As part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) Central Pacific Province’s Integrated Implementation Process, St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa, Mississippi, will be closing this year. The sisters who currently reside there are in the process of moving to St. Anthony’s Gardens in Covington, Louisiana. During this transition there is so much to share. When the process of moving and closing the property is complete, Chatawa will have been in operation for 146 years. That’s 146 years worth of stories and memories to share.Chatawa Location Photos from April 15, 2018. Photos taken by Diane Maidl.

The property where St. Mary of the Pines stands, was first purchased in 1868 by Redemptorist priests. They used the land to open a seminary and preparatory college then continued to build and purchase land until the property grew to 300 acres. In 1879, the property was offered to Mother Caroline Friess, foundress of SSND in North America. The property, including the buildings, farm, kitchen equipment and cattle, was offered to SSND for $9,000. Since sisters had been sent there to help staff the elementary school in 1874, many had already been living on the property. For Mother Caroline, it was too good of a deal to pass up.

SSND faced challenges in the beginning of their ownership, many of them were due to Chatawa’s isolation. In 1882, Mother Caroline wrote about the difficulties, “Regarding going out to [the] dentist and eye doctor: Reverend Mother Superior General may rest assured that wherever and whenever possible, a vehicle is used. Of course, a case did occur in Chatawa which was not very pleasant. A sister who had a very painful toothache for some time and had been quite weakened because of this, was driven to the nearest dentist. He was not at home; his wife took sister to a blacksmith, who not only shoes horses but also pulls teeth! Yes, it is a pity in the rural areas. In our beloved Chatawa it costs time and money to reach doctor, medicine, etc…”

Photo of St. Mary's Institute buildings in 1954.Despite these types of hardships and difficulties, enrollment in the school continued to increase to the point where a new, larger facility was needed. In 1884, the sisters built a new complex a quarter mile north, adjacent to the buildings that had been abandoned by the Redemptorist. The new facility was named St. Mary’s Institute.

In 1906, Sister Charissia Power was sent to Chatawa to recover from surgery. Except for a five-year period in the 1920s, she spent the next 38 years working in Chatawa, 17 years as the superior and 10 as principal. She was responsible for transforming St. Mary’s Institute into one of the top educational institutions in the region. Sister Charissia did more than just transform the academic program, she transformed St. Mary’s Institute physically. She constructed the first water tower in 1910, added classrooms, study halls, An old image of the gym and St. Mary's Insitute at St. Mary of the Pines, Chatawa, Mississippi. dormitories, a swimming pool and bath house, created the most up-to-date gym in the region, and added a steam laundry and a fire protection sprinkler system. In 1911, a power plant was built, which made it possible for St. Mary’s Institute to have electric lights, 30 years before electric lines were constructed in the area.

In 1916, St. Mary’s Institute was accredited by the states of Louisiana and Mississippi and the school’s name changed to St. Mary of the Pines Academy. When Sister Charissia left Chatawa in 1944, the school had been accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and was recognized as one of the top two ranking Catholic high schools in Mississippi.

Camp students at St. Mary's Institute in Chatawa, Mississippi, during the 1950sIn 1962, the sisters at St. Mary of the Pines launched a new venture, a summer camp. To prepare, the sisters bought three horses and borrowed six ponies from a nearby farm. They also purchased two new boats, archery equipment and craft materials. The camp was staffed by sisters and high school students, who engaged the children in a variety of fun summer activities. The camp operated for nine years.

Then, on May 18, 1975, St. Mary of the Pines Academy held its final graduation. The school’s chronicle provides a nice description of the event, “The weather was mild and beautiful, and a large crowd attended; many former graduates came for the final graduation of the school. There was an air of sadness and some tears over the closing of the school…There were 33 graduates who received their diplomas...By 8 o’clock that evening all visitors and all students departed for the last time from the last graduation.”

Even before the school closed, plans were made to convert St. Mary of the Pines Academy into a facility for retired, elderly and sick sisters of the former SSND Dallas province. During the summer of 1975, sisters and maintenance worked in converting the dormitory into rooms for retired sisters. In August, the first sisters living in Marrero, Louisiana, moved into their new home at St. Mary of the Pines.

In 1978, the old convent was converted into a retreat center, which hosted various Ecumenical groups and renewal programs. In 1979, the Interprovincial Renewal Program was established in Chatawa, Mississippi. The purpose of the program was to serve sisters in the eight provinces in the United States and Canada. Sisters in their middle years traveled to Chatawa to study and update their knowledge of theology, Scripture and social issues.

In 2000, the sisters celebrated the 125th anniversary of St. Mary of the Pines with various events held throughout the year. The celebration ended with a prayer service and reception attended by 200 people, including Sister Emmanuel Harper, Religious Sisters of Mercy, the oldest living graduate of St. Mary of the Pines Academy, class of 1924.

The sisters in Chatawa may have been technically retired, but they continued to find ways to serve the local community and to provide support during national crisis. The former teachers used their skills to provide tutoring services to local students.

