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Mercy mural brings flood of memories

Joan Hennessey Koestler, right, visits with her first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Cyrena Harkins, Saturday.(Jenny Sevcik The Vicksburg Post)

[1/18/04]When Joan Hennessey Koestler looked into the eyes of her first-grade teacher, Sister Cyrena Harkins, for the first time in more than 10 years Saturday, memories galore came rushing back.

“I can’t believe I saw her,” said Koestler, who graduated from St. Francis Xavier Academy in 1951. “It’s so great to see all the sisters after so long. They look just how I remember them. My grandson is now a sixth-generation student in Vicksburg Catholic Schools. The sisters have touched so many people,” she said.

Koestler and Sister Cyrena were among nearly 400 people who gathered in the auditorium of the Southern Cultural Heritage Complex to celebrate the unveiling of The Sisters of Mercy mural as the seventh panel of the Riverfront Mural Project in downtown Vicksburg. Painted by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford and his staff, the mural has three scenes, each depicting the sisters’ work in Vicksburg.

The first is of the sisters nursing Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War with the Cobb House in the background. The Cobb House is the oldest and smallest building in the complex that takes a city block in downtown Vicksburg.

The second scene is of nurses being taught by the sisters with three hospitals in the background.

The third scene is of the sisters teaching school children with the convent in the background.

Though rain spoiled the unveiling of the actual mural at City Front, it didn’t dampen the spirits of those who visited the former school and convent to share memories and appreciation of the Sisters of Mercy.

Sister Cyrena began teaching first grade at St. Francis in 1936 and then moved to Jackson in 1953 to serve as the first principal of St. Richard’s Academy. She then worked with the Diocese of Jackson’s Department of Educational Services, specializing in children with learning disabilities.

“I’ve always loved working with children, and St. Francis was my first teaching experience,” the 87-year-old nun said. “It’s wonderful to be back and see the spirit of Mercy still at work in Vicksburg. The sisters truly deserve the recognition from this mural, but so does the city of Vicksburg. The spirit of Jesus is so evident here.”

Sister Cyrena wasn’t the only member of her religious order with fond memories of Vicksburg and the time she spent here.

Sister Mary Claver moved home to New Orleans from Vicksburg in 1999 as the last group of sisters left McAuley Home. On Saturday, she said she could think of no better way to spend her 80th birthday than surrounded by old friends she met in Vicksburg.

“It’s so great to be back here,” said Sister Claver, who spent three years teaching at St. Francis and 23 years working at Mercy Hospital.

“I was so sad to leave this town, but it was nice to go back home, too,” she said.

The order of Roman Catholic nuns established a Sisters of Mercy convent in Vicksburg in 1860 and opened the city’s first Catholic school, St. Francis. The school closed during the Civil War while the sisters worked as nurses to help sick and wounded soldiers. It reopened as a school after the war and, through today, evolved into Vicksburg Catholic School. The sisters also owned and operated Mercy Regional Medical Center from the 1950s until it was sold in 1992.

Shelley Nosser has taught fourth grade at St. Francis for 25 years and remembers learning from the sisters when she first began her teaching career.

“I taught with them during my first years and most of their last years,” she said. “Some of them I haven’t seen in over 20 years. I didn’t go to Catholic school, but I wish I would have. The Sisters of Mercy have been such a cornerstone in this community,” Nosser said.

Sherry Grimsley of Olive Branch remembers two sisters in particular.

“I went to St. Joseph Academy in Jackson and Sister Paulinus and Sister Mary Matthew taught me,” said Grimsley. “I remember it like it was yesterday, and it is so good to see them again,” she said.

As part of the unveiling ceremony, Sister Mary Paulinus Oakes, former principal of St. Francis, dressed in a traditional Sisters of Mercy habit, circa 1840.

“We wore these until 1960 when the church made major changes,” she said. “It’s definitely something to get used to,” she said, laughing as she made 180-degree turns to avoid the blind spots caused by her habit. “The turnout here today is great, but I’m not surprised to see such a big group to celebrate Vicksburg’s distinctive history,” Sister Paulinus said.

After moving most of their members out of Vicksburg, the Sisters of Mercy funded and opened the Mercy Delta Express, a 41-foot state-of-the-art medical and dental bus, in the Mississippi Delta. Donated to the University Medical Center School of Nursing, the bus is a collaborative project with local sisters.

It was in Vicksburg Saturday, open for tours.

Sister Patricia Parker, a retired Vicksburg nurse who along with Sister Robyn Huser came up with the idea for the bus, said she was happy with the interest shown in the mural and the clinic on wheels.

“It’s so exciting to see how well this event turned out even in the rain,” she said.

The mural project began in 2002, and The Sisters of Mercy mural marked the halfway point of phase 1. Phase 2 is scheduled to begin in 2006, and the finished project will be 35 murals at City Front on Levee Street.

To date, all 12-by-20-foot murals have been privately funded at $15,000 each.

Murals already on display at City Front are the introductory panel describing the purpose of the project, Teddy Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt, Biedenharn Coca-Cola bottling, steamboats on the Mississippi River, Washington Street at the turn of the century and early exploration and Fort Nogales.

Future murals will honor African Americans, trains and the ferry in Vicksburg, Jefferson Davis and the flood of 1927.