By PAMELA HITCHINS
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
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
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
"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."
Information from: Vicksburg Post, http://www.vicksburgpost.com
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)