Mother of Mercy
Mother of Mercy
Early Josephite Missionary Work in Mississippi
In 1890, the first Mississippi mission for Negroes was founded by a diocesan priest, Father Derneday, who traversed the state preaching in halls and public places. Ten years later the Josephite Fathers took over his Mission including a school that was taught by Franciscan Sisters from Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania.
In 1901, Father Matthew Morrissey was appointed pastor in Mississippi where he labored 19 years in founding four out-missions and schools in strategic locations. He was followed by Father Mulroney who was assisted in this cause by the Sisters of the Holy Ghost from San Antonio, Texas.
By virtue of a 1908 contract entered into with the Most Rev. Thomas Heslin, Bishop of Natchez, the "St. Joseph's Society for Colored Missions" agreed to take over the care of the Colored Catholics along the Gulf Coast as rapidly as it could furnish priests for that purpose. They were charged with saving the faithful and bring the faith to others who as yet were outside the "pale" of the Church.
The work of the Josephites reaped many benefits in education, religious guidance, and social uplifting for the Black people attending the special mission churches along the Gulf Coast.
St. Philomena's Mission, Church, and School
In June, 1909, it was determined that Pass Christian would become part of a chain of missions along the Gulf Coast to establish a Catholic mission for Negroes. On December 1, 1909, Father Severinus Wiersma was hastily sent to Pass Christian for this purpose as well as to relieve the over-burdened Father August Althoff, pastor of St. Paul's Church, who was in a state of ill health. Prior to this time the pastors of St. Paul's Church were delegated with caring for all of Pass Christian Catholics, white and colored.
The young pastor was making strenuous efforts to form a Black congregation. The first six months were the most difficult because the colored people did not want to leave St. Paul's Church. It was there that they, their children, and their parents had attended since 1844. It was there that they were baptized, received First Communion, and their parents had had their funeral services performed. They looked at the intervention to separate them as a matter of race. They were not inclined to be torn away from their Mother Church where all the pastors were their pastors too. It was that church which they, too, had helped to fund and to repair when the need was made known. And now they were being asked to divorce the place they held holy and were confronted with paying for the purchase of land on which to erect a new church. However, there was already established a little school for colored children being taught by two Sisters of Mercy – and with continued coaxing, a congregation was slowly formed. Father Wiersma had performed nine baptisms before he was called away.
To succeed him was Father Samuel Kelly who was ordained in 1905, having attended special missionary training at the Josephite Apostolic Mission House in Washington, D.C. With forethought and diligence, he reaped a harvest from the lingering spirit of Catholicism as proffered by the earlier French settlers along the Gulf Coast. He performed his first church dedication in 1907, at Pascagoula, which at that time was known as the town of Scranton.
Father Kelly frequently told the story of the first week-long mission services at that church where Father Plantvigne was called in to participate. When Father Kelly told his congregation that Father Plantvigne was a Negro priest, the skeptical Black parishioners placed bets that the Black priest was not real and it was a trick to entice them to church. Others speculated that he might be a real Negro, but certainly not a real priest. Needless to say, the appearance of Father Plantvigne had settled all bets.
Since, for many years at Pass Christian, the Sisters of Mercy had been conducting a small cabin-school for Negroes there, it became a likely target for a mission site. A church location had already been arranged for in 1909, by Father Wiersma.
Father Samuel Kelly succeeded him on June 1, 1910, after having successfully established St. Peter's Church for the Negro community of Pascagoula. Father Kelly's reputation preceded him, making it easy for him to convert more Black members to join in his zeal. He immediately secured the ground arranged by Father Wiersma as a site of the proposed church. The purchase from J.H. Knost was later determined as an excessive cost for such a swampy location alongside the railroad tracks.
Disregarding this matter, Father Kelly appointed himself architect and hastily made preparations to erect the new church following the plans of those drawn for the church he previously built at Pascagoula. The church's foundation was laid on September 5, 1910, followed by hiring local Negroes to construct it. The sheet metal roofing was purchased from Alonzo B. Hayden of Pass Christian.
