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‘It was the joy of doing God’s work’

A piece of Vicksburg’s cornerstone will fall to the history books next month when the last resident members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy leave the city.

Sister Patricia Parker, 85, and Sister Robyn Huser, 76, have called Vicksburg home for more than 50 years. They will move to their religious order’s retirement home in St. Louis, Mo., in August, ending a 159-year era of the sisters being leaders in health care and education in the city, Warren County and surrounding areas.

“It’s time to go – I had sworn I’d never leave, but we have to think about our health issues,” Sister Patricia said. “I found out a couple of months ago that I have a mild heart condition, and I know it would not be good to just fall out some day and leave Sister Robyn to try to deal with it.”

In 1988, Sister Robyn suffered a massive heart attack and was without oxygen for about 25 minutes. Sister Robyn’s survival and recovery, which included “spending more than a year learning to walk again,” was described as nothing short of a miracle, but she continues to need help with everyday chores, Sister Patricia said.

“We’ve had a ministry here in Vicksburg, and a lot of people have given us a lot of money, and we’ve been able to help a lot of people,” she said. “We hate to leave here. I just love it, but it’s time.”

A reception to honor the sisters will be from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 28, at the parish hall of St. Michael Catholic Church.

Throughout their time in Vicksburg and several years in Jackson, Sisters Patricia and Robyn have followed their order’s vows of service to the poor, sick and uneducated.

Just two months ago, during National Nurses Week, the two were honored by the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Nursing. They were awarded a plaque and recognized for their roles in establishing the Mercy Delta Express, a traveling clinic staffed by medically trained Sisters of Mercy, volunteers and UMMC nursing students.

The sisters said the bus was a way to help train nurses and, more importantly, to help those impoverished people whose plights were discussed in the federal government’s Delta Commission Report of 1990.

The delivery of on-site health care began in Issaquena and Sharkey counties, the two Delta counties just north of Vicksburg and Warren County. The continuing result of that work today offers health care in Cary, Mayersville, Rolling Fork and Anguilla.

“We’d park in corn fields, and people would come to get free medical care,” Sister Patricia said. “We had nurses from Vicksburg, all volunteers, who went with us to help these poor people. We gave immunizations to the children, and we treated a lot of the parents.”

At the May ceremony in Jackson, Sister Robyn told Mississippi Catholic, the newspaper for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, she remains amazed at the impact of one simple idea, such as the medical bus.

“It’s kind of an awesome thing,” she said.

Yet, moving into uncharted territory was nothing new for this order of religious sisters.

Six members of the Sisters of Mercy came to Vicksburg from Baltimore, Md., in 1860. Their works began with the founding of St. Catherine’s School, which later became St. Francis Xavier Academy. After opening and operating a school where not even one public school existed, the “teaching sisters” stayed in the city and operated St. Francis and later St. Aloysius High School until 1999, when most of them moved to a retirement home near New Orleans.

As “hospital sisters,” Sister Robyn, a native of Lubbock, Texas, served as a registered nurse, director of nursing and hospital vice president; and Sister Patricia, a native of New Orleans who grew up in Biloxi, served as a registered nurse and supervisor of the operating room. Both left Vicksburg in the mid-’80s to begin their ministry of helping the chronically mentally ill in Jackson.

“We went into the personal care homes, we found people on the streets, we set up a clinic across from Stewpot Ministries,” Sister Patricia explained. “Some of these people were in the worst conditions you can imagine. But it was the best time of my life.

“Life is worthwhile when you can contribute some happiness to these poor people,” she said. “It was the joy of doing God’s work.”

Josesph R. Kopacz, a native of Pennsylvania and the bishop of the Catholic diocese that includes Vicksburg, is familiar with the Sisters of Mercy in Mississippi and his home state.

“These two sisters represent what is so remarkable about the Sisters of Mercy,” he said. “They not only do their work with their ministries — health care, education and tending to the needy — they become involved personally with those people.

“Even after they’ve left a place, they are remembered for all their good, their prayers, their dedication and sometimes just consoling those who need it,” he said.

“It is amazing what the sisters have done in Vicksburg and throughout Mississippi since 1860,” he said. “They have spent a lifetime preparing people for heaven.”

A member of the Sisters of Mercy who has spent years documenting the works of the religious order is Sister Paulinus Oakes, a Vicksburg native who at 87 is “still doing a little outreach” from her retirement village in St. Louis, where Sisters Robyn and Patricia will take up residence.

“I am so glad they are coming up to St. Louis,” said Sister Paulinus, who wrote and published “Angels of Mercy” and “The Tapestry of Mercy,” both historical accounts of the order in Mississippi and the United States.

“I was so glad to be a part of the Vicksburg ministry,” Sister Paulinus said. She is a graduate of St. Francis, a former principal at her alma mater, a former theology teacher at St. Aloysius and a pastoral care servant attached to Mercy Regional Medical Center.

The Rev. P.J. Curley, pastor emeritus of St. Michael Catholic Church and the longest-serving priest in Vicksburg, said he has been impressed by the two sisters since he met them.

“I admire their dedication and commitment to the care of the sick and the needy across Mississippi,” Curley said. “I’ve always known the Mercy Sisters as educators, but I had no idea of the extent of their involvement in the well-being of the whole community.

“Their caring nature and positive spirit have been inspirational to me,” he said. “We will miss them, and they will be in my prayers.”

Shirley Farish of Vicksburg is a retired registered nurse who spent 45 years at Mercy Hospital and Mercy Regional Medical Center, 25 of those as nursing supervisor in the emergency room.

“That was before we had doctors in the E.R.,” she said. “If we needed one, we had to get a doctor from University (Medical Center in Jackson).

“I was in nursing school when Patricia came to Vicksburg, so I worked with her for 45 years,” Farish said. “I saw what the sisters did. I saw how Patricia and Robyn had a ministry of helping the needy. They were retired by then, but those people who needed them knew how to find them.”

The time at Mercy Hospital and with the sisters “were glorious years,” she said.

The Sisters of Mercy began their health-care ministry during the Civil War when they tended Union and Confederate soldiers. The presidents of both sides praised the sisters.

“I can never forget your kindness to the sick and wounded during our darkest days,” Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, said after the war, according to Gordon Cotton, longtime curator of the Old Court House Museum, historian and author who has written about many of the people living in Vicksburg during the Union siege of the city.

At another time, Davis cited his “personal gratitude and respect for every member of your noble order,” Cotton said.

On the opposite side, President Abraham Lincoln referred to the sisters as “… the most efficient … veritable angels of mercy.”

Over the years since the Civil War, the nuns have cared for the sick during a yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s, a polio outbreak in the 1940s and the injured after a tornado hit the city in 1953, killing 38 people and injuring hundreds.

In 1943, the sisters took over Vicksburg’s Street Hospital and nursing school, which had been operated since 1901 by sibling physicians. Through the next 20 years, the sisters began operations of Mercy Hospital, later Mercy Regional Medical Center, and Mercy School of Nursing. The school educated and trained nurses for the entire state of Mississippi and much of the Southeast until establishing a three-year degree program with the University of Southern Mississippi and later a two-year program with Hinds Community College. The hospital was sold to a corporation in the early 1990s.

The Sisters of Mercy order was founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley of Dublin, Ireland, “who left as her legacy the largest community of religious women in the English-speaking world,” Sister Paulinus wrote in “Angels of Mercy.”

“The sisters in Vicksburg have done exactly what the order was called to do,” she said, trailing off with a quote from Scripture: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people…”

Karen Gamble is an instructor at Hinds Community College and a former editor of The Vicksburg Post.