Thursday, Decemeber 28, 2006
The Preacher’s Corner
‘Angel threw shadow over last sad scene’
Drivers on Salem Avenue, which is Highway 4-East, in Holly Springs, probably have passed a street sign at the turnoff for the Surgical Clinic and depot many times without giving the little side road’s name a thought. The sign is for Bethlehem Street. Especially at Christmas it is worth remembering why that lane is so-named.
The street commemorates Bethlehem Academy, an institution established here in the 1860s, which was operated by the Sisters of Charity, an order of Roman Catholic nuns. The sisters came to assist with a school established by St. Joseph’s Church, which had been established here in the late 1850s.
More than once the nuns found their academic endeavors interrupted by emergencies which disrupted the community. Veteran Holly Springs newspaperman John M. Mickle told their story in the pages of The South Reporter.
“By September 1861, the Sisters of Charity who had come to Holly Springs to assist the school, were nursing the wounded in the courthouse. On April 4, 1862 it was reported that there were 600 in the hospital at Holly Springs. The lone priest, Father Basilio Elia, was unable to visit all the Catholic wounded or administer the consoling rites of his Church to them as they died.
“After Shiloh, trainloads of wounded started arriving in Holly Springs and Oxford — so many that Bishop Elder himself came from Natchez to help. Unfortunately, Holly Springs was not to remain a quiet refuge for the wounded. In November 1862, Grant’s army occupied the town. The Sisters were alerted, and except for a few patients too ill to be moved, all hospitals were evacuated.”
The town’s Catholic population was largely dispersed.
After the Civil War there was a desperate need to revive educational work in Holly Springs. Several schools were begun to serve boys and girls, black students and white. Col. Harvey W. Walter (of the famous Walter Place on Chulahoma Ave.) persuaded the Sisters of Charity at Bardstown, Ky., to return and open a school they called Bethlehem Academy. Eight nuns arrived in September 1868 and set to work. Bethlehem Academy immediately enrolled 50 pupils. It was first located in the former Carrington Mason home at the foot of Memphis St. As the enterprise grew, it moved to the old Pointer mansion on Salem Ave., just west of the railroad tracks where two manufacturing concerns now stand.
Mr. Mickle said that during his boyhood, “The nuns kept a watchful eye on their charges at Bethlehem Academy, but cloistered beauty was ever a strong challenge for youth, and the boys found means of slipping notes and candy to the girls. The girls themselves, were not altogether ‘prunes and prisms,’ for I remember passing there in the dusk one evening and saw about twenty of them in the yard, with an unusual occurrence, no nun in sight, and all — horrors — smoking cigarettes, and that in the eighties, and turned the lights defiantly toward the street. That was only a feminine gesture against restrictions, though.”
Again the nuns were called to minister in a time of catastrophe. Perhaps their most noble efforts came in the autumn of 1878 when yellow fever ravaged Holly Springs. On October 18, 1928, fifty years after the epidemic’s end, John M. Mickle told the story.
He wrote that, “There were about a dozen nuns in charge when the yellow fever came” and that “it should be remembered that these were not nursing but teaching sisters, and not bound by their vows to remain. They could have gone without prejudice.
“Robert A. McDermott of this city attended the boys’ school across the street from the Academy, taught by Sister Stanislaus.
“He had gone with other boys of that faith for benediction at the chapel on Sunday afternoon, September 1, the day when the fever burst in its fury among the citizens of the town, nearly 100 cases being recorded.
“As he was leaving, Sister Stanislaus called him and told him that there would be no school Monday as the fever had been declared epidemic, and that the sisters would remain. As they parted she added: “Be a good boy and always live right. We may never meet again.”
“The courtroom and jury rooms at the court house were converted into a hospital by the health authorities, and later the Masonic Hall, as the theatre on the second floor of the Masonic Building was then known.
“Here Father Oberti, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, and the sisters administered spiritual and physical help to the sick and dying. The priest was first to go, dying September 11.
“Six sisters gave their lives, the first — Sister Stanislaus — on September 22. The others were Sisters Stella, Margaretia, Corintha, Victoria and Laurentia, the last dying on October 11.
“In the year following the fever, the grateful citizenship of Holly Springs, without regard to race or religion, contributed funds and a monument in bronze was placed in the lot in Hill Crest Cemetery where the priest and the sisters rest.
“Impressive ceremony marked the unveiling of the monument. In the procession, headed by the old Holly Springs Band and Autry Rifles — themselves heavy sufferers from the fever — marched the schools of the city and a great outpouring of citizens, among whom were Jews and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, white and black. Racial and religious differences were forgotten, all had experienced the gentle ministrations of the beloved dead.
“An inscription in Latin on the front of the monument records that it was erected in perpetual memory to these martyrs, priests and sisters, by grateful citizens. Two inscriptions from St. John on the other tables read: ‘The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep,’ and ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’
“Until the courthouse was remodeled in 1926, the plaster wall of the north jury room bore a tribute to Sister Corintha, written in pencil by Dr. Swearinger of Galveston, who was one of the volunteer physicians who came here in the epidemic in answer to the call of distress. The walls were kalsomimed several times during the intervening years, but workmen were careful to leave the inscription untouched.
“When in remodeling the courthouse it was necessary to remove the plaster a workman with chisel removed this piece of plaster and Bob McDermott had it placed in a frame and covered with glass. The inscription is somewhat damaged, but is legible. It reads: ‘October 2, 1878. Sister Corintha sank into the sleep of the eternal. Among the first to enter this realm of death…She was the last save one to leave.’
“The writer of this humble notice saw her in health, gentle but strong, as she moved with noiseless step and serene smile through the crowded ward. He saw her when the Yellow Plumed Angel threw his golden shadow over the last sad scene.’
“Oft cited, the full text is worth repeating: ‘Within this room, October 2, 1878, Sister Corintha sank into the sleep of the eternal. Among the first of the holy sisters to enter this realm of death, she was the last save one to leave. The writer of this humble notice saw her in health, gentle and strong, as she moved with noiseless step and serene smiles through the crowded wards. He saw her when the angel threw his shadow over the last sad scene and eyes unused to weeping gave the tribute of tears to the brave and beautiful spirit of mercy.’”
When the courtroom was remodeled in 1925, the inscription was removed and sent to the Sisters of Charity, who preserved it for many years at their convent in Nazareth, Kentucky. It has since been returned to Holly Springs and is among the artifacts preserved by the Marshall County Historical Museum. Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on East College Avenue has been restored and dedicated as a Shrine to the Yellow Fever Martyrs.
Bethlehem Academy closed in 1891, and St. Thomas Hall, a school for boys with an old history in Holly Springs, was briefly revived and housed in the old Pointer mansion. It operated there until the place burned in 1898.
The little street sign, marking a lane that runs south to the depot from the site of the school, is now the only physical reminder of Bethlehem Academy. Like the little children slain by Herod at Bethlehem of old, the Sisters of Charity gave their lives for others. At this Christmas we in Holly Springs should all remember and be thankful.
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