Behind the Gates with the Sisters of Mercy

When you stroll the streets of downtown Savannah during the day, the towering presence of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist looms over the city. What’s often overlooked is the quiet structure that sits in its shadow. With its subdued mason walls, wrought iron gates and near-silent presence, it’s understandable why you might forget you’re looking at St. Vincent’s Academy, the only established all-girls preparatory school in Savannah. But once inside, it’s anything but quiet. While there might not be the traditional buzzing of school bells throughout the day because, as Principal Mary Anne Hogan likes to put it, “Our girls know where they need to be on their own,” the school day is alive and kicking behind the academy’s gates. Immediately past the school’s main plaza and courtyard, in the back corner of the campus, lies a section of the school affectionately nicknamed “The Dungeon.” The term has stuck with generations of students even though the building is more formally known as the basement of the convent. “I don’t know where that name originated from,” Vice Principal Sister Pat Coward wryly admits with a chuckle. As you walk down the stairs, however, the reasoning behind the term becomes evident. Your feet touch a well-worn hallway of laid brick, and you can observe pipes running the length of the hallway on either side. The ceiling seems lower here than other parts of campus, and you become conscious of the echo of footsteps. At one time The Dungeon has been a kitchen, a kindergarten and a dining room that served as part of the convent, but not anymore. On this particular day, near the end of the hallway lies a darkened room with lights casting eerie shadows on a cattle skull and bones sprawled across a table. Maybe the nickname isn’t so off the mark after all.

Images by Greg Ceo