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Recalling Mercy Academy in the 1930s and 1940s

Posted Friday, September 10, 2010, at 10:14 AM


What a grand old place that 3-story building was. The beautiful grounds were a framework of the building and cared for mostly by the nuns that taught school to children in grades one through twelve.

My parents, Lorene (Hayob) and Lawrence H. Kessler lived with my grandparents, Andrew and Anna Hayob, on their farm five miles west of Marshall on 24 Highway until it was time for me to start school.

They purchased a house on Arrow Street a block from the Church and three blocks from the School. I was 5 years old when I began first grade in a frame building on the northwest comer of Washington and Ellsworth Streets.

On the opposite comer of the block was a frame house that the Hagedorn family rented. Near the northwest corner of the Academy there was a concrete building for restrooms. The worst thing about the restrooms was there was no heat in the winter and in the warm months it was hot and stinky.

Eventually this building was tom down and restrooms were built in the main three-story building. The nuns had a garden and grotto between the frame house and the Academy that was neatly kept.

It is difficult to recall all the names of the sisters , but I do remember some with the help of Anna Kathryn Carroll. They were: Sr. Mary Elizabeth, Sr. Mary Aquinas , Sr. Mary Ignatius, Sr. Mary Theodore , Sr. Mary Theresa, Sr. Mary Ambrose, Sr. Rose Marie, Sr. Mary Mercedes , Sr. Mary Rita, Sr. Mary Joan, Sr. Mary Aloysius, Sr. Mary Wiletta, (Eleanor Castle from Marshall), Sr. Mary Gertrude, who taught third and fourth grade, Sr. Josetta and Sr. Cecilia Marie who taught first grade.

The fIrst Mercy sisters to come in 1925 to set up, get the school organized and ready for classes were Sr. Mary Aloysius who was in charge with the help of Sr. Mary Elizabeth.

The requirement of wearing uniforms and morning Mass was unique. Many mothers made the uniforms. Mrs. Lawrence Wittman sewed uniforms for others as well as her own.

The sisters not only taught classes, but kept the building immaculate from waxing and polishing floors to keeping everything in order, cooking, doing laundry & ironing, planting and weeding a garden, canning vegetables and fruits, praying and saying their "Office."

There was no time wasted. Imagine how hot they were with all those clothes they had to wear; yet you never heard them complain.

There was no air conditioning back then. Each had a job to do and did it well. They also were well respected by most of the students and didn't seem to mind taking extra time with someone who needed a little extra help.

They also had beautiful handwriting and were very artistic. I thought about the sisters of my school days when I watched Sister LuAnna decorate the chapel here at St. Peter's School the past 10-12 years. I asked her about it and she told me "it was a gift from God, nothing special."

Since I lived only three blocks from school I would stay after school to help clean the rooms. I enjoyed visiting with the sisters and hearing their stories. Sister Elizabeth talked to my Mom about me taking piano lessons, but I was very shy and actually afraid of her as I had heard stories about how she used the ruler.

After graduation, I did take commercial classes in Business English and Bookkeeping to help me in passing state tests for various positions I wanted to apply for and gain employment.

The Academy was known all around the County and beyond for giving students a great education and when applying for a job one could be certain of being hired.

When we lived on Arrow Street, I remember looking out my upstairs east bedroom window and seeing the cross atop the Academy.

I lived here after I married Marvin Sprigg and had our first daughter, Becky, on May 13, 1958.

I always wondered what was happening in that big old building. Seeing that cross, brought back memories and gave me comfort, as my folks had moved to Poplar Bluff, Mo., where my Dad was to open a Shoe Factory.

My father spent many hours at the Academy working on the old furnace, plumbing and electrical system. It was through his work that I tagged along and got to visit many of the nooks and crannies in this building. I enjoyed seeing the area where the nuns did their laundry and sometimes helped with the ironing when I got older.

With the "Habits" they wore, their laundry was enormous. They certainly couldn't waste any time. They encouraged students to set-up May Altars in honor of Mary and pray the rosary often.

The Chapel was a favorite place for me, as it was on the third floor and I enjoyed hearing the sounds from the music rooms when students practiced. It is a wonder that this old building didn't burn down. The nun's bedrooms were on the third floor and I worried about them. Their dining room and kitchen was in the basement. With all the stairs to climb they kept in shape.

I remember my mother talking about boarding at the Academy when the Sisters of Loretto were housed there. She said they were very strict and wanted her to "clean her plate" before they would dismiss her. She didn't like what was on the plate, but began eating it anyway and then gagged on it and vomited. After that, they never did make her eat what she didn't like.