The building was completed on March 5, 1911 and was dedicated for Divine Services on March 26th by the Most Rev. Edward P. Allen, Bishop of Mobile.
Father Kelly stayed long enough to build a church and to baptize twelve Souls. He was succeeded by Father Luke Plunkett on June 30, 1911. Father Plunkett, a member of the Josephite Order of Mill Hill, England, had served 16 years in performing Mission work in Africa.
In his 1911 mid-year report, Father Plunkett gave credit for building of the mission church at Pass Christian to Father Kelly. Father Plunkett also reported that a lightning conductor was needed since a Protestant church at Pascagoula had been struck by lightning, thereby destroying that church tower. He also recommended raising funds to erect a fence around the church in order to keep out the yard cows and wandering goats. And, because the area was flat and low, it would be necessary to dig drainage ditches to keep the rain from swamping the area.
He noted that inside the church were three beautiful statues, a good harmonium in the organ loft, and vestments, cope, and candlesticks, all of which would provide good devotional purposes when the Stations of the Cross would be blessed.
The priest's house adjoining the church consisted of four rooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It was fairly furnished, but guttering was necessary to carry off the rain water.
Father Plunkett reported Church attendance at about one hundred persons, but that there were more "scattered about the place, requiring a house-to-house census to round-up our Catholic people."
Following his first six months at St. Philomena's Church, in a letter written on November 27, 1911, Father Luke Plunkett, reported to the St. Joseph's Seminary authorities that without the needed lightning rod, on August 7, during a thunder storm, lightning had struck the tower, but fortunately he and six members of the church hoisted up to the belfry to prevent the possibility of fire. He asked certain bills be paid, $50 for the steeplejack's labor on the church tower, a $150 balance on the church bell, and $500 to eliminate the church building debt balance.
He reported that the Mission was poor and that monies were raised by means of little lawn parties organized by the parishioners. ""During the summer months, the influx of visitors gave some help, but alas! . . . they are all now flown away like the swallows in autumn, so that our Sunday collection averages only $1.50."
"Many of the old folks, both Creole and Colored, speak only French, so that my knowledge of that language has been of use to me in hearing their confessions."
In a letter in March, 1914, to the Mother Church, Father Plunkett issued a Third-Year report. The League of the Apostleship of Prayer, the Sodality of the Children of Mary, the St. Cecilia Choir, as well as an Altar Boys' and Ushers' Society were church organizations that helped to encourage building a larger congregation. Creating greater attendance resulted in paying off the church debts.
Thirty children had attended a 3-day retreat prior to their First Communion Mass which was attended by all the proud parents. The children marched two-by-two, from outside the church up the center aisle to specially reserved pews, the boys wearing badges, while the girls, dressed in white, wore wreaths and veils. They all carried a candle in one hand, and a rosary and prayer book in the other.
The congregation was supportive and religiously attended a week-long special Mission's service. In all, there were four hundred and fifty Communions served, indicating the increase of visitors and "strayed sheep" who had also participated.
In 1914, Father Plunkett made the first appeal for funds to build a new school. Pursuant to this endeavor, negotiations were made with J.H. Knost to place an option on the lot adjoining the church for $750.00. For this purpose, Mother Catherine Drexel, Foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, pledged $750.00.
In taking note of Father Plunkett's continuing need for a school, Bishop John Gunn, in October, 1918, urged its construction by offering a $500 contribution providing that $2000 would be raised locally toward that purpose.
The Parishioners then proceeded to build a four-classroom facility with a meeting hall on the second level. Formal classes started on January 5, 1921, with the lay teachers from the old school included on the staff.
The Sisters of the Holy Ghost of San Antonio, Texas were invited to provide permanent staffing of the new school. This resulted in the need to build a Convent. The Sisters arrived on August 25, 1921, to prepare for school opening on September 5th, with an anticipated enrollment of 165 students. The Sisters were temporarily placed in the Rectory until the Convent was completed on November 5th. In the meantime, Father Sweeney was given a room with one of the Parish families.
