Sister scandal perfect material for scintillating story

Sister scandal perfect material for scintillating story
If I were ever to write a novel about South Dakota, I would choose the Mary Paul saga of 1882 as the basis for my literary work.

That's when Sister Mary Paul married her Russian-born physician � Dr. Vladimir D. Sebiakin-Ross � in a wedding ceremony in a private home performed by Rev. Joseph Ward, the founder of Yankton College.

In a later age the marriage would have gone relatively unnoticed, but 124 years ago the circumstances were decidedly different.


The scandal at the time reached the New York press � and papers in between � when Catholics from Dakota Territory (South Dakota didn't become a state until seven years later) weren't used to taking it on the chin.

Sister Mary Paul � known in the wedding party as Miss Nellie Kerns � apparently was a gung-ho fund raiser for the Sisters of Mercy school in the territorial capital. Doctor Sebiakin-Ross advertised a hospital for treating diseases of women � and that opened up lots of angles for a fiction writer.

Despite her disavowals, the wedding did indeed take place. Reverend Ward denied that he was marrying a nun because he had never seen her with her habit, and that got him off the hook.

Local legend has it that the attractive young Sister would visit various business places, including William S. Stockwell's cigar factory, soliciting funds for her school. The 21-year-old Stockwell, smitten by her beauty, presumably said � after the new sof her marriage socked the community:

"If she was going to do it, why couldn't it have been me?"

Then, Stockwell introduced a cigar which he named the Mary Paul. To make sure that no one would miss the inspiration for the product, he put a picture of a nun on the box � which is now a valuable antique.

Whether the stogie-maker's remark was true or not (a novel writer has some poetic license), the Mary Paul cigar caused almost as much controversy as the wedding itself. Local smokers applied pressure to have the nun's picture removed from the box.

They eventually succeeded when Stockwell, who never married, sold out in the early 1900s.

However, there is more to the story.

Mary Paul, now married, returned to the convent, put on her habit, and didn't tell anyone about the affair. She supposedly deceived the Sisters and went about her business as before.

But less than three months later, the local paper reported that the Sisters of Mercy sold their property and withdrew from the city. They had signed a note calling for 12 percent interest, and neither their academy income nor the mostly unpaid pledges were sufficient to bail them out.

The Mary Paul scandal was presumably the final blow which caused them to leave.

Dr. and Mrs. Sebiakin-Ross eventually moved to Sioux Falls where he continued his practice � and Mary Paul (Nellie Kerns) cared for their children.

Needless to say, the story has all the elements of a novel which I'll never write. But you've got to admit that the plot is intriguing!

� 2006 Robert F. Karolevitz

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