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A group of nuns known as the Sisters of Loretto arrived in Arkansas in 1938 from Loretto, Kentucky. The Mother Superior was Sister Agnes Hart, who died on August 20, 1839. She was the last nun in the United States to be buried using an ancient ritual, without a coffin.
Thirty years later, in 1869, the Arkansas River shifted and was threatening to wash away St. Mary Church and the cemetery where Sister Agnes was buried. The log cabin church was placed on a barge and moved to where it now sits, Plum Bayou. Today, St. Mary Catholic Church is the oldest Christian worship structure in Arkansas.
After moving the church, the people of Pine Bluff proceeded to move the cemetery by digging up the graves and moving the remains to the new location at Plum Bayou. When they dug up Sister Agnes’s grave, they reportedly found her body to be intact, not decayed but petrified—solid rock! They placed her body in a coffin and re-buried her at Plum Bayou, where her body remains interred.
Another significant figure was the late Rev. Msgr. J. M. Lucey. Besides becoming the first editor of the state’s first Catholic newspaper, Lucey, at age 17, joined the Fort Smith Rifles, Company A, Third Arkansas Infantry and fought in the Civil War until taken prisoner and later paroled in 1864. After the war, Lucey helped found the Pine Bluff Colored Industrial Institute in 1889, which was the predecessor to St. Peter School.