My brother and sister also attended Mercy, but were unable to graduate, as that is when my Dad got transferred with International Shoe Co. to Poplar Bluff. Larry attended until he was a junior, and Dot finished the eighth grade.

One of the fundraisers for the Academy was a dinner and fair. The play ground had booths set up for various games such as bingo, fish, a bean bag game, apple dunking and other games the Knights set up. My Dad always worked on stringing colored lights all around the area to furnish lights and to give the occasion a carnival atmosphere. The meal was served in the auditorium.

Every spring the entire school participated in a May Procession from Mass in the Auditorium to the Grotto on the Northeast area of the grounds. Sometimes an Altar was set up outside next to the Grotto and Mass said there depending on the weather. This was very special and the songs were in honor of Mary. The statue of Mary still stands on the grounds, but without the grotto for protection.

The (CYC) Catholic Youth Council held many dances. They were held in the Auditorium with live music furnished by the Dub Erickson Band. These dances drew people from other parishes and the dance floor would be filled. Other parishes also had dances similar to Mercy. It was a good way to meet youth from other parishes. I think the nuns enjoyed these dances as much as anyone, as you would seethem watching from the large window at the landing that overlooked the auditorium.

Large musical Operatoes were especially enjoyed, not only by the parish but the whole town. The auditorium would be packed for each production. Sr. Mary Elizabeth did a wonderful job at staging these with special scenery. I remember in first grade I had to recite "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and learned the whole poem along with gestures. I think my Mom was a little nervous that I would forget some of the lines.

The nuns taught students dancing. I enjoyed tap dancing. We put on a program along with music students who took piano lessons. These programs drew large crowds also. The students I remember who played the piano where Kathleen Langan, Vin Tobin and Carol Greer.

I don't remember if we had a basketball team or not. I remember playing volleyball, softball and table tennis. Many times some of the nuns would play softball with the students. I don't know how they managed to do this with all those garments they had to wear.

There was a Mass every first Friday and the nuns served donuts and hot chocolate. When the funds grew low, the hot chocolate would be made with hot water instead of milk. I didn't much like the stuff but drank it anyway as I didn 't want to hurt their feelings.

Some of the boys made fun of the drink, but later on I realized how hard it must have been for the nuns. They had to pinch every penny -- something that was a lesson in itself. Times were hard and everyone had to work hard to make ends meet. I know my folks sacrificed to send me and my brother and sister to a Catholic School.

The school lunch program was unheard of back then. The country kids brought lunches in paper bags. When I was in the lower grades my Mom would send me off with a lunch, especially in the winter so I wouldn't have to walk home for lunch.

Students from Shackelford were allowed to ride the public school bus that picked up kids in the country. Everyone else walked to school.

I am thankful for the education I received at Mercy Academy. I graduated in 1947 at the ripe old age of 16 -- not ready to face the world, so I started classes at Missouri Valley College in the fall.

All my gifts I received were silk stockings, as this was something everyone longed for at that time.

I also was awarded the Gold Watch from Esser Jewelry, which was a huge surprise.

I wish there were more religious women like the Mercy Sisters. They not only taught us from the books, but from the heart. They shared their precious faith, values and beliefs. They taught us how to be good citizens.

God Bless them all!

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What a delightful memoir! I am doing genealogy research about my Mother, Maryland Call, a pianist who graduated from Mercy Academy in the '37-38 school year. It was wonderful to read about the environment she must have enjoyed there. Thank you very much!


-- Posted by Songsoflife on Tue, Dec 10, 2013, at 10:24 PM

Oh how I appreciate the author taking time to write this tribute and history lesson about Mercy Academy! I remember my mother talking to me about how she went to the school until she was 14, then she had to move back home to Slater, Mo & help her mother after she had a stroke that disabled her. Her name was Mary Grapperhaus Pannell, and she was born in 1935, so she would have been going to this school sometime during this time period. Mom often talked about her intention to become a nun & she so loved the nuns at this school (I'm glad she didn't or I wouldn't be here!). She talked about which nuns were strict and which ones were more lenient. I still have her "holy" cards that she received for various achievements in this school. Her education here deepened her faith so much (even though she went on to join the Lutheran church eventually), and I'm so glad she passed that faith down to me. Thank you so much for this write-up, Mrs Sprigg!

-- Posted by Blueeyez58 on Thu, Jul 16, 2015, at 2:08 PM

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