The joyous laughter of Sister Mary Louise Ajuria fills the country store at Our Lady of Mercy Country Home in Liberty.
Residents at the retirement home and assisted living center shop there for the supplies that dot the shelves. Ajuria makes sure to include personal items, some clothing, cards, treats and little decorative items.
“I sell whatever you see,” Ajuria said. “Most of it is personal things, but I have some other things.”
Ajuria stays busy. She crochets. She talks. She serves.
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Don’t even ask her about retiring.
She promised to give her life, if called, and she is doing that.
“If God’s willing and people are willing, I will do all I can do until the last moment,” Ajuria said.
The 94-year-old sister is celebrating. It has been 70 years since Ajuria and five other Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz, Spain, stepped off a boat in New York and headed for Kansas City to start a mission.
Today, the Our Lady of Mercy Country Home in Liberty serves up to 120 residents in retirement apartments and assisted living. The sisters, who own the home, have marked the start of their 70th year of service in the Kansas City area. Nine sisters now are part of a larger team of professionals who are trained in caring for the elderly.
The sisters have provided dignified care for thousands of elderly patients over the years, and offered scores of members of their order the chance to learn English. They have expanded their Spain-based mission to five continents during those seven decades. In the United States, their private, nonprofit Catholic retirement home serves people of all faiths.
The current administrator of the home, Debbie Trimmer, says she and the other staff members in Liberty work hard to uphold the standard set by the sisters at the original home at Ninth and Harrison streets in Kansas City — to provide care with dignity.
“Our people come here and aren’t just treated as a body,” Trimmer said. “We meet their individual needs. We try to do it in a dignified manner to make this last part of their life better and enriched.”
The Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz were a cloistered order for 700 years in Spain. They took the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They also took a fourth vow to lay down their life if called. In the 1920s, under the direction of Mother Margarita Maria, they transformed into a missionary order. Currently, about 400 Mercedarian sisters serve around the world.
The sisters say the work they are doing today in Liberty began with a promise made by a priest in the middle of a war halfway around the world.
The Kansas City story of the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz started in the summer of 1945 in the thick of World War II. Arthur Tighe, a priest from Kansas City, was serving as an Army chaplain on the island of Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, now a U.S. commonwealth.
Tighe, who was later to become a monsignor, had arrived with American troops in the June 1944 invasion that took the island from the Japanese.
He had been surprised to find any Catholics on the island at all. He discovered several Mercedarian sisters who had been serving on mission from Spain. They were hungry, dirty and without proper shelter. One had been killed in the attack.
Tighe helped the nuns during his time in Saipan. Though there was a language barrier, as the sisters spoke Spanish and Tighe spoke only English, the priest befriended the group. One evening, about a year after his arrival, the sisters asked him to write a promise in a Spanish-English dictionary that he would find them a way to come to the United States after the war.
They wanted to learn English and become American citizens so they could continue their mission work in Micronesia, part of which came under U.S. control at the war’s end. Tighe said he would, on the condition that they would pray for him and the soldiers to be sent home by Christmas.
Two months later, the long war ended in the Pacific. Tighe found himself back in Kansas City at Christmas, having dinner with friends, but he had forgotten all about the promise and gone back to his stateside work.
The sisters had not forgotten.
Several months later, Father Tighe was serving as an Army chaplain stationed in Florida. He got a phone call from two Mercedarian sisters who had traveled from Spain to New York with the intention of looking him up and finding out where exactly he planned to help them find a home.
Tighe did not have a plan, but called his bishop in Kansas City for help. Archbishop Edwin Vincent O’Hara welcomed the nuns and offered them the old Grace Hospital building at Ninth and Harrison streets to remodel as a home for the elderly. Although their mission had been teaching, Sister Linda Teegarden explains they were willing to take on any task.
“Being a missionary, you do whatever is needed,” Teegarden said.
The sisters accepted the challenge as another way of living out their mission to help marginalized people. It would give them an income to support themselves, serve a purpose in the diocese and offer them the opportunity to have a home base for teaching English to their fellow missionary nuns from around the world.
In September 1946, six sisters, including Ajuria, arrived on American soil to start that mission.
Community members helped the sisters renovate the old hospital into Our Lady of Mercy Home for the elderly, which opened in Kansas City in 1947.
The order expanded to Liberty in the mid-1960s with a formation house, which was later converted and remains a part of the current retirement facility. The sisters operated the Ninth and Harrison site in Kansas City until 1991, when they sold the building to ReStart, an organization that helps the homeless.
Teegarden explains they were selective about whom they chose to take over the location.
“Our goal was to sell it to an organization that would have a mission of helping people,” Teegarden said.
Teegarden and Sister Sandra Thibodeaux are two of the nine sisters who now live near the convent and help run the Our Lady of Mercy Country Home.
Thibodeaux grew up in Texas. She felt a call to the religious life and looked at several orders but was drawn to the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz because of their work around the world and their dedication to serving the poor.
“I feel these sisters started with nothing,” Thibodeaux said. “We are on the shoulders of some giants who took a chance and came here. They didn’t know anything. They didn’t know the language. They didn’t know the customs, and look at what they have done.”
Over the last 70 years, the sisters have spread their mission to five continents. The Kansas City community served, and continues to serve, as an important base for this expansion, teaching English to the missionary sisters. Over the years, nuns and those working to become nuns came from many parts of the globe — including Micronesia, Taiwan, South America and Mexico — to learn English, which was the primary purpose of the mission.
The facility is unique for the sisters, who have missions all over the world. The Liberty location is the only place they serve the elderly.
The facility offers two levels of care; residential care and assisted living. About 40 percent of the residents are Catholic. Everyone can come and go as they please. Each resident has a private room.
“I have a lot of people tell me it’s like home. It does not feel like an institution,” Trimmer said.
“Having the sisters involved here, for even our non-Catholic residents, is a comfort. The sisters are so good to all of them. They are really vested in all of the residents and they do a good job of helping me keep this place running the way it should be.”
Although the mission has changed over time, it still serves the purpose to help sisters have a base to teach English.
“Through prayer and with the help of the community, they were able to do this, and we feel that’s going to continue,” Thibodeaux said. “Life changes and we will change. We are at peace. God has brought us this far.”
In the country store. Ajuria explains that her mission, in whatever form it takes, has always been about helping people.
“The Lord talked to me and told me to help people,” Ajuria said. “That is goodness. What other reason are we here for?”
Our Lady of Mercy Country Home
2115 Maturana Drive, Liberty