Since 1908, sisters have been living on the hilltop campus at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood. While living at the convent, they have worked at the school in various ways, from teaching to administration, but always with the mentality of sharing wisdom and forming the next generation of intelligent women.
The sisters’ legacy will remain, but their round-the-clock physical presence on campus ended when Sisters Jolitta Konecny, RSM, and Ann Hardcastle, RSM, left this summer to live at the religious order’s McAuley Convent and Retirement Home in Barling. The convent officially closed and has been deeded to Mount St. Mary Academy.
It’s just one story of convents in the state that are making transitions, including in West Memphis, which hopes to remain open, and North Little Rock that is reopening after several years.
“The students really looked up to us and it was like having your grandmother around. They felt a certain sense of security, a certain sense of reverence that the Sisters of Mercy were still there,” said Sister Jolitta, adding she’ll miss, “seeing the girls develop into outstanding women.”
The Sisters of Mercy came to the United States in 1851, founding what is now MSM. Sister Joan Pfauser, one of the school’s counselors, has not lived in the convent and will continue to work at MSM. On May 7, the academy hosted “Mercy Moments on Our Journey” to honor the three sisters for their service.
“The Mercy presence was a visible and vivid reminder that the Sisters of Mercy are committed to the spiritual development and formation of the girls and to their education,” said Karen Flake, president and CEO of MSM. While the goal of the school is to teach the students to be “women of compassion and integrity with a strong moral and intellectual disposition,” the sisters exemplified it. “The sisters were associated with hard work, coming here in 1851 and leaving a homeland they didn’t think they’d go back to and they didn’t. You just have that immense sacrifice of the women.”
The sisters lived in downtown Little Rock until moving to what is now Hillcrest in 1908. The sisters occupied a five-story building on campus until it was torn down and the current convent was built in 1982.
Sister Jolitta, 80, who was a teacher and served as assistant principal in the 1970s, has lived at the convent most recently for the past 13 years. Sister Jolitta said from both a safety and financial standpoint, it was better to close the convent.
“It’s sad that we don’t have any young nuns that could come there. I have reached an age where it’s no longer safe to leave elderly people in charge of such a place,” she said of the 14,187-square-foot convent.
The building is primarily one floor, with a small second story within the central section. It has 11 bedrooms and three different wings, which house an art room for the school, a chapel, community room, solariums and a commercial-grade kitchen. Last winter, the MSM board authorized an audit for the buildings and has gotten advice from an architect on future plans. Nothing has been set in stone, Flake said.
For now, the school is maintaining the building as-is and will consider requests to rent the building for events like retreats, prayer groups and meetings for nonprofits.
In West Memphis, there is still hope that the convent will have more sisters next year. Sister Cecilia Nguyen, OSB, and Sister Christopher Flowers, OSB, have returned to Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro, leaving the convent empty. The convent opened around 1935 by the Dominicans and the Olivetan Benedictines came in the early 1950s. Sister Christopher, who retired this year after teaching at St. Michael School on and off for about 35 years, said there’s a possibility that her order or another order would send more sisters there next year, but no official decisions have been made.
“People are heartbroken, they are just crushed. They’ve said, ‘The sisters make the parish, the sisters are supposed to be here,’” Sister Christopher said. “It’s like a family. It’s not like a big place where nobody knows anybody.”
Sister Cecilia left West Memphis this summer and Sister Christopher returned to Jonesboro Aug. 16. One parishioner helping her move was Michael Underwood, a member of Sacred Heart Church in Crawfordsville. He has worked four years in the school cafeteria, the past two as head cook, and said his hope is “that we will get the sisters back at the school.”
“I went to Catholic school my whole life and that’s all I knew. I think by not having nuns at the school there’s no encouragement for young girls to consider going into the convent,” he said.
This summer and fall, three Vietnamese sisters moved into the convent at St. Patrick Church in North Little Rock that has been closed for 15 years. In 1895, St. Patrick Church built a school where students were taught by the Sisters of Mercy, who would commute to the school from MSM. In 1957, the old rectory was remodeled and then used as a convent.
Jan Tillery, a parishioner at St. Patrick since 1951 and former principal at St. Patrick School as well as DRE, said the last two sisters left the convent in 2002, moving to their retirement home in Barling.
The convent has been used in various ways, including as a rectory for Latin Mass priests when the St. John the Baptist Latin Mass Community used St. Patrick Church. This summer, the Latin Mass Community moved to its own building in Cabot, establishing St. John the Baptist Church.
It was the perfect time to bring sisters back to both St. Patrick and the Cathedral of St. Andrew, said rector Father Jack Vu.
“I love vocations. Wherever I have been, when I was having the capability and we’re able to afford it, I always asked for a sister to come,” Father Vu said.
Sisters Mary Faustina “Sandy” Nguyen, FMSR; Mary Imelda Khuyen Nguyen, FMSR, and Mary Theresa Thien-Y Tran, FMSR, are with the Daughters of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in New Orleans. Father Vu said they speak both English and Vietnamese. Sister Sandy is the director of religious education at the Cathedral; at St. Patrick, Sister Imelda is DRE and Sister Theresa is the secretary.
“We are thrilled about that,” Tillery said. “One of the old parishioners who has been here all the years was telling me him and his wife drove up for Mass last Sunday and his wife was just about in tears. They were just so happy just to see nuns coming out of the convent and into the church.”
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