One of their biggest contribution occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. St. Mary of the Pines’ was not spared from the effects of Katrina, many trees were uprooted, several buildings damaged and they had no electricity for several days. Thankfully, no one was injured. In the aftermath, the sisters welcomed evacuees and provided them with shelter and food. They also accepted a shipment of canned foods, which they shared with their employees, local families and the foodbanks in Magnolia and McComb parishes. Members of the former Dallas province, including the sisters in Chatawa, also raised money for those affected by the hurricane.

On September 21, 2019, sisters gathered for a celebration of gratitude and farewell to 145 years of SSND presences at Chatawa, Mississippi. Sister Gemma Marie places a printed flower on the remembrance tree, sharing her fondest moments at St. Mary of the With such a rich history, it is difficult to see St. Mary of the Pines close. The sisters who lived and worked there leave a rich legacy. In 2019, the sisters started saying goodbye to St. Mary of the Pines. One way sisters honored the space was with A Celebration of Gratitude and Farewell to 145 Years of SSND Presence at Chatawa. This celebration took place on September 21, 2019, with the intention of giving the sisters time to remember, share, mourn and rejoice. A memory tree was created by donning the branches of a white tree with flowers that held written reflections from the sisters about St. Mary of the Pines. The tree will follow the sisters to St. Anthony’s Gardens in Covington, Louisiana.

Photos from Chatawa, Mississippi and New Orleans on September 21, 2019Sister Lorraine Landry shared her thoughts after attending the celebration, “Both Mother Caroline and Blessed Theresa’s images served as a backdrop for our morning. A barren white tree between the two images reminded us of Mother Theresa’s famous quote, ‘All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain; but then, their roots are sturdier and their flowering the lovelier.’ The prayers, the hymns and the sharing gave beauty, hope and trust to where we have been and where we now are on our journey. We compared God’s call to Abraham to the call we are receiving from God at this time in our lives. We walk as Abraham did, not knowing where he was going. The sharing at small tables made it evident that our faith in God will lead us into a new land with many unknown possibilities for our mission and ministries. While we sang, ‘Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown?’ The words took on a whole new meaning. As we looked to the future, we felt the presence of Mother Caroline as we reflected on the many ways that St. Mary of the Pines has impacted our lives and the lives of countless others who walked these holy grounds. Hopefully, the goodness and peace experienced here have been carried to others in an ever-widening circle.”

Many celebrations have taken place since the first group of sisters moved to St. Anthony’s Gardens in August 2019. Often, before a new group’s departure, the entire Chatawa community gathers for a farewell social and blessing.

St. Anthony’s Gardens in Covington, Louisiana, is a senior living ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. St. Anthony’s Gardens will allow sisters who are independent to live in the same facility as those requiring assisted living and memory care, all within a Catholic facility supportive of religious life and community. In early 2020, sisters requiring skilled care will move to Trinity Trace Skilled Care, currently under construction, next to St. Anthony’s Gardens.

The community at St. Anthony’s Gardens has been very welcoming to the sisters. Sister Valeria Beuke, a St. Louis based sister who helped with the move, remarked, “Comments from the first arrivals assured those waiting in Chatawa that everything was better than anticipated. Lay residents in Covington immediately welcomed the sisters and urged them to, ‘Join us here at our table, and tell us all about yourselves, welcome!’ I was fortunate to accompany the sisters to their new home to help them unpack. The two were so pleased. I overheard them say, ‘This is great! Everything fits perfectly! The staff is so warm, friendly and helpful!’ Thank you was repeated endlessly. No doubt both the sisters who have already moved, as well as those still in process, have been overwhelmed at times, but they are at peace and continue to build the bond of love that gives everything even as it changes everything.”

Other sisters who have already moved share similar sentiments. Sister Florence Williams commented, “Everyone has been so welcoming and has bent over backwards to help us settle in. The staff has been very gracious and helpful. It took a while, but I am beginning to feel at home. I am grateful that we can all be together. I appreciate the interaction with the other residents and it is enriching to hear their stories.”

It didn’t take long to find that the feelings of transition that many of the sisters are going through are not so different from that of other residents. In true SSND form, sisters are eager to meet the needs of those around them through their ministry. Sister Pat Wamser said, “Everyone here has given up homes and lost loved ones. We are all in the same boat and in transition. We have a tremendous ministry to do here, a real ministry with folks who are hurting and experiencing loss. The residents like to share their stories, where they have lived and what they have done with their lives.”

The sisters are managing this transition through prayer, thanksgiving and coming together as a community. Sister Lorraine Landry states, “We feel the guidance of Blessed Mother Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger and Mother Caroline in each step. All change, beauty and pain coincide together, softening and strengthening the hearts of all who surrender to the patient pace of God.”

The history was provided by Michele Levandoski, Archivist, School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives. Learn more from the archives.

 
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