A Historical Narrative of Well of Mercy

by Mary John Dye, a guest and treasured friend

Before the land…before the road…before the buildings…before anything we enjoy today, the foundation of Well of Mercy was already laid. The Well of Mercy story begins with Scripture—Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. For two Sisters of Mercy, this text was more than inspiration. The story recounted in the Gospel of John 4 became a vocation that relocated their service to others in the place we now know as Well of Mercy in Northern Iredell County.

Sister Donna Marie Vaillancourt’s background is in psychology and theology and Sister Brigid McCarthy’s is in education and counseling. Both of them exercised their gifts as Sisters of Mercy in Belmont, NC. Donna led retreats and workshops and Brigid counseled individuals and groups. They kept encountering the recurring question …where can I take a spiritual and emotional break from the daily demands and expectations of my life? “Do you know any place I can go for temporary respite, for personal retreat and rest?”

Over and over again, they heard the need for people to move apart in order to pray, to be restored, to seek God’s guidance and receive God’s healing grace. And just as often, the same question faced them: “Do you know of a safe, supportive, spiritual, unstructured place where I can go?”

This question became a theme…a recurring, nagging theme that developed into a calling. By 1989, this theme drew Sister Donna and Sister Brigid into a time of discernment. They already knew that Jesus and their foundress, Catherine McAuley, provided the model of hospitality and love and they grew in a deeper awareness of the need for such a place for people they served. Was the question “Do you know any place I can go?” a call from God? Did God want the Sisters of Mercy to offer a place of hospitality, healing and renewal?

Brigid and Donna called for a meeting with others Sisters of Mercy and gathered one evening with eighteen sisters to open their hearts to communal discernment. From the youngest to the oldest, they received blessing and affirmation to explore this new direction.

Location was a first decision. The property search began. For a year and a half, they looked for land in the Charlotte and Gastonia areas because of their proximity to the Belmont home of the Sisters of Mercy. There was something not-quite-right about every potential piece of property…including adjacent property to the Belmont campus. The sense of calling was so real. The need was certainly there. The Sisters of Mercy were willing to purchase land but finding the right place was not so easy. They sensed they knew what God wanted for the people they would serve. But they couldn’t find it.

Early in June, 1991, Sister Donna and Sister Brigid were driving from Charlotte to Boone on I-77. When they got to the green, rolling hills north of Statesville, they were struck with the beauty of the area. “It is gorgeous up here,” they said. “But is this too far away?”. At just that point in the conversation, they passed Exit 65 on I-77. The exit sign reads: “Harmony/Union Grove”. And Brigid remarked, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have Well of Mercy in Harmony?”

They were so seized by the beauty of the area, that on their return trip, they drove through the back roads of Harmony, Houstonville and Union Grove. Donna wrote down the names and phone numbers of realtors selling land in the area.

Donna fully intended to call the realtors in as soon as they got back…but when the week started up, there was so much to do. She was just too busy to call on Monday, and then Tuesday and also on Wednesday. Most of the week had passed and she had not called a single realtor. On Thursday, Donna’s brother-in law called her. “Hey,” he said, “I think I found the land you’ve been wanting.”

Donna’s brother-in-law, a stockbroker in Charlotte at the time, had a client who needed to sell a piece of property and was going to put it on the market in one week. Donna asked her brother-in-law how much land he was going to sell. Bob told her 110 acres. Well, of course, Donna thought immediately that 110 acres was much more property than they needed. But before ending the conversation, she couldn’t resist asking, “Do you know the location of the property?” He replied, “The only thing I know is that it’s up I-77 somewhere off the Harmony/Union Grove exit.”

And she felt cold chills run through her. That was just too much of a coincidence to be chance. Two days later, June 8, 1991, Donna and Brigid visited the land. It was raw land, you understand. No roads, no development, no building – just raw land. But they felt the power of its beauty. They felt the holiness of the quiet. It was everything for which they had prayed. These Sisters believe that when a vision comes from God, God will provide. And that is how “the rest of the story” unfolds.

Donna and Brigid returned to their community and met with the leadership team of the Sisters of Mercy. They did their homework! They prepared their flip charts! They made their presentation and the Sisters of Mercy agreed to purchase the land. The deal was that: The Sisters of Mercy would buy the land but Brigid and Donna would have to raise the money for the buildings. Six years later, in 1997, when the Well of Mercy ministry was dedicated, Sister Pauline M. Clifford, President of the Sisters of Mercy, told the background of the leadership’s decision. She said they didn’t really think there would ever be a facility on the property, but they would purchase the land because “at least it would be a good investment.” They had no idea what a wonderful investment it would be! The hard groundwork for Well of Mercy was underway.

Donna and Brigid worked tirelessly raising money for this new ministry. They spoke of their hopes everywhere they went. Their appeal and their vision struck a chord in people. After a year and a half, they had raised approximately $750,000.00. “Everyone we spoke with affirmed the need for such a ministry,” Brigid said. But she and Donna were tired of fund-raising and ready to get on with their ministry. They wanted to start building.

