by Tim Gilmore, 7/10/2017
Eartha White, whom people so often called “Jacksonville’s Angel of Mercy,” kept newspaper clippings about the city’s original “Angel of Mercy,” Sister Mary Ann. Father William John Hamilton, in 1857, had foretold her coming to the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
When Sister Mary Ann died in 1914, headlines proclaimed, “Passed Quietly Away,” and “Will Be Missed by Poor of Jacksonville,” and “Entire Life Given to Charity. Many Noble Deeds During War Time and Yellow Fever Epidemic,” and “Death of ‘Angel of Mercy’ Brings Genuine Regret to Residents of City.”
That the stone, in wall and tower, of this Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, could rise above her as soft as a dream, she had not imagined. She had learned the humble magic of opposites. That she could fly, she had clipped her own wings. That she most fully experience life, she gave herself less.
That madman-poet William Blake was wrong. The road of excess led not to the palace of wisdom. Privation heightened the senses, the better to accept the love of the Lord. Through abstinence, ecstasy.
I know these things only because Sister Mary Ann tells me. The Gothic towers rise above me, but I feel them soft, velvet at first, then cloud. For a few years, until the year before she died, the gold cross atop the higher spire reached further than any other building in the city.
Sister Mary Ann was born Ellen Hoare. She was orphaned in County Roscommon, Ireland in the early 1830s. She lived in Liverpool and New York, became a novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Connecticut, moved with her order to St. Augustine, then came to Immaculate Conception.
Sister Mary Ann braved the jails, whispered with the condemned. She nurtured Union and Confederate soldiers shot, stabbed, battered and dismembered in Civil War Jacksonville.
The little girl approached her in the hospital’s wooden halls. The child was desperate, but sick, seemed to reach through an invisible veil. She clung to Sister Mary Ann in utter terror, but her eyelids were heavy, blinked against their will. The child’s neck hung and shuddered like something in it was broken. A screaming filled her eyes.
The child clung to her skirt and begged her, begged Sister Mary Ann, clung to her skirt and begged Sister Mary Ann to take her home.
The girl had lost her parents, how long ago she no longer could tell, and had no one in the world. Sister Mary Ann took the child home to the convent and raised her there, 12 years, to adulthood.
I wander against the cathedral, its stone a cold relief in the summer evening, push open an arched oaken door, and walk into a wedding. I stand unable to move, so embarrassed, in a torn t-shirt and old jeans, but the members of the wedding recognize me, seem to know me. I’m sure I’ve not met them before.
I feel someone watching me, but I turn and see the face, eyes closed for 2,000 years, of the broken-hearted, the 14th Station of the Cross, in which Christ is placed in the sepulcher.
Sister Mary Ann continues whispering to me. Still she has not allowed me to see her face. Daily, she’d made her rounds among those dying of Yellow Fever, their yellow eyes and the vomiting of blood, the seizures that mocked demonic possession. The dying of the children broke her heart to a strange and inverse rapture.
So she raised the funds to open the orphanage, and St. Mary’s Home opened on August 15th, the Feast of Assumption, 1886, in a two-story house behind the cathedral on Church Street. Four years later, a three-story brick building replaced the old house. Then another wing. Then in August, 1891, workers filled a new orphanage chapel with pews.
Two hours later, fire blazed through St. Mary’s Home, the convent, the school, and the basilica itself. The church had burned during the Civil War. It burned in 1891. It would burn again in the Great Fire of 1901.
I’ve wandered from the ceremony. I stand before the pietà, the Virgin Mary holding the corpse of her child Jesus Christ. Christian no more, I love the beautiful tragic sadness of Christianity. I grieve with the Virgin. I love the magic of Christian opposition, the conception of the perfect human being through the great perverse sin of chastity, wholeness through renunciation, poetic beauty in fierce asceticism.
Wasn’t Jesus the first Romantic poet? Isn’t the surrealism and approximated mysticism of today’s art the spirituality of the modern and postmodern secular world? The true artist is a godless priest.
Now, she shows me. Now she seems to find me ready. Now Sister Mary Ann allows me to look into her face. Her eyes recess into shadow. Her cheekbones are square and high and strong. Her mouth is the black depth between parallel lines.
Mocking fire that took the church three times, the towering sanctuary, finished in 1910, fills its bright white interior with high-windowed light.
In her last years, Sister Mary Ann witnessed the architectural inner penetration of the light. By the time she died in January 1914, she had selflessly served the sick, the dying, the condemned, the homeless, the lost, and the orphaned in Jacksonville for 50 years.
Her whispering has come to me severely as has her visage, dappled in the shadows of the receding past. The voice of my own Southern sadness and anger I’ve long known I’ll never outgrow says to let the Confederates die.
Then I hear the laughter and joyful crying from before the chancel and look back to the ceremony. The bride is black and the groom is white. Several members of the wedding wear the hijab. Whatever was the question, this recognition is the answer.