With songs from sisters throughout the globe, ambitious collaboration project has withstood the test of time

DETROIT — The Sisters of Mercy can sing. And in 1992, Sr. Dolores Nieratka, RSM, set out to prove it to the world.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the production of “Circle of Mercy,” a 14-song album that has steadily grown in significance. Its songs are sung today by Sisters of Mercy all over the world, according to Sr. Brigid Johnson, RSM, in Detroit.

In 1972, Sr. Nieratka, also in Detroit, came up with the idea for the album, and with her good friend and roommate Sr. Johnson, they turned it into a musical and spiritual project still resonating around the world. Sr. Nieratka died of viral pneumonia the year after the album was produced, at age 46, leaving the story for Sr. Johnson to tell.

Sr. Johnson holds a copy of the album's songbook along with a photograph of Sr. Dolores Nieratka, RSM, who died the year after “Circle of Mercy" was produced. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

At the time, Sr. Johnson was a math teacher. She explains that although she has planned liturgies for Sisters of Mercy events in Detroit for 50 years, she and Sr. Neiratka “both did music, but not full time.” 

Sr. Nieratka served as professor of psychology at Mercy College of Detroit, later the University of Detroit Mercy. But she loved music and composing music, and she played guitar. By the time “Circle of Mercy” was produced, she had already composed and produced three albums.

In 1992, Sr. Nieratka spent months writing letters, inviting the international Sisters of Mercy community to send lyrics, poems, music scores, and samples of recorded music from any “sisters with songs.”

Sr. Nieratka received 40 songs; she needed 14. A committee narrowed them down to the 14 recorded on the album, but all 40 submissions are in the accompanying songbook.

Sr. Nieratka also asked communities to co-sponsor the production in return for copies of the album and songbook. Many communities agreed and contributed $1,000; others sent $500 each; and many sisters and associates submitted music or poems. Recording began in early 1994 and was finished in time for the formal dedication of the Mercy International Center that summer.  

Sr. Dolores Nieratka, RSM, plays guitar as Gary Leach plays bass during a recording session for “Circle of Mercy” in the early 1990s. (Courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy)

The $15,000 projected cost of the recording was more than covered by donations, which paid for studio time, musicians, singers and postage. Six weeks later, they had produced “Circle of Mercy.”

One of the fascinating features of the album, Sr. Johnson said, is the international flavor of its title track. Building on the worldwide presence of the Sisters of Mercy, a thousand voices from nine contributing countries were later overdubbed to the music recorded in Detroit — from Argentina, Australia, Belize, Chile, Guam, Guatemala, Ireland, Panama and the United States. 

“Through the modern miracles of multi-track recording and the worldwide postal system, sisters from all over the world joined together in singing 'Circle of Mercy,'” Sr. Nieratka wrote.

The music itself sounds clean and modern, without the orchestral over-production of many contemporary albums. Clear, pretty vocals with fitting messages of forgiveness and mercy are the order of the day. Tasteful piano accompaniment, walking bass lines, complementary percussion and restrained strings beautifully underlay the compositions.

When asked what was most difficult, Sr, Johnson doesn't hesitate.

“Nothing,” she said. “It was exciting. Perhaps choosing the 14 (to be on the album.) That was hard.” 

And the most fun? 

Sr. Brigid Johnson holds a copy of the album “Circle of Mercy,” a collaboration of songs written, sung and recorded by Sisters of Mercy from across the globe 25 years ago. (Valaurian Waller | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“Knowing it’s coming from people all over the world,” Sr. Johnson said, laughing. “Getting phone calls from all over the world. We didn’t have cellphones. (It was great) talking to wonderful people with the most wonderful accents. We didn’t have that much back then. That was fun, involving sisters from around the world.”

Sr. Johnson said she still listens to Circle of Mercy, which inspires her.

“I use it ('Circle of Mercy' music) quite often; I also use a lot of Dolores’s music from her other three albums,” Sr. Johnson said.

“Dolores also gave us ‘Celebration,’ which we use when celebrating sisters’ jubilees,” Sr. Johnson said. “Also ‘Suscipe’ of Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy. Spiritually, the songs are just very important, which is why they are chosen by our sisters. ... We have many schools and hospitals across the world, all with ‘Mercy’ in the title, so ‘Circle of Mercy’ has become very popular. If the songs didn’t touch them, why would they choose them?”

Sr. Nieratka wanted 'Circle of Mercy' to coincide with the 1994 dedication of the restored Mercy International Center in Dublin, Ireland, originally built by founder Catherine McCauley in 1831, using the inheritance from her foster parents. Then known as the “House of Mercy,” it took in girls and women in need.

Originally, cassette tapes were distributed, then CDs, from their shared apartment. Profits are sent to Mercy International Center. Sr. Johnson receives about 10 orders a year.

Listen to 'Circle of Mercy'

A sample of the music available on “Circle of Mercy” can be heard here. To inquire about ordering a copy, click here.