school, then was put in charge of Mercy House on Webster Avenue. When she died in 1921, she was sister superior of St. Mary’s Convent on 46th Street.
Sister Mary Martina opened a savings account at Dollar Bank in May 1897, in trust for Mercy Hospital.

Account signature of Sister M. Martina Byrne