Mississippi, Catholic Church in
MISSISSIPPI, CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
A state in southern U.S., bounded on the north by Tennessee, on the east by Alabama, on the south by a portion of Louisiana and an arm of the Gulf of Mexico, and on the west by the Pearl River and the Mississippi River, which separates the state from Arkansas and Louisiana. The two Catholic dioceses in the state, Natchez-Jackson (1837, renamed diocese of Jackson in 1977) and Biloxi (1977) are suffragan sees of the archdiocese of Mobile.
History. In 1540 Hernando De Soto and his Spanish expedition passed through this region. Several priests accompanied him; but since in a previous attack by Native Americans they had lost their Mass wine and some utensils, Mass probably was not offered here at that time. The earliest French explorers of the Mississippi River were Louis Jolliet and Rev. Jacques marquette (1673) and R. C. de la salle (1682). Accompanying La Salle's expedition was Rev. Zenobius Membre, who on Easter Sunday, March 29, near the present site of Fort Adams, celebrated the first Mass on Mississippi soil of which there is a definite record. In 1699 missionaries from the Seminary of Quebec, Canada, descended the Mississippi River to work among the Indians and took up their stations near present Natchez. In the same year the French established a temporary settlement in what later became Ocean Springs. In 1717 they founded Natchez, and in 1720, Biloxi; other settlements were established soon after. During the latter half of the 18th century Great Britain and Spain in turn dominated this area. When in 1798 Spain withdrew in favor of the U.S, the Spanish-trained Irish clergy who had served in the area also withdrew. The Mississippi Territory (including the future Alabama) was then organized. Its government was modeled on the Northwest Ordinance with one major exception, the toleration of slavery. In 1817 Mississippi was admitted to the Union as the 20th state.
Antebellum Period. Post-territorial Catholic Mississippi was successively part of the Diocese of Baltimore, the proposed (1822) but not implemented vicariate of Alabama and Mississippi, the Diocese of Louisiana and, in 1826, the Diocese of New Orleans. In July 28, 1837 Gregory XVI established the Diocese of Natchez (later redesignated jackson) to embrace the whole state of Mississippi. Although the diocese was established on July 28, 1837, it was almost four years before Bishop John Chanche, the first ordinary, was consecrated, March 14, 1841. When he arrived in Mississippi on May 19, he found two sizable Catholic communities at Natchez and Vicksburg, a large number of families and small communities along the Gulf Coast, and an unknown number of families and individuals scattered throughout the state. The state had no Catholic churches or institutions and only two priests.
Mississippi's economy, politics, and culture were molded during the 1830s when former Native American lands were opened to settlement. An influx of immigrants quickly followed, and the growing presence of Baptist and Methodist congregations gave the state its predominately Protestant religious profile. Cotton-based agriculture, mainly worked first by black slaves and later by sharecroppers, created a distinctive political, social, and economic society that endured until World War II. Strong regional differences appeared between the planter societies of the river counties and the small farms of the north and the Piney Woods. Simultaneously the "race question" shaped the state's future.
Mississippi Catholicism grew both in numbers and organization under the antebellum leadership of Bishops John Chanche (1841–1852), James Oliver Van de Velde, S.J. (1853–1855), and William Henry Elder (1857–1880). By 1861, the diocese numbered about 10,000 Catholics served by one bishop and eighteen diocesan priests; thirteen parishes with resident priests and twenty-eight mission stations; fifteen churches with several more under construction; five parochial schools, two day schools, three boarding schools, and two orphanages staffed by five religious communities and several lay teachers; numerous parish devotional, altar, and charitable societies; and regular parish missions and clerical conferences. Bishop Chanche laid the foundation for an imposing cathedral that he viewed as "the needed stimulus to the whole mission."
Civil War and Reconstruction. Mississippi was a major battleground during the Civil War. Natchez, Vicksburg, Jackson, Meridian, Okolona, and Corinth were among the Catholic communities that were battle sites or suffered property damage. Catholic church facilities at Jackson were destroyed three times by Federal troops. Bishop William Henry Elder was briefly sent into exile in Louisiana in July, 1864, when he refused to allow the local Federal military commander to dictate specific prayers for Northern civil authorities at Mass.
