169-year-old building is brought back to life

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 18, 2004

Members of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation are dressed in period costume Sunday during the opening of the Cobb House. (Brian LodenThe Vicksburg Post)

[10/18/04]In June 1861, Vicksburg’s mayor, other local officials, Roman Catholic priests and children gathered on the grounds for the city’s first Sisters of Mercy graduation ceremony.

The scene was much the same Sunday as about 150 people gathered on the same grounds, now the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation complex, for the ceremony that celebrated the restoration of the Cobb House.

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“It was a re-enactment without anyone realizing it,” said SCHF director Glenda LaGarde, after the ribbon-cutting ceremony that formally reopened the 169-year-old home after exterior and interior work to restore it to its 1835 look.

Originally owned by Minerva and Williams Mills, the house was sold to Olive and Sarah Cobb in 1836.

The Sisters of Mercy bought it in 1859 and moved in on Oct. 19, 1860, when it was blessed and named St. Catherine’s. During the sisters’ ownership, the building was used as a convent, a hospital, a kindergarten and for classrooms. The Cobb House was part of five buildings that made up the St. Francis Xavier Academy and Convent.

Visitors marveled Sunday at the restored interior that featured donated period furniture, a scrapbook from about 1870 that held Vicksburg’s news and other antique items.

“It’s just absolutely beautiful,” said Pat Reynolds, a 1947 graduate of St. Francis Xavier Academy. “They’ve done a lovely job.”

The work, which included brickwork, framework, replacing and replicating moldings, walls and ceiling medallions and adding replicated mantels, was funded through grants from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the City of Vicksburg and Warren County.

The building will be used for tours and small-scale education and social events.

Many attending Sunday’s activities graduated from, attended or taught at the school.

“This place means so much to me,” said Ann Mahoney, who graduated in 1940. “For 12 years I walked back and forth across these grounds.”

Sisters of Mercy also returned to the grounds for a glimpse of the restored building and remembered sleeping on the top floor during the summer when they first entered the sisterhood.

“Someone told us that Union soldiers had slept up there, and I said, They must have slept on the same cots, too, because they’re horrible,” recalled Sister Marion Mordica, who was principal at St. Francis for a year.

“It was hot, and the cots were uncomfortable, but we managed,” said Sister Mary Clarissa Rose, a teacher at Vicksburg Catholic schools for three years.

St. Francis’ junior high and high schools moved to Clay Street in the late 1960s, when the sisters took over St. Aloysius High School, formerly operated by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart.

Elementary grades continued to have classes at the Crawford Street buildings.

Then, in 1991, all the Catholic school students attended classes on Hayes and Grove streets, at St. Al and a newly constructed building for elementary students. In 1994, the City of Vicksburg purchased the old complex, bounded by Crawford, Cherry, Clay and Adams streets.

Ownership of the complex was given to the foundation in 2001.

Nancy Bell, president of the foundation’s Board of Directors, called the Cobb House the centerpiece for a restoration effort for the entire complex.

“One down and four to go,” she said, noting that the next step is to restore what is called the academy building, built in 1937. That building, facing Clay and Cherry streets, formerly housed elementary classrooms.