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Vicksburg

Historic convent to undergo repairs

By PAMELA HITCHINS

Vicksburg Post

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) - Vicksburg's historic 1868 Sisters of

Mercy convent will get structural repairs, thanks to an endowment

fund set up by the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation, which

owns and maintains the landmark.

A $5,000 donation received from the family of Mother Mary

Clementine Phelan, former mother superior at the convent and

longtime St. Francis Xavier Academy teacher, provided the startup

funds for the endowment.

Mother Clementine, a Vicksburg native, went to school at St.

Francis, entered the Sisters of Mercy in her hometown and

eventually became the mother superior, in charge of the spiritual

and educational training of the sisters. Her nieces, Edna Henry

Hosemann and the late Elizabeth Nelson, and Hosemann's niece

Patricia Dichter, made the donation to honor Mother Clementine and

the Sisters of Mercy.

"She meant so much to me and my life," Hosemann said. "I

wanted to start this for her. I know that there are many people in

Vicksburg who are interested in St. Francis and would like to see

the building cared for."

Annette Kirklin, director of SCHF, was pleased to get the

donation and said endowment uses will be limited to costs

associated with the maintenance and rehabilitation of the convent

building.

The most pressing structural need is the reglazing of the 19

ground-floor windows, Kirklin said. As the wood frames and sashes

are repaired or replaced as needed, the old glass panes will be

retained and continue in use, she said. With each window costing

about $300 to refurbish, the initial donation will just about cover

the total cost.

Kirklin hopes for additional donations to the endowment to make

necessary roof and gutter repairs and for other structural needs.

"These structural restorations are the most important for us to

start with, to keep the building in good shape," she said. There

are no other immediate plans for the convent besides repair.

Sister Mary Paulinus Oakes, a native and a historian and teacher

who authored the book, "Angels of Mercy: An Eyewitness Account of

the Civil War and Yellow Fever," attended St. Francis and was

later principal for a number of years.

In "Angels of Mercy" she wrote, "There was an aura about the

buildings themselves, the school and convent, a sacred history so

to speak. Over 200 (women entered the convent and became) Sisters

of Mercy in the chapel, taking their vows of service to the poor,

sick and uneducated."

The chapel, first-floor parlors and second-floor recreation room

of the convent were leased to Holy Cross Anglican Church several

years ago, Kirklin said, and the congregation has restored and made

many improvements to the chapel and other rooms.

"Our restoration work should not interrupt their church

services and activities," she added. "In fact, it will enhance

them when they're finished."

The remaining areas of the convent, including upstairs

dormitories and basement kitchen and dining room, have been unused

and vacant for many years.

The Sisters of Mercy moved to a new convent when the school

moved east on Clay Street in 1991. In 1994, the city bought the

convent and the other four buildings in the complex and deeded them

over to SCHF in 2001. The five buildings cover an entire city block

in downtown Vicksburg and include the Cobb House, built around

1830; the convent (1868); the auditorium (1885); the academy

(1937); and the O'Beirne Gymnasium (1955).

Mother Clementine was born in Vicksburg on Sept. 17, 1878, the

oldest of six children born to James and Elizabeth O'Donnell

Phelan. She attended St. Francis, graduating in 1895, Hosemann

said.

She entered the convent in May 1900, taking her final vows in

December 1902. As a teacher she worked with elementary as well as

high school students and taught music at St. Francis and at

Catholic schools in Jackson, Greenville, Hattiesburg, McComb, and

Biloxi and in Lake Providence, La. She returned to the Vicksburg

convent in 1914, serving as novice mistress until 1920, when she

became the mother superior.

Sister Jeremy Buckman, archivist emeritus with the Sisters of

Mercy in St. Louis, Mo., said many Sisters of Mercy joined r

nationwide and organized into nine provinces in 1939. The Vicksburg

convent became part of the St. Louis province, and Mother

Clementine left Vicksburg for a position on the provincial council

there.

"She was a real outstanding person," Sister Paulinus said.

"When the seven states went together we got a person from each

state to take on leadership. Mother Clementine was elected from

Mississippi to go to St. Louis."

She served on the provincial council for 12 years, according to

Sister Jeremy, returning to Vicksburg in 1942 and actively working

at St. Francis until her death in 1958.

Though construction on the academy building was completed while

Mother Clementine was in St. Louis, Kirklin said she was

instrumental in raising the funds to get it built. She was devoted

to the school and to the cause of higher education and superior

teacher training for the sisters who taught there.

Hosemann said she attended St. Francis Xavier Academy when

Mother Clementine was the Mother Superior at the convent.

"We all called her Aunt Annie. I knew her well when I was in

school. She instrumental in helping me get into nursing school, a

big influence in my life."

Mother Clementine loved jelly beans, Hosemann said, even though

she was diabetic. On occasion when she had to go to the hospital,

she would be put back on a strict diabetic diet which she would

good-naturedly complain about.

Sister Paulinus said that as a student at St. Francis during

Mother Clementine's later years at the convent, she once set off a

firecracker in the alley near the convent.

"Somebody put the fear of God into me that Mother Clementine

was going to catch me," she said. "I think she did know who did

it, but she never did get me. She really wasn't a scary person, she

was very nice, a very genial soul."

The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Dublin, Ireland in 1831 by

Catherine McAuley. They came to Vicksburg in 1860, setting up the

first convent in Mississippi here, and later the school, considered

by some to have been one of the most influential in the state.

"The school was started in the old Cobb House," Sister

Paulinus said. "In those days everybody went there, even the

Jewish kids. It's why St. Francis always flourished, because people

wanted a good education for their children."

Restoration of the 1830 Cobb House was completed in 2005, said

to Kirklin, and it has been named an affiliate of the Mississippi

Museum of Art.

"So many people hold this place to heart, it's great that we'll

be able to keep the building in good shape."

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Information from: Vicksburg Post, http://www.vicksburgpost.com

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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