The Bishop, Most Rev. John Edward Gunn, for a number of years had established his residence in Pass Christian, and personally supervised the building of the Convent at a cost of $5000.00.
On adjoining property, bordering the church lands, a house was advertized for sale at public auction. Father Sweeney resolved its purchase for $800.00. This building became the Rectory as it still exists today.
With this purchase, St. Philomena's Mission had rapidly grown in size, but also with an accompanying debt. Analyzing the gains, the Church complex encompassed more than two acres with buildings consisting of the church, the school, the convent, and the rectory — all at an overall cost approximating $26,000.00 to be born by the impoverished Negro Parishioners. With the overall endorsements of the Diocese, headed by Bishop Gunn, the Josephite Order, headed by Very Rev. L.B. Pastorelli, the whole financial package was placed with the Hancock Bank having a debt liquidation of $18,000.00.
However, economic conditions had improved for the congregation during the years before the Depression of the 1930s. Fund raiser after fund raiser was the demand of the times in order to quickly pay down on the enormous mortgage. With vigor and prayers by the congregation and the leadership of Father Sweeney, monthly notes were not only met — but in addition, they wisely made surplus payments. Bishop Gunn's presence in the community provided extensive support, which was further benefited by his securing $8000.00 from the proceeds of a Will that bequeathed funds for Catholic works of Negro churches. At the end of 1934, the balance was further reduced to a total $2000.00.
The need for a Church school was reflected in a January 1920 letter by Father Stephen Sweeney who had been placed in charge of St. Philomena as successor to Father Luke Plunkett on October 1, 1919. At that time, school construction funds that had been raised, amounted to $1800. Its construction continued as a vital part of the Mission's need.
By August 1922, Father Sweeney had established St. Philomena as a Mother Mission to smaller missions established at DeLisle and Delmas-Dedeaux communities.
The "Colored Harvest" news bulletin reported in its October 1922 issue that Pass Christian had remarkable improvements consisting of a combination school and hall, a new convent, and a new rectory indicating the dynamic pastoral energy displayed by Father Sweeney.
In June of 1928, Bishop Gerow had confirmed a class of 48 youngsters at St. Stephen's in DeLisle and a class of 54 communicants at St. Philomena's in Pass Christian.
In mid-1930, Father Sweeney appealed for aid in financing the repair of damages to the Delmas-Dedeaux mission church as a result of destructive tornadoes.
During the height of the Great Depression of the ‘30s, in a letter dated in 1933, Father Sweeney stated, "We are having a hard time to make ends meet. Our people for the most part, are simply destitute. Many have neither food, nor clothes. It is strange, but attendance at Divine Services is far greater than it was in the days of prosperity. We have two hundred and eighty children in our schools, which is the largest attendance yet. Every Sunday there is an average of two hundred Communicants."
"Coming and going to DeLisle with the Sisters, daily, I see groups of men, women and children, both colored and white, with their fishing rods trying to catch fish in order to stall off the pangs of hunger. The poor creatures in their ragged overalls and rags to cover them, look desolate, hungry, and despairing."
In October, 1935, Father Sweeney reported that the Negro schools in Pass Christian and DeLisle had an attendance of 250 students.
Hunger was still rampant as reported by Father Sweeney in December, 1937. Many responsible family men worked for as little as $1.25 per day in order to feed their families. In St. Philomena's school there were 151 students enrolled, none of whom were paying tuition — with only a few able to pay for their school books.
"The big majority of our poor colored people are still living from hand to mouth. When school age children have to endure such hardships, you know that something has gone afoul with the society responsible for such harrowing conditions. Yet so callous are certain public officials regarding the deplorable conditions that (exists) among our poor colored, that they turn a deaf ear to their pleas for relief, and divert that relief . . . to those who could get along very well without it . . . But . . . these latter, vote in the primaries; the former do not . . .!"
