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Local history seen through the eyes of Sister John Mary Jackson

RESERVE — Sister John Mary Jackson has been a nun with the Sisters of the Holy Family for nearly 60 years, and she fondly remembers her upbringing in the small community of Milesville.

Her father, Charlie Jackson, served as the first African American engineer for the Godchaux Sugar Refinery and was well respected in the community. He served as operator for Train No. 7 from 4 p.m. to midnight each day. Sister John Mary, known by her birth name Margaret at the time, looked forward to waking up in time to meet him at the door and enjoy a midnight snack.

Earlier this month, Sister John Mary and other descendants of Charlie Jackson attended a ceremony in his honor near the site of the Godchaux-Reserve House on River Road. Members of the Godchaux-Reserve House Historical Society reflected on Jackson’s 43 years of service as an engineer for the Godchaux Sugar industry.

Local historian Gerald Keller said it was uncommon for African American men born in the early 1900s to become locomotive engineers. Keller interviewed Sister John Mary in the Haik Store building near the Godchaux-Reserve House as part of an ongoing effort to record and preserve the stories of employees who worked for Godchaux Sugar.

Jackson retired from the position in 1962 but was still called upon from time to time, according to Sister John Mary. He was a great worker who was always particular about being on time, but Sister John Mary remembers him as an even greater family man.

“My dad never left the house without kissing my mom and me. When he got back, he did the same thing,” Sister John Mary recalled. “I think he always wanted a son, but when he got to know me and I got to know him quite well, he loved having a daughter. My father gave me a little child’s engineer uniform, and I would dress up with the little cap and overalls to match his. I remember one Saturday when he took me back to where New Era is now, but back in those days they had plantation homes and big fields.”

Sister John Mary said people loved her dad and he loved them, and that love knew no bounds of nationalities or ethnic groups at the time. He seemed to know everyone in LaPlace and easily got along with the shop owners in town.

According to Sister John Mary’s account, Charlie Jackson was a man of many talents. He was a storyteller, a gardener, a carpenter and a counselor rolled into one.

“My dad did not have a formal education, but he knew how to talk to people. People from the neighborhood would come to him for counseling,” she said. “And, oh, every year he would plant at least an acre of okra and tomatoes and all kinds of vegetables, and he called the people to come and get it. He would give it away just to see the joy of the people who needed it.”

Sister John Mary also remembers that her father could build or fix just about anything with this trusty tool kit, and he passed the tools of the trade down to her. Whenever a window repair arose during her time as a principal later on in life, she knew just how to fix it without waiting on others.

Sister John Mary’s mother, Viola Wilson Jackson, was also well respected in the community as a talented seamstress who would make little children’s dresses, formal gowns and the overalls the men would wear.

Viola Wilson Jackson was a Catholic from birth. Back in the days when churches were still segregated, she would walk along the levee from LaPlace to St. Peter Catholic School in Reserve to attend Mass. Charlie Jackson was raised as a Methodist, but he made the decision later on in life to become a Catholic. His daughter ended up being his sponsor for confirmation.

Attending Our Lady of Grace Catholic School in Reserve from first through 12th grade greatly influenced Sister John Mary Jackson’s life. In fact, she realized she had a calling to religious service when she was a second grader at the school.

She paid close attention to the nurse who taught her class, taking note of how loving she was toward the children and how much the class respected her.

In the third grade, John Mary would fashion her mother’s black skirts into a veil and stare at herself in the mirror. She was ready to join the Convent by the time she was in eighth grade, but everyone encouraged her to enjoy high school first.
“ I enjoyed dances and going to prom and my debutante ball. I took part in all the social activities. When I entered the Convent, I knew exactly what I was giving up,” Sister John Mary said.

She graduated from high school in May 1961 and entered the Convent on September 8 of the same year. This fall marks the 60th anniversary of her commitment to the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Sister John Mary spent 10 years as a principal and 35 years as an administrator in various schools around the world, and she enjoyed every minute of it. She currently serves as the local leader of the Mother House for the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans. It’s a 24/7 job, and days are filled with a little bit of everything, from taking care of the Sisters to ordering supplies.

Even now, all those years after growing up in her parents’ household in Milesville, Sister John Mary keeps a tool kit with her in the Mother House. Every time she reaches toward it for small repairs, she remembers her father.