Tracking down a tale of nuns and `GWTW'

March 22, 2003|By JACQUES KELLY

FOR YEARS I've heard little components of a story I promised to myself I'd try to nail down around the time of the Academy Awards ceremony. It surrounds Margaret Mitchell, the author of the novel Gone With the Wind, which, of course, became the basis of the celebrated film. It also concerns our Sisters of Mercy, the Roman Catholic order so well-known in Baltimore.

I've always been fascinated by Mitchell, who died in 1949 after being hit by a Peachtree Street taxicab in Atlanta. My mother always warned me as a child that I would wind up like Margaret - she had spotted my careless, daydreaming style while crossing streets. And no matter how many times GWTW was screened at the old Boulevard Theater in Waverly, I was there.

A few weeks ago, while visiting with two friends, both Sisters of Mercy, Sister Thomas Zinkand and Sister Elizabeth Anne Corcoran, I heard of the author's connections to their religious order.

They led me to the obituary of one Sister Mary Cornile Dulohery, who died in 2000. She was a close friend of Margaret Mitchell's and was at her bedside at the time of her death.

Mitchell lay unconscious at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Sister Mary Cornile clutched her hand and said, "If you can hear me, squeeze my hand." The sister felt a little response. Mitchell died several days later.

I also found out that Sister Mary Cornile lived in Baltimore's Mount Washington, at Mount St. Agnes, where she received her religious education for about three years in the middle 1930s. She also nursed at Mercy Medical Center on Calvert Street for several years. She went on to oversee financing and construction of two hospitals, one in Atlanta, the other in Savannah. By all accounts, she was a remarkable woman.

This turned out to be only part of the story. After a few calls, I located Sister Felicitas Powers, retired archivist of the Baltimore Archdiocese and the former principal of Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore. She really had the Margaret Mitchell tale down cold.

For instance, I learned that Mitchell had been baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, her mother's religion. As a young woman, she spent time visiting the old Sisters of Mercy at the convent attached to St. Joseph's Infirmary in downtown Atlanta. (I know what it is to spend time on a Sunday afternoon chattering away at a convent parlor. You pick up far more valuable information there than by staying home and reading The New York Times.)

In the 1920s, Mitchell heard the stories the aged sisters spun of their Georgia childhoods in and after the Civil War. Many of the sisters were of Irish parentage. Think of it - Scarlett O'Hara. And we all know the Irish like to tell a tale, a good, long story.

One of Mitchell's favorite members of the Sisters of Mercy wound up in the book and screen, by name at least, and was played by Olivia De Havilland. She was Sister Melanie Holliday (1849-1939) who, of course, became the namesake for Melanie Hamilton, the girl who got Ashley Wilkes and ticked off Scarlett.

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