Since they had raised $750,000, the Sisters of Mercy agreed to take out a loan for the rest of what would be needed. Donna and Brigid started the minute they received word that, “yes a loan would be secured”. An architect in Charlotte donated his services—and the first of many wonderful building relationships began.

The architect posed three questions to the sisters: “What is the purpose of the ministry? What will people need? What will be their relationship to you and what will be their relationship with each other?” Donna and Brigid knew what people were seeking. That had been known in their hearts for a long time: a safe, supportive, spiritual, hospitalable, place. They wanted buildings that would contribute to a person’s need for warmth and welcome. When the architect came back with the drawings, Donna and Brigid loved it the minute they saw it. Three lovely houses connected by a sweeping, Southern-style front porch.

That was just the beginning of many donations to come. All of the PVC and metal pipes were donated at no cost. They got the shingles at cost. “We had a deep sense of stewardship of the gifts people were giving,” Donna said. The landscaper parked on the hill and prayed over the property before touching anything. Donna and Brigid realized he wasn’t landscaping. He was God-scaping. The landscape engineers sited the drive, avoiding precious wildflowers and curved the road to give a sense of slowly winding one’s way into the space rather than a dull, fast-paced straight shot to the buildings.

The road is another story. Actually, everything is another story. Work on the road began December 14, 1992. Only ten days’ of work was completed before the winter rains started. They got one more day of work on February 14. They got back again at the end of March. It was a long process. Just because it was a vision from God and a calling didn’t mean it was easy. The serene, beautiful place we have today was shaped in a long series of trials of patient endurance and numerous setbacks. Donna and Brigid laugh now and say that, really, the name of the place should be Wells of Mercy because they had to drill 5 wells to get water! Looking back, there were a lot of things to discourage the Sisters. But they kept reminding themselves and each other that this was not their work. It was God’s work-and it would happen in God’s time and in the way God wanted it to evolve. This faith in their God continues to sustain and energize them.

Patches, their amazing dog and steadfast companion, joined them when she was six weeks old in May 1995. She came as a gift to Brigid and Donna through one of the talented carpenters working on the construction. She is a beautiful Australian Shepherd and Border Collie mix. Patches takes her ministerial role seriously. A second dog, named Rascal, joined Patches in 2003. Together they greet and nurture guests, accompanying them on walks, and guarding the property and the sisters. Often you might experience them as directors of the ministry rather than Donna or Brigid.

Donna and Brigid made a concerted effort to meet the people in their little rural community. They visited their neighbors, invited their families over and encouraged their questions. It was important to them that the people who had lived on and near the land for so long know their new neighbors and their mission. The words of a surprised but admiring neighbor said it all: “This is just about the last place I thought I’d find a woman.” It took him a while to understand that Brigid and Donna were not available women interested in marrying some country fella. Everybody turned into a friend except one man who visited the property when the electrical lines were being installed and removed his still. He was not impressed at all that something for the Lord was going to take place on the land. In July of 1995, two Park Model homes were trucked onto the property so Brigid and Donna could live here full time, supervise the building and establish themselves in their new rural community. Neighbors came by to get to know them and spread the word that they wanted to meet their neighbors. For four months, somebody came to visit every single day. Even people who lived 12 miles away introduced themselves as neighbors.

Well of Mercy was dedicated on June 8, 1997 and the ministry began the day after Labor Day, 1997. Detail after detail in the rooms and on the grounds had been intentionally, lovingly planned to provide, indeed, a place of hospitality for people who needed a sanctuary in their lives. The choice of colors, furniture, window treatments, food, supplies—everything points to the mission.

“HOSPITALITY” and “HEALING”. Well of Mercy intentionally developed a wide variety of outdoor settings for people to think and pray: prayer benches, sitting areas, hammocks on the porches and by the creek, a labyrinth and hot tub. From night lights and notebooks in the rooms to bug spray by the hammocks on the trail to lights for night walking of the labyrinth, everything is thoughtfully chosen to insure an atmosphere of healing and grace. They eagerly await the completion of The Chapel of Mercy in the woods above the cottages. They eagerly awaited the completion of The Chapel of Mercy in the woods above the cottages. The Chapel was dedicated on May 22, 2005.

Well of Mercy has resisted advertising. It is not a conference center. It is not a bed and breakfast. It is not a clinical facility. It is exactly what the Sister Donna and Sister Brigid felt God was calling them to create: a space where people can come and be accepted, a place where mercy and hospitality is extended. Well of Mercy is a place where adults working through grief, loss, transitions, fatigue, recovery or desiring some private time with God can find a healing presence. Well of Mercy has extended its offerings to include Massage Therapy, Spiritual Direction, Healing Touch and Reiki as options for guests.

The story is as inspiring and remarkable as the place itself: a testimony of faithfulness, of God’s provisions and sustaining grace. Well of Mercy is an incarnation of God’s love. May this story—along with the many other touches of grace at Well of Mercy—enrich your experience here.

Written in heartfelt gratitude and admiration for Sister Donna, Sister Brigid, the Sisters of Mercy and all who grace and serve at Well of Mercy.