The Tapestry of Mercy|City native’s book chronicles sisters’ roles in Vicksburg, region

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 30, 2009

If a tapestry were designed to depict all the good works performed by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy since arriving in Vicksburg in 1860, it likely would include scenes of the sisters taking care of the sick and wounded, teaching school children and nurses-in-training, offering food and carrying out the exhortation of Christ in Matthew chapter 25, verse 40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

If you go

Former St. Francis Xavier Academy principal and Vicksburg native Sister Mary Paulinus Oakes, R.S.M., will sign copies of “The Tapestry of Mercy: The History of the St. Louis Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas,” at St. Aloysius High School, 1900 Grove St., at 6 p.m. Sept. 21. Copies of the book will be available for $25.

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Some of these scenes are painted on the Sisters of Mercy mural at the floodwall on Levee Street — which includes, at the sisters’ insistence, that scripture reference.

Some of the scenes are simply part of the city’s architecture — the former St. Francis Xavier Academy buildings and the convent that now house the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation, or the former Mercy Hospital-McAuley Retirement Home complex on Grove Street.

Now a new book, “The Tapestry of Mercy,” documents the history of the sisters in Vicksburg and all of Mississippi and six other states that made up the St. Louis province of the order — Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma.

Subtitled “The History of the St. Louis Regional Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas,” the book was compiled and edited over four years by city native and former Vicksburg Catholic school principal and historian Sister Mary Paulinus Oakes, R.S.M. She was assisted by many sisters, historians and archivists.

Sister Paulinus also was the primary writer of the Vicksburg section of the book, and contributed to the Oklahoma and Texas histories.

“It’s a landmark,” said Glenda LaGarde, Mercy historian and Hinds Community College English teacher. “For Vicksburg especially, (since) during the last decade they have come to appreciate much more the contributions of the sisters, across the faith.”

Every one of those sisters, whether assigned to Vicksburg or another area of the St. Louis community, has been listed in the book. It’s a record of more than 1,700 sisters who served in the order from 1851 to 2008.

Included are birthplaces and dates and, for those sisters who have died, date of death and place of burial. If a sister withdrew from the order, that is also noted.

“The Tapestry of Mercy” gives Vicksburg a prominent place in the chapter on Mississippi. More than 30 pages are given over to the state, and the chapter begins and ends with Vicksburg, as “Sister DeSales Brown and her group of intrepid companions traveled on the missionary adventure of a lifetime” down the Mississippi to bring the Gospel and found a school.

LaGarde also had a hand in the book, editing and correcting.

It’s a major contribution to the understanding not simply of what the Sisters of Mercy did in each place where they had a presence but of the remarkable nature of the sisters themselves, she said. Highly educated and dedicated to serving the poor, sick, uneducated and dispossessed, the women were hard workers capable of extreme self-sacrifice.

“If there was a need, the bishop would approve their going to a place,” Sister Paulinus said. Once there, that need might change, as happened in Vicksburg when the sisters came to be teachers, only to turn their attention to nursing during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, for example. “What was so interesting was that the sisters went all over.”

“This was an early example of networking,” LaGarde said of the order. “They were doing it in the days of the horse and buggy, on into the 20th and now the 21st century.”

The order of the Sisters of Mercy was established in Ireland in 1831 by Catherine McAuley. Within a few years of her death in 1841, groups of sisters had founded centers in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Newfoundland. One group traveled directly from Ireland to Arkansas, Sister Paulinus said, but others came to the South from centers in Baltimore or New York.

Sister Paulinus spent a month each year over the past several years at the order’s former center in St. Louis, immersing herself in its archives. In some cases, preliminary state histories had to be compiled, but many had excellent documents and records.

“I loved the Oklahoma section, the whole Indian history,” she said. The section details years of the sisters’ involvement with educating and evangelizing Native Americans from the later 19th century onward. “Our Choctaw Indians had been moved to Oklahoma. It was fascinating.”

The St. Louis regional community was organized in 1929, and some of the Vicksburg sisters, including Sister Clementine and Sister Hildegarde, served in leadership positions there.

With the most recent consolidation of the order in 2008, Mississippi’s Sisters of Mercy are now part of the South Central Community that comprises 18 states, Guam and Jamaica. Leadership offices are in Belmont, N.C.

Charles Riles, the owner of Riles Funeral Home and a lifetime friend of the sisters who has compiled extensive historical files, letters, documents and photographs of them, calls the history exceptional.

“They knew that the St. Louis province would be merged into this new organization,” Riles said. “It was important to the Sisters of Mercy and to Sister Paulinus to record the history of each place. It is actually a cross between a history of the St. Louis province and a history of some of the sisters that served in it so well.”

The tenacious and hard-working traits of the early sisters have also been evident in the modern times. Sister Mary Fatima Starks, a retired Vicksurg nun was principal at St. Francis for four years in the 1980s and continues to volunteer in the school’s computer lab. She said that when St. Francis closed its doors at the old building, where the cultural center is now, to open the new school on Hayes Street, the nuns — with the help of staff and parents — moved the whole school over Christmas vacation.

“When the students returned after the holidays they were in their new building and classes resumed as if nothing had happened,” Sister Fatima said.

“It was a wonderful era,” said Riles. “You’d see the sisters all over.”

“The Tapestry of Mercy” also includes detailed information on leadership within the seven-state region, lists of associates, extensive bibliographies, information on the Mercy Health System and a chapter on foreign missions.

Retired Sister Theresa Finnegan, who served in Vicksburg as an administrator at Mercy Hospital as well as a nursing school instructor, also spent many years in medical and education missions in British Guyana, first going there in 1959.

“I was a young Sister of Mercy,” Sister Theresa said matter-of-factly. “And this is what we were committed to — to the care of the young and the sick. It was simple enough.”

“The Tapestry of Mercy” sells for $25. Sister Paulinus will have copies available at a signing at 6 p.m. Sept. 21 at St. Aloysius High School, 1900 Grove St.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at