Russell, Mary Baptist (Katherine, Kate) (1829–98), nun, philanthropist, and educator, was born 18 April 1829 at Seafield, Ballybot, Newry, Co. Down, the third daughter and third child among the six children of Arthur Russell, ship's captain turned brewer, and his wife, Margaret (formerly Hamill; née Mullan), who also had six children from her first marriage. Of her two brothers, the elder, Charles Russell (qv), was the first catholic to be lord chief justice of England since the Reformation; he held the title Baron Russell of Killowen. The younger, Matthew Russell (qv), a Jesuit and writer, founded the Irish Monthly. Russell's two sisters, Lily (Sister Mary Aquin) and Sarah (Mother Mary Emmanuel), followed her into the Mercy Order. The writer Rosa Mulholland (qv) was related by marriage.
Russell attended private schools in Newry and was tutored by a governess. Impressed with the Kinsale mission to those suffering from famine, she entered the Mercy Convent in Kinsale, Co. Cork, on 24 November 1848, and was professed on 2 August 1851. When Archbishop Joseph Alemany, OP, of San Francisco asked for Irish nuns to come to California, Russell and eight others left Kinsale for San Francisco in 1854. Despite having recently left the novitiate, she was selected to be mother superior of the new mission foundation by her superior, Mother Mary Francis Bridgeman (qv), who recognised that she had vision as well as business sense. It was a position she held, with only the required constitutional breaks, throughout her life.
The group arrived in San Francisco aboard the Cortes on 8 December 1854, established themselves at their San Francisco convent on 2 January 1855, and began immediately to work, visiting the sick and poor of the city, which had grown from a population of 1,000 to 250,000 during the gold rush. When they offered their services as nurses to the county's State Marine Hospital in April, the officials turned down the catholic women, but when the Asiatic cholera arrived aboard the ship Uncle Sam in September, the sisters’ services were now welcome. As she had done as a novice in 1849, Russell nursed cholera victims for the next six months.
When the State Marine Hospital was offered for sale later in the summer, Russell borrowed the money to take over the hospital to care for the sick poor. But the Know Nothing Party came into office and attacked the sisters, charging, among other things, that their hospital chapel was a violation of the separation of church and state. Russell terminated her relationship with the county and established St Mary's Hospital, California's first catholic hospital, on the site of the State Marine Hospital. She later raised the money to replace St Mary's with a hospital that opened in 1861 on the city's Rincon Hill. When smallpox swept the city in 1868, the Mercy sisters heroically nursed the sick; it was an epidemic that took the lives of some of the Mercy community.
Their hospital established, Russell turned to other branches of the Mercy mission, which included a shelter for unemployed women (1855), a Magdalen asylum for 200 on Potrero Avenue (1861), and a home for the aged and the infirm, adjoining St Mary's Hospital (1872). The sisters visited prisoners, including the death row inmates at San Quentin (1871). Russell wrote back to Kinsale, saying that it was ‘when death is at hand that you see the beauty of faith’.
Russell and Mary De Sales Redden visited Sacramento twice, in April and July 1857, to consider expanding their California mission. The second trip was fatal to Mary De Sales. In October 1857, five Mercy sisters founded the Sacramento mission, which was plagued in its early years by floods, and had insufficient numbers of sisters trained to teach. In 1863 Russell established a second foundation at Grass Valley.
Since schools were central to the Mercy Rule of Order, Russell was also in the vanguard of catholic education in San Francisco. She always resisted opening day- or boarding-schools for the better off, though the Irish Mercy sisters had done so. She maintained they violated the Mercy Rule: ‘the first objective to which the religious of this order are solemnly devoted is the education of the rich and poor, young and old, without distinction of country or creed.’ Within two months of their arrival, on 2 February 1855, the sisters opened a night school for adults, and from its inception St Mary's Hospital offered religious education classes. During the early 1870s they opened two primary schools, one for boys and one for girls, and an industrial school for girls was set up in 1869. On Russell's initiative a meeting of catholic schoolteachers in the San Francisco diocese was held in 1894, the first of its kind in the USA.
Russell returned to Ireland only once, in 1878, to recruit additional sisters for the San Francisco mission. The only other time that she saw a family member was when her brother Charles visited her briefly in September 1883. (Charles pressed their brother Matthew to write Russell's life.) In 1891 she began to experience the first of a series of small strokes that became progressively more debilitating. She died 6 August 1898 of ‘clogging of the arteries of the brain’ at St Mary's Hospital, aged sixty-nine. Her death was a city-wide event, with crowds gathering at St Mary's and at the nearby St Michael's cemetery where she was buried. The San Francisco Bulletin remembered her as the ‘best-known charitable worker on the Pacific coast’ (6 August 1898).
The first of the two extant undated photographs of Russell in her Mercy habit shows a woman of middle years with a broad forehead, a steady gaze, and a full mouth. In the later photograph her eyes are deep-set; her mouth is a firm line, and she holds a pair of spectacles in her left hand. Her papers are in the Archives of the Sisters of Mercy, Burlingame Regional Community, California, and she sent her collection of natural history specimens to St Joseph Academy in Sacramento.