"I have certain men who often travel eight and nine miles on foot to work for a dollar a day. Some even for seventy-five cents a day. Now, keep in mind that while the cost of provisions increase in price, the wages of the colored man never increase."
In May of 1938, Father Sweeney continued to make appeals for financial support for the poor in his congregation who were still hapless and in continued destitute condition.
Even in 1939, he was reporting his gratitude for the small checks with which to pay the Sisters' salaries. "What a godsend that check has proved to us! And, what a relief! We may well say this, as we look upon the faces, and unfortunately ragged forms of our dear school children, the victims of a society which denies and refuses them any voice or power in the affairs of that society, as far as it concerns their progress and well-being. And, yet, through their unexampled patience in such a situation, and their trust in God, they are forging ahead despite their terrible obstacles. How are we to explain this, except that the Hand of God is with them. For throughout all, they never lost faith or trust in Him."
During the 1941 Christmas season, while touring the Gulf Coast, Father John Gillard reflected that he had left New Orleans by train to arrive at Pass Christian. "It was the first time I rode so far and so fast on two wheels. Even St. Christopher must have held his breath!"
To prepare for his arrival, he had sent a telegram to Father Sweeney, but no one met him at the Train Depot off Davis Avenue. It was later that he found out that the Church had no telephone, resulting in no telegram delivery (inspite of the fact that the church was only a block and a half away from the Depor). After visiting with Father Sweeney, he reported that the church was quickly becoming too small for the growing congregation.
Father Sweeney was a loyal, devoted pastor to the church, the school, the Sisters, and his congregation. In a September, 1944 letter of appreciation to the Bishop, he stated, "Our schools! Who can truly estimate their importance, and especially when conducted by our self-sacrificing Sisters? There the seed is sown, the seed of God's grace, in the minds and hearts of our dear little ones who are so dear to our Blessed Lord, by our devoted Sisters, who leave no stone unturned in their quest, that it will ripen into life Eternal."
Father Stephen Sweeney, Pastor, passed through life in October, 1947, after serving his Pass Christian congregation for 27 years.
Reverend George J. Strype took over as pastor during the early months of 1947. It was soon afterwards when he was called before the U.S. Senate Investigating Committee on Voter Registration. In Washington DC, Father Strype stated that he knew of attempts to deny Negroes their voting rights in Pass Christian. He disclosed that a group of his parishioners were not allowed to vote in the "run-off election" for city officials, even though they had voted in the primaries. He emphatically characterized the act as "the most damnable demonstration of demagoguery in the history of our Southland!"
In May, 1950, he announced that groundbreaking ceremonies would be held in September 1950 for the Father Sweeney Memorial School — in commemorating Father Sweeney's 27 years of devotion to the Catholic congregation of St. Philomena. The former wooden structure was dismantled and replaced with a sturdy brick and tile building which exists today as a Parish Hall.
Father Strype announced in February, 1951, that the school was able to serve hot lunches to the children.
In 1954, Father John Rottmann became pastor to St. Philomena and St. Stephen's churches.
Father John J. Murphy succeeded as pastor in 1958. In the annual appreciation letter of assistance to New York, as had been mailed by all prior pastors, he stated that the teaching Sisters belonged to the Order of the Servants of the Holy Ghost. He mentioned that the parents continued to make many sacrifices for their children and that the Sisters untiringly worked with the little funds they had. "Suffer little children to come unto me!" In spite of the conditions, he praised the glory of the wonderful accomplishments being made.
In July, 1960, he reported that the school was the life of the Parish – the boys on the basketball court; – the girls with jump ropes and playing hop-scotch and jacks; – and, the younger ones playing tag and running about with great joy.
Father Murphy reported that St. Philomena celebrated its Golden Jubilee in June 1961. The Parishioners were filled with pride in reviewing the fifty years of progress and the several generations of members who had attended the school and the church.
Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church
On May 24, 1961, because officials at Rome declared that St. Philomena's name had never been confirmed as a saint, the Church name was changed to "Our Mother of Mercy."
In 1963, Father Philip McLoone was appointed pastor for Our Mother of Mercy. Through his religious and civic leadership, and an aroused community, application was made to the Office of Economic Opportunity, which resulted in funding the Head Start Program for the summer of 1965.
With the paid and voluntary staff gathered by Father McLoone and the active advisory board, the program was named a national model and was funded again in 1966 and 1967, thereby initiating the ground work for it to become a permanent program for the Pass Christian district.
The Head Start Program allowed pre-school aged enrolled children to look forward to daily creative activity periods consisting of music appreciation, show-and-tell, story time, and indoor and outdoor free play time. Children are also provided nutritious hot lunches and snacks during each day and each is examined for health and social services requirements by trained professionals. The program targets the culturally deprived in giving them successful learning experiences and grade school preparedness.
However, the regular school that had started in 1921, closed in 1967, due to the lack of religious instructors. The 1966 school year reported 130 students in 8 elementary grades, with four classrooms and four teachers.
Hurricane Camille slammed into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi about 11 o'clock on the night of August 17, 1969, causing great destruction to life and property.
Father Philip McLoone had earlier gone to his people's homes urging them to leave, but they refused, saying that they had ridden out other storms and they were not afraid. At 10:00 p.m., he forced his housekeeper Miss Myrtle and her sister to leave for the Civil Defense Shelter set up at St. Paul's auditorium. By the time they arrived, after skirting around fallen trees and strewn live wires, the winds were blowing so hard they had to hold on to one another.
Father McLoone left them in order to seek out more refugees. During the height of the storm, he gave the last rites to an old lady who had a heart attack and died.
The next morning, the housekeeper found a ring of mud four feet high inside their house. Everything in the house was wet or destroyed. Further, at Mother of Mercy Church, the rectory, church and school were practically inundated by the flood waters which rose half way up the altar. The pews were covered with mud and all the statues were soaked and ruined. The baptismal font and the Paschal Candle were found floating outside. The roof of the rectory had blown off. The school and the convent showed the same picture of desolation.
Nevertheless, the church remained in better condition. To the rear of the church, a neighbor's large house straddled the railroad tracks. It had floated across the rails and was left there stranded by the receding waters.
With the destruction and scheduled demolition and reconstruction of a new St. Paul's Church on Beach Boulevard, many of the white congregation began attending Mass and other services at Our Mother of Mercy.
Other pastors to follow were: Father Alphonse Riley in1972, during whose administration began the Mother of Mercy Church festival "Bazaars" in 1973. Father John Ellord followed in 1974, Father Phillip McLoone returned in 1975, Father Robert Bowen – 1977, Father Joseph Brown – 1979, and Father Cornelius Sexton – 1980, during whose term, the present CYO was formed in 1984 --- with Otis Gates and Theresa Atkinson as its first Advisors.
In 1986, Father Vincent Keenan became Pastor and reported that during its 75th Year, Parish records showed that since 1911, there had been 750 Baptisms, 955 First Communions, 421 Confirmations, 98 converts, 303 deaths, and 335 marriages.
Father Joseph Calamari succeeded as Pastor, in 1990, followed in 1997, by a first time Josephite priest from Nigeria. Father John Olsom led the congregation during church repairs to the roof and the installation of new stained glass windows
Father Bartholomew Endslow was appointed Pastor in 1998, as he celebrated his 50 years in God's Service while serving the Parishioners with great faith and counsel. Through his guidance, funds were raised to provide major church internal renovations that took place during the celebration of the 90th Anniversary of Our Mother of Mercy Church in 2001.
Bishop Howze had offered to the Parish through Father Endslow the construction of a new building, but the church leaders declined this offer in keeping the only unchanged originally structured Catholic Church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.