Father William Dalton had some concerns about the souls of his rough-and-tumble fellow Irishmen settled in the wild, gold-riddled foothills of Grass Valley. It was time to call in the sisters.
The California Gold Rush was prosperous but dangerous, and Grass Valley was the very heart of the adventure. Eager settlers came to the hard-to-reach boomtown in droves to chase fortune, but mines and mining settlements are dangerous places and gold can drive previously upstanding men to murder. It was no surprise that as quickly as the town filled with fortune seekers, it also filled with orphans.
As the town grew and the homeless children multiplied, Father Dalton sent word back to County Cork in Ireland that he desperately needed Sisters to operate an orphanage in the wild western free-for-all that was Northern California. Mother Mary Baptist Russell selected five Sisters of Mercy to accompany her, and in 1866 Mount St. Mary’s opened its doors to its first small charges. The first orphanage to serve the Northern mines, it housed homeless children from 1866 to 1932, becoming an academy in 1868, and served as a convent as well until 1968.
The school still operates as a private Catholic school for Grass Valley residents. It sits on the corner of Church and Chapel opposite the corner occupied by Old St. Patrick’s Cemetery. The building that used to serve as the orphanage is now home to the Grass Valley Museum. A modest door on the second floor opens up into spacious rooms filled with artifacts, photos and histories of the Sisters of Mercy and the town they traveled across the sea to care for.