The war left the state devastated politically, economically, and socially; brought ruin to numerous families whose fathers were killed or disabled; and depleted the already meager resources of Mississippi Catholicism. Mississippi was readmitted to the Union in 1870, but remained under a reconstruction government until 1875. The state was hampered by an undiversified agriculture, the lack of industry, poor education, and a primitive financial system based on merchants.
The greatest post-war challenge was the peaceful, productive incorporation of newly-freed blacks into Mississippi life; this challenge was met, after a brief reconstruction period, by a political-economic-social structure of sharecropping, segregation, and disenfranchisement that closely mirrored antebellum, slave society.
Bishop Elder worked among the camps for freed blacks outside Natchez during the final years of the war and struggled to find the resources to address the challenge of evangelizing them. By 1884, Mississippi numbered 1,500 African American Catholics. Bishop Francis Janssens (1881–1887) adopted an approach common in missionary lands—small chapel-schools overseen by priests but staffed by trained African American catechists. In 1890, Holy Family Parish, the state's first parish for African Americans, was established at Natchez. Between 1906 and 1914, seven additional parishes for African Americans were founded at Vicksburg, Pascagoula, Jackson, Meridian, Pass Christian, Greenville, and Biloxi; all were staffed by Josephites or Divine Word Fathers.
Early Twentieth Century. Despite the upheavals of reconstruction and its aftermath, Mississippi Catholicism took on a new vigor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century under the leadership of Bishops Francis Janssens, Thomas Heslin (1889–1911), and John Gunn, S.M. (1911–1924). More than 250 Catholic communities, many short-lived, existed in the state between 1865 and 1910. The Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the American Board of Catholic Missions, the Indian and Colored Missions Fund, and the Catholic Church Extension Society provided a significant part of the financial resources for these communities. Even today the diocese of Jackson receives funding from these sources.
After statehood, a series of broken treaties and government policies of displacement to Native American Territory left Mississippi with only 2,300 Native Americans by 1900. Through the initiative of Bishop Francis Janssens, a small, active Catholic Choctaw community, centered in the Philadelphia area, developed in the late nineteenth century and remains a vital part of Mississippi Catholicism. By 1917, more than 28,000 Catholics were scattered across the state in 41 parishes, 69 missions, and 54 stations; 11 percent were African Americans. Forty-two schools and two orphanages had a combined enrollment of 4,736; 29 percent of the students were African Americans;.8 percent, Choctaws.
When Bishop John Gunn arrived in 1911, he set as one of his primary goals to establish chapels throughout the state. With generous aid from the Catholic Church Extension Society, more than twenty-five new churches and chapels were built between 1912 and 1924 alone. With Bishop Gunn's encouragement, the Society of the Divine Word established a seminary to train African American priests, first at Greenville in 1920, and then at Bay St. Louis in 1921. The first four graduates were ordained in 1934, and several later graduates were among the country's pioneer twentieth-century African American bishops, including Harold Perry (New Orleans), Terry J. Steib (St. Louis/Memphis), and Dominic Carmen (New Orleans).
The Gerow Era. Bishop Gunn's successor, Richard O. Gerow, shephered the Church in Mississippi for over forty years (1924–1966), during which time the state, like the rest of the country, suffered through the depression of the 1930s, World War II and its aftermath, and later the civil rights movement. When newly consecrated Bishop Gerow arrived, Catholicism was Mississippi's third largest religious denomination, after the Baptists and Methodists. The state had 31,387 Catholics served by 60 priests, but only 42 of the state's 149 churches and chapels had a resident pastor. 5,829 children were being educated in 41 Catholic schools.
The church had all it could do to hold its own during the 1930s when parishes and other Catholic institutions suffered the harsh effects of the depression. The post World War II years, however, witnessed the waning of Mississippi's insularity and isolation as it became more industrialized and assimilated into the mainstream of the American economy. It was also a period of major administrative change in the Catholic Church in Mississippi. In 1952, Bishop Gerow divided the diocese into nine deaneries, and the following he year moved the bishop's residence and chancery from historic Natchez to Jackson. In 1953 he launched a diocesan newspaper, the Mississippi Register (later Mississippi Today and then Mississippi Catholic ) to replace the Natchez edition of Catholic Action of the South, a cooperative venture of the Louisiana and Mississippi dioceses. On Dec. 18, 1956 the name of the diocese was changed to Natchez-Jackson.
The most striking changes in Mississippi society took place in the area of race relations. Bishop Gerow had worked quietly and within the existing legal and social structure to expand opportunities among the region's African American population. He concentrated on establishing parishes and strong schools with sisters in urban areas, and acted forcefully against all blatant acts of discrimination in diocesan churches.
