In the 1980's, a half dozen orders of Catholic nuns looked around the country to see where they could be most helpful, and they began sending members into the Delta, with the support of the Diocese of Jackson, Miss. Since then, several hundred nuns have settled in communities like Tutwiler, Tunica, Marks, Rosedale and Jonestown — places that whites had deserted with the desegregation of schools.
With little fanfare and no government help to speak of, these sisters help reinforce the town's crowded and underfinanced public schools. They are also nurses, doctors, counselors and community organizers. They build medical clinics, nonsectarian preschools for the youngest children and houses with Habitat for Humanity volunteers.
They provide the towns' only refuges for many children to do homework or make decorations for Halloween. They organize programs for teenage girls as alternatives to becoming pregnant.
Using church and private donations — nothing from government agencies — they have opened a new brick Community Education Center in Tutwiler with a big gymnasium. In Jonestown this year, they opened a Montessori school for children ages 2 to 6.
People say the sisters keep their towns afloat in the face of the Delta's intractable poverty. Lavorn Burnett, 51, and her husband, Donal, 52, own a service station next to Jonestown's cramped City Hall. They use the health clinic of Manette Durand, 60-ish, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
A nurse practitioner, Sister Manette is the only health care provider in town. "She can do everything but cutting," Mrs. Burnett said. "She takes time to talk to you. You can call her if you're having a problem. You can talk to her like friends. She gives you the advice you need to make a decision.