By Joe Darby
Exactly 154 years ago today, a brave Sacred Heart nun was in the middle of a journey through icy cold Louisiana, a mission to deliver desperately needed supplies to Sacred Heart convents at Grand Coteau and Natchitoches.
To do so, she had to cross lines between two warring armies in the midst of the Civil War, encountering terribly difficult travel conditions and the danger of attack from unknowing soldiers at any moment. But, the good Sister Ann Shannon accomplished her mission.
In December of 1864, Sister Shannon was 54 years old. She had just been named that summer as vicar of the Sacred Heart convents in Louisiana, the third being at St. Michael’s in Convent, her headquarters.
Grand Coteau and Natchitoches were behind Confederate lines and were desperate for supplies and food. She considered it her responsibility, as vicar, to try to alleviate the needs of the nuns and the girls in their schools in those locations.
In 1863, after getting the permission of Union commander Gen. Nathaniel Banks, as well as his artillery commander, Gen. Lalor, a Catholic, she brought supplies to Grand Coteau and arranged for other goods to be taken to Natchitoches.
By the winter of 1864, conditions were even worse in northern Louisiana and Sister Shannon set out to repeat her mission of mercy. She set out with Mr. J.B.Jourdan, a planter who knew the area and had helped her the previous year, as well as several other people, including a couple of priests.
They went by railroad from New Orleans to Berwick’s Bay, at what is now Morgan City, then traveled on boats through lakes and bayous to Butte la Rose and St. Martinville, following a route used by wartime smugglers.
They arrived at Grand Coteau on Dec. 12, but not before a disastrous development. Supplies sent ahead for Grand Coteau from St. Martinville had been confiscated by Confederate soldiers After she conferred with Confederate officers at Opelousas and Washington, La., the authorities agreed that the goods could be sent to the convent but kept under lock and key until the matter was resolved.
So Sister Shannon, being the brave and resourceful soul that she was, decided to go right to the top. She’d go see Confederate Gov. Henry Allen and Gen. Richard Taylor, commander of all Southern forces in Louisiana, at their headquarters in Marshall, Tex. On the way, she’d visit Natchitoches and drop off supplies there.
Her party set out in an open carriage, with only blankets for protection against the cold. It took nearly four days to reach Natchitoches but once here she was greeted warmly by the nuns and girls at the local convent. Natchitoches was isolated from all word from outside the area and the women eagerly exchanged news.
Then she set out for Texas to talk to Allen and Taylor about the seized goods at Grand Coteau. As she rode through the area, the Protestant rural folk had never seen a nun and were fascinated by her habit, wondering “What kind of thing is that on her head?” One young girl said, “Maybe they’re crazy. We better run.”
Approaching the HQ of the Confederate authorities, she was stopped by two young sentries at the door. They crossed their bayoneted rifles in front of her and told her she could not pass. She simply took both hands, pushed the bayonets apart and said, “I pass everywhere.” All the young men could do was to laugh and they let her in the house.
The authorities promised to look into the matter but did not immediately give her papers allowing her to recover the confiscated goods. Those were to be brought later by Lt. Jourdan, a dashing young officer and the son of her guide. She returned to Natchitoches then set out for Alexandria at the beginning of January. All along the way she was greeted by former students of hers, who were overjoyed to see her.
South of Alexandria a hard, cold rain began to fall, slowing them down and tiring the one sturdy mule they used to pull their carriage. They reached Grand Coteau on Jan. 10 and Lt. Jourdan soon showed up with the papers allowing release of the goods to the Sacred Heart convent there.
But her ordeal was not over. They had to return through the lakes and swamps in very cold weather, having to spend one night in an abandoned hut where they later learned a man had murdered his wife. Finally, they reached Bayou Plaquemine and arrived at the town of the same name, where they took a steamer to New Orleans. She did not reach her home convent, St. Michael’s until the end of January.
Her mission, supplying much needed goods and food, as well as her own special presence, meant much to the women and girls at Grand Coteau and Natchitoches. But it was more or less all in a day’s work for Sister Shannon. She retired to Maryville near St. Louis in the 1880s and passed away in 1896. Her story, little known, but an amazing one of persistence and courage, deserves to be told once again.
Information for this column was obtained from an article in Vol. XIX of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Series in Louisiana History, published by the Center for Louisiana Studies at ULL in Lafayette.