The issue of desegregating Catholic schools came to a head in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision. The violence with which some Mississippians opposed integration, evidenced in the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, prodded the mild-tempered Bishop Gerow to take a more public and forceful stance. On June 14, he issued a statement that proclaimed a mutual responsibility for Evers' murder and the growing violence and pleaded for a common ground "based on human dignity and the concept of justice under God's law." On Aug. 4, 1964, Gerow, at the urging of auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brunini and Father Bernard Law (the future Cardinal Archbishop of Boston), ordered the integration of the first grade in all Catholic schools of the diocese. The following year he ordered the integration of all grades.
The Brunini Years. Bishop Gerow was succeed by his auxiliary, Joseph B. Brunini. A native of Vicksburg, Brunini had studied and was ordained to the priesthood in Rome, received a doctorate in canon law from the Catholic University of America in Washington, and served as a pastor before being ordained as auxiliary bishop in 1957. Bishop Brunini had attended the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). It fell to him to guide Mississippi's Catholics through the implementation of integration.
In 1967, Bishop Brunini committed the diocese to full integration of Catholic schools. He established an open, participative style of leadership, fostered lay participation and ministry, expanded the Church's social ministry, led the state's efforts to break down racial barriers, and worked to establish closer bonds with other Churches. In his 1969 Christmas homily, Bishop Brunini called for Mississippi's religious leaders to speak with a united voice to bring about racial justice and peace. Soon afterwards, the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference was established with Brunini as the first chairman. The conference became a major voice in the state, urging political leaders to foster education and end segregation and racism throughout the state. Brunini's support encouraged Sister Thea Bowman, a Missionary Sister Servant of the Holy Ghost, who served in the diocese from 1961 until her death from cancer in 1990. She became a national voice for change and reconciliation, proclaiming her message in word and song.
During his tenure, Catholic services to the needy, poor and elderly rapidly expanded. He actively recruited Irish clergy, formed the Catholic Foundation in 1973, established new personnel and finance policies, encouraged the establishment of parish councils, and fostered adult education programs. Under Brunini's leadership, the diocese agreed to staff Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Saltillo, Mexico. Although begun as a provincial venture, Brunini and the Catholic people of Mississippi soon adopted, funded, and supplied clergy for the mission.
On March 1, 1977 Pope Paul VI established a second diocese in Mississippi. The seventeen southern counties were organized into the Diocese of Biloxi. Bishop Joseph L. Howze was named the first bishop. Later that year, June 6, 1977, the name of the other diocese was redesignated as the Diocese of Jackson. In 1980, the two Mississippi dioceses became part of the new ecclesiastical Province of Mobile. In 2000, the Biloxi diocesan administration moved to a new Catholic chancery building. On July 2, 2001, Msgr. Thomas J. Rodi, a native New Orleanian and former Vicar General of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was ordained as Biloxi's second bishop. Bishop William R. Houck who had succeeded Brunini in Jackson in 1984 establshed spiritual renewal as one of his first priorities.
Between 1950 and 2000, the number of Mississippi Catholics increased from 50,559 to 115,196. By 2000, Catholics numbered about 4.2% of the state's total population, a significant increase from 2.4% a half century earlier. The largest concentrations were on the Gulf Coast, in the capital city of Jackson, and in Vicksburg. While the number of priests actually increased slightly, the number of religious brothers and sisters serving in the state declined by fifteen percent. In 1950, priests constituted3.5% of the Catholic population; brothers and sisters, 8.8%; and the laity, 87.7%. By 2000, these figures had changed to 1.7%, 3.3%, and 95% respectively.
Bibliography: cleta ellington, Christ: The Living Water, Catholic Church in Mississippi (Jackson 1989). richard o.gerow, Catholicity in Mississippi (Natchez 1939). michael namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984: A History (West-port, Connecticut 1998). charles e. nolan, St. Mary's of Natchez: the History of a Southern Catholic Congregation, 1716–1988 (Natchez: St. Mary's Parish, 1992); "The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1865–1911." Manuscript in preparation for publication by the Center for Louisiana Studies. james j. pillar, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837–1865 (New Orleans 1964). john ray skates, Mississippi: a Bicentennial History (New York 1979).
[r. o. gerow/
c. e. nolan]