Missions in the South

Posted by Kacie Emmerson

February 20, 2023

The Vincentian Sisters of Charity (which later merged with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth) played a vital role in serving poor and predominantly Black communities in the Southern United States. These dedicated women responded to the call to fight oppression, poverty, and racism in the South and established missions to provide education, health care, and social services to those in need. 

The Vincentian Sisters of Charity arrived in Alabama in 1940 in response to a call from Father Harold Purcell, who had already established some efforts in the state to help those who were discriminated against. The VSCs proved crucial in the growth and success of these various missions, including those in Marbury, Phenix City, and the City of St. Jude in Montgomery.

The VSCs’ first mission in Marbury was in a poor rural area. With limited resources, the Sisters started with a small nursing home and eventually opened a school. Most area residents were tenant farmers or sharecroppers, and many children lived too far from the bus route to attend school, so the Sisters drove out to their villages to pick them up in a station wagon. Later, the Sisters acquired a school bus, which they referred to as the “Golden Chariot.” The Sisters would also often provide clothing and food to the students arriving at school without proper attire or lunch.

Students with “The Gold Chariot,” a school bus used for Holy Ghost Mission in Marbury

The Sisters also went out to serve the local community in their homes when they could not make it to the mission. In 1958, the Sisters withdrew from the Holy Ghost Mission in Marbury as their services were needed in Montgomery. However, they returned from 1975 to 1986 to continue helping the impoverished community. 

In Phenix City in 1940, the Sisters’ mission included a church, a clinic and a school that could accommodate 125 students. The Mother Mary Mission in Phenix City grew and developed such a positive reputation that there was a waiting list for new students in the school. While the mission had a good reputation, the Sisters faced backlash for their work. 

Sister Mary Ann McCall, VSC, recalled threats from members of the Klu Klux Klan that they would burn a cross near the mission. That night, hundreds of Black men surrounded the convent, protecting it, as carloads of KKK members arrived but drove off without incident. 

Despite facing challenges from white residents who were not happy with their services to African Americans, the Sisters received overwhelming support from the communities they served and continued to provide education, health care and social services in the area for many years. 

One of the more well-known missions of the Sisters in the South was in the City of St. Jude in Montgomery. St. Jude was the realization of Father Purcell’s dream with a mission founded in 1936 featuring a complex on 56 acres of land. The complex included a church, schools, a convent, a social service center, a clinic, a residential facility for children with special needs, and a hospital with a nursing school. 

Sister Mary Bonay with patients at the Mother Mary Mission clinic in Phenix City

The VSCs began administering St. Jude Hospital in 1951. It was here that Sisters would later tend to injured marchers as they arrived during the Civil Rights Movement on their way to the Alabama State Capitol. In 1958, Sisters left the mission in Marbury to staff the schools in St. Jude and would eventually work in other areas in Montgomery.

While the Vincentian Sisters had a long history in Alabama, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth continued their presence in another part of the South, Mississippi. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth had arrived in Mississippi in 1868, where they established a school and provided nursing care during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in Holly Springs. Over the next century, they continued to serve the people of Mississippi, particularly African American communities in Union, Pontotoc, and Calhoun Counties. In 1976, the Sisters joined forces with Sacred Heart Southern Ministries. This Catholic organization had served primarily African American communities in rural northern Mississippi since 1942 by building schools, churches, and other charitable institutions.

Sisters worked at various mission sites such as the CADET Child Care Center and the Health Services Center in Holly Springs, as well as several parishes such as Holy Family Parish in Gloster and St. Anne Parish in Fayette, where they offered pastoral and social services to the communities. 

Long before their merger in 2008, both the Vincentian Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth demonstrated their powerful call to serve others. Their missions in the South and other areas have left a lasting impact and are remembered as symbols of their commitment to fighting oppression, poverty, and racism. This commitment holds strong in other parts of the world today as these Sisters of a now-growing international congregation continue to stand up for the oppressed and those living on the margins


Featured picture: Sister Paula Merrill with patient and friend Willa Mae during Sister’s time in mission in Mississippi. 


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