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SSND associates nicknamed “The Cemetery Girls”

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Associates Janice Taulli-Lasseigne and Tina Covington, along with Sister Helen Roper, after the associates made their initial covenant on May 6, 2018. From left to right: Janice Taulli-Lasseigne, Tina Covington and Sister Helen Roper. Photo by Anne Carey.The cemetery in Chatawa, Mississippi, is a community cemetery shared by the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) and local residents. The cemetery dates back 150 years. Two SSND associates have deepened their relationship with the congregation and are giving back to the community through their cemetery project.

Tina Covington and Janice Taulli-Lasseigne have been nicknamed “The Cemetery Girls” by sisters at St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa. Tina and Janice feel honored by that title. After the 2013 death of Tina’s mother, the cemetery ministry evolved due to Janice’s and Tina’s commitment to honoring deceased family members and visits to St. Mary of the Pines. During that first visit to Chatawa for the annual women’s retreat, the iron fence, majestic trees, center crucifix and the old grave markers from the 1800s drew them to this hallowed place. Janice shared memories of her grammar and high school years at the tombstones of former teachers, and Tina shared stories of her mother’s visit to Chatawa’s convent school in the 1930s. They felt they belonged there, that the cemetery was calling them to something more.

They began their frequent visits to Chatawa for spiritual getaways, coming to know the sisters and calling some by familial terms. Sister “Aunt” Helen Roper became their mentor during their pre-associate time. Sister Helen, along with Sister Lorraine Landry and Sister Dana Marie Heffner, introduced them to the congregation’s early history. Tina and Janice began connecting the names of the sisters in the cemetery with the convent hallway pictures and became familiar with individuals. They felt that each tombstone revealed a story of a life lived in grace and service. They wanted to know more in an effort to better honor the sisters. Sister Helen says, “Tina and Janice are always welcome at Chatawa, because they bring life and laughter to us, and their presence reminds us how privileged we are to have associates with whom we can share our lives and mission.”

Associate Tina Covington paints a smooth boulder that will be placed in the cemetery to identify the section and row of the SSND graves. Photo by Janice Taulli-Lasseigne.At their first associate meeting, Tina and Janice didn’t seem to share skills for cooking, quilting or sewing but felt that their calling had something to do with their cemetery connection. Sister Dana Marie expressed a need for a grid system that matched names with burial locations. The blueprint of the cemetery had the sisters' gravesites marked with the general term “Sisters” but didn't use individual names. Visitors looking for the graves of former teachers had to blindly search the entire grounds of more than 270 SSND gravesites. Tina and Janice presented a spreadsheet grid to Sister Dana Marie and are almost finished creating section and row markers. Over the past year, in an effort to raise money for supplies, “The Cemetery Girls” brought attention to their project by holding a raffle and offering a walking rosary through the cemetery.

The cemetery project has resonated with many people near and far. When Sister Joan Helm from Ontario, Canada, heard about the project, she provided Tina and Janice with historical information about Sister Agathine, a Canadian sister who is buried in one of the oldest SSND graves and who traveled with Mother Caroline in 1880 to help establish a mission in New Orleans. Sister Agathine went on to minister in Chatawa for 51 years.

Tina and Janice shared the story of Sister Agathine, along with details about the cemetery project, during the annual women’s retreat at St. Mary of the Pines, Chatawa, in October 2018. Those who attended the retreat purchased $5 gift bags; $350 total was raised toward cleaning the cemetery headstones. Tina and Janice led the rosary in the cemetery and provided attendees with the burial location grid and a list of sisters buried in the cemetery so attendees could locate former teachers, family members and friends.

Tina and Janice continue making improvements to the sisters’ gravesites by creating section and row markers. They are working to repair sinking graves and create a cemetery map and information booklet.

Learn more about the history of St. Mary of the Pines.

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