St. Mary's Academy

Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God Rule of Benedict 

A warm late October sun emblazoned the red and gold leaves of maple, ash and oak trees lining the streets, lanes and river banks of Nauvoo on the day Srs. Mary Core, Cabrini, Peggy and Anne took Novice Sr. Claudia down for a visit. Carved pumpkins cropped up atop hay bale and bench along the downtown streets. Cornhusks rustled around lampposts in the breeze.

It was a perfect fall day. And the vanful of Sisters had a perfect visit.

Beginning with a drive-through to point out sites of historical interest, the van continued next to Baxter's Winery. There, they were greeted by Carol Sherrill, the pie baker, whose pies were nearly as pretty as her mentor's, Sr. Jozefa. Brenda Logan was proud to acknowledge the winery's recent awards — including an international prize — and offered samples to the Sisters. At 11 a.m., they declined, but regretfully. Brenda also said she was hopeful that they would again begin making and selling bleu cheese locally.

The Sisters climbed back aboard the van and drove to the Academy, which now is called Joseph Smith Academy. Entering the front door, and gaining permission to roam wherever they wished, the Sisters reminisced as they walked. Much had changed, from the absent bookstore to the carpeting that ran the length of the hall.

"The wall tile has been painted over," Sr. Mary remarked as she pointed to a spot that had been scratched off. "There's the original blue color."

"There's the principal's office," Sr. Peggy noted.

View of the Mississippi River from the former library window of the Sisters of St. Benedict St. Mary's Academy in Nauvoo, Illinois.

"They've made a lot of changes," Sr. Anne said as she reached for the door of the old library. "But these doors are the same. And the windows are the same. Get a picture over here."

The library was virtually empty but for a podium and microphone and chairs stacked up along the walls. Sr. Peggy opened the drapes and revealed a spectacular view to the river ... minus Rose Cottage, which had been torn down. A parking lot occupied some of the old sledding hill.

"The monastery was over there," Sr. Cabrini said, pointing to a beautiful field on the left.

"Here's a curiosity," Sr. Mary said as she pulled open a tiny door in the middle of the opposite wall for Sr. Claudia and the others to peer through to the gymnasium. Sr. Anne sniffed. "That floor used to sparkle."

Meantime, Srs. Peggy and Mary had disappeared into the old magazine room, where more chairs and tables now occupied the space. Next door, in what had been Sr. Mary O's office, was a kitchen.

Next, the group proceeded up the stairs to Sr. Mary Core's old classroom. At the end of the hall, next to Brother Bill's old classroom, the Sisters pointed to where the girls' infirmary had connected to the Sisters' infirmary and monastery. Handsome landscaping, replete with a bronze statue of Joseph Smith on a horse, occupies the ground where those parts of the buildings once sat.

Back down the stairs two flights, to the courtyard where the original monastery and academy once stood, the Sisters reminisced about Sr. Rosemary Murphy's home economics room, the grotto and the laundry. Sr. Claudia opened the Sisters' centennial book to compare St. Mary Academy to the new incarnation. Sr. Anne pointed to a picture. "We had a trailer right here in back of Joe Hall for a while, for our maintenance man," Sr. Anne said. "And our softball diamond was down there."

Stairwell in the Sisters of St. Benedict's former St. Mary's Academy in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Golds and reds glinting in the sun, diamonds sparkling atop the Mississippi far below, one could easily imagine Academy girls and Sisters striding across the grounds on their way to one job or another. The trees still standing around the buildings could attest to those times gone by.

"They might have saved a lot of trees, but they cut down the beautiful old elms," Sr. Anne said as she pulled out her photo album and pointed to a picture. "We planted these elms when Dutch Elm Disease was killing so many trees. Sr. Jane Fleshner wrapped the trees with a sticky blanket every night to trap the beetles. She did that for a year and saved those trees. The Sisters used to sit under them. We'd have fruit bees and vegetable bees there. Those elms were old, but they were still good."

Pumpkins line Main Street at Halloween in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Nearby, Sr. Cabrini was kicking at the earth under a tree. "Looking for geodes!" she laughed. "This is where our grotto was. Look, here's one!" Sr. Cabrini extracted three geode chunks before joining the rest of the group walking along the paved sidewalk around the Academy to Villa Marie. "I always wanted this to be paved," Sr. Anne grumbled. "NOW it's paved."

Next on the agenda was lunch at Grandpa John's with Karen Simpson, Sr. Anne's kitchen compatriot. Dan Kraus had opened the old theater for a special children's movie showing, and the smell of popcorn competed with the smell of hamburgers as they reached the table. For dessert, Sr. Mary ordered a chocolate food with nuts and eight spoons.

The Sisters had a chance to see several friends there, including Hilda Baxter, Ann Hamman, and Beulah Hudson. They walked over to the Fudge Factory next, in the old Icarian Restaurant, hoping to see Durrell and Kathy Nelson. The Sisters were told the Nelsons were out delivering carved pumpkins up and down the street in preparation for that night's Halloween festivities. So they left a message and bought fudge instead.

Then, it was back into the van for the drive out to the cemetery, by way of some other points of interest, including the White House, the orchard area, and the chaplain's house. Srs. Peggy and Mary pointed out homes belonging to friends. Sr. Peggy knocked on the door of Richard and Barbara Bolton to wish them a happy 50th anniversary, but they weren't home.

The cemetery was quiet and beautiful. A large, old tree had toppled in a recent wind nearby, and its gold leaves rustled peacefully. The rows of Sisters' crosses stood with humble pride. "Here's Mother Ottilia's stone," Sr. Mary told Sr. Claudia. "And here are the other prioresses' stones." Sr. Claudia ranged along the rows, taking pictures and listening to the Sisters tell stories about this "tall and stately" Sister, and that Sister who "stood just about this high and nearly as wide." Sr. Mary had her eye on the clock: Vespers were set to begin in a little more than two hours, and they had to get back. As the van departed for Rock Island, each Sister was grateful for her pocketful of new memories — and, in the case of Sr. Cabrini, some rocks — from her old digs. It had been a lovely visit.

Meaning of the Benedictine Medal

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