They were the first two Sisters of Mercy sent to establish the Catholic School that Father A.M. Jan had been working to get for ten years or more. He had begun to woo that particular religious order in 1872, when Blanche Durand of St. Martinville left home to become Sister Mary Xavier.
The order had been in the United States for four decades when Blanche became acquainted with them. The first Sisters of Mercy came from Ireland in 1843 at the invitation of the Bishop of Pittsburgh. By 1854, sisters had come from Ireland to settle in New York and San Francisco, and continued to spread throughout the country, establishing schools and hospitals. The order began teaching in New Orleans in 1864, and that is probably how Blanche learned of them.
Blanche made her final profession of vows six years later, on Sept. 17, 1874, and almost immediately joined with Father Jan in seeking to bring a convent school to her home town. In 1880, Father Jan was able to acquire what was described to the young nun by her brother-in-law, J.E. Mouton, as “a very desirable house” for a convent. Then, after some negotiation, a contract between the nuns and St. Martin de Tours Parish was finally accepted.
Sister Philomena and Sister Dolores were there first of nine nuns who came to St. Martinville that year. Their convent wasn’t quite ready when they arrived, so they stayed for a week with Sister Xavier’s parents.
They moved into the convent on March 5 and two days later Sisters Frances, Carmelite, Augustin, Paula, Mary of Mercy, Margaret and Gabriel joined them in St. Martinville, bringing with them two orphans who stayed at the convent.
It was sparse living. One of the sisters recorded that they had only a pair of blankets and three quilts to keep 11 people warm. There wasn’t much furniture in the convent, either. But it was a beginning.
School opened on March 21 and within a month there were 23 girls and boys enrolled. That number grew as boarders from around the area began to arrive.
The school was split into a school for girls and a separate one for boys in September and each of them moved from temporary home to temporary home until 1899, when the nuns bought the old Castillo Hotel. The girls began holding classes there, while the boys continued their schooling in a separate building near Washington and Honoree streets.
That arrangement continued until 1933, when the girls and boys were again taught together at the old hotel. Over the years, classrooms and a cafeteria were added to the school, where the Sisters continued to teach until 1971, when Our Lady of Mercy Elementary and Notre Dame School were combined to form Trinity Catholic Elementary School.
Unfortunately, Sister Mary Xavier Durand, the early advocate for the school, didn’t see any of this. She died during the first winter that the Sisters were in St. Martinville.
She was brought home from New Orleans to be buried and, according to reports of the day, hundreds of people came to mourn what the newspaper called “a beautiful closing to a sweet and gracious life.”
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.