Nuns looked to tame streets, nurse sick in Vicksburg, Sister Oakes says

Published 11:00 am Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sister oakes

angels of mercy book

The Sisters of Mercy came to Vicksburg to establish a school in a rough-and-tumble city that had been plagued by bandits, violent gamblers, and men who settled disputes in the streets with pistols just months before war would tear the country apart and turn the nuns into the angels of battlefield hospitals.

Four sisters and two postulants departed Baltimore, Md., by rail in October 1860 en route for Vicksburg at the request of a bishop who feared the city along the Mississippi River had become too violent, Sister Paulinus Oakes told members of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton Camp No. 1354 of Sons of Confederate Veterans on Tuesday.

“Vicksburg was a very cosmopolitan city. They had all kinds of people, and it was a wild, wild place,” said Sister Paulinus, who published Angels of Mercy in 1998. “It was a lawless town, and there was a Catholic population mixed up in it.”

The book, which draws heavily from the diary of Sister Ignatius Sumner, details the Sisters of Mercy’s work during the Civil War and the post-war yellow fever epidemic.

At the time the sisters arrived, there were no public schools in Mississippi, and early enrollment in the sisters school included Catholics, Jews and Protestants, said Sister Paulinus who was born in Vicksburg and is a longtime educator.

“Before that, if you had school, it was from a private tutor,” she said.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Vicksburg’s Sisters of Mercy were asked to serve as nurses for the Confederate Army. They left Vicksburg and were not here during the Siege, though Sister Ignatius’ diary recounts their contribution to the Southern war effort, Sister Paulinus said.

“This sister kept a journal, I guess, to keep her mental health while they were nursing,” Sister Paulinus said of Sister Ignatius’ writings.

Sister Ignatius was 35 years old when she moved to Vicksburg and became an unlikely ally of the Confederates. Born Frances Sumner to a Unitarian family, Sister Ignatius’s uncle was famed abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Perhaps he is most famous for being assaulted in 1856 on the U.S. Senate floor by South Carolina state Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat.

“He was beaten with a cane,” Sister Paulinus said of Sumner.

From Vicksburg, Sister Ignatius and the other nuns traveled to Raymond and Jackson before treating the wounded brought to the University of Mississippi in Oxford after the Battle of Shiloh in early April 1862.

“The hospital at Oxford was composed of 12 large buildings forming an immense circle,” Sister Ignatius wrote. “It had been used as a college and contained about 1,000 sick. Many were extremely ill and the whole place was in disorderly condition.”

The building that served as the main area of the hospital is Barnard Conservatory, Sister Paulinus said.

“It was the first MASH hospital,” Sister Paulinus said.

As Federal troops began marching toward Oxford, the sisters rounded up the sick and wounded and moved all but about 60 of those in the gravest condition to Canton.

In 1863, the Sisters set up a Confederate hospital in Shelby Springs, Ala., south of Birmingham, Ala., Sister Paulinus said.

“It had been a resort, like Cooper’s well was here,” Sister Paulinus said.

After the fall of Vicksburg, the bishop told the nuns to return to Vicksburg or risk the convent being destroyed by Union soldiers who had already burned the Catholic church in Jackson. Half of the group returned, and the other half stayed in Alabama, Sister Paulinus said.

“There were horses and soldiers in the convent when they got back, but after a while they got them out and were able to start school back,” Sister Paulinus said.