Origins of St. Paul Catholic Church - Pass Christian
On July 28, 1837, the Diocese of Natchez was established in Mississippi. Pope Gregory XVI appointed Right Rev. John J. Chanche on December 15, 1840 as Bishop over an area covering 46,340 square miles. At that time, he had no religious staffing to support him.
Pass Christian’s first Catholic Mission Church was built in 1844, by Father Guillame Labbe. Towards the end of 1847, Father Louis Marie Stanislaus Buteux, stationed at Bay St Louis, also administered to the small Pass Mission Church.
In May 1850, Father Antoine Paul Guerard became the first resident priest for Pass Christian. While stationed there, besides building a fine church in Pass Christian, he built a small Mission Church on the Jourdan River at the Kiln.
In May 1853, Father Peter Holton was appointed Pastor During his years of service, he also attended other areas by making monthly visits to Mississippi City during 1855, and building a church at Handsboro in 1861. He also administered to Ocean Springs in 1860 and in Lynchburg during 1856.
He fell ill in 1861, leaving the Pass to be attended to by Father Heuze and Father Picherit. Later, due to the pressing needs brought about by the Civil War, Father Holton was transferred to Canton, MS, after leaving instructions with Father Leduc of Bay St Louis to take care of the Pass, which by then, had a Catholic church participation of about one hundred souls.
On July 29, 1853, Right Rev. James Oliver Van de Velde was appointed Bishop of the Diocese, but died on November 13, 1855, due to an accident.
On May 3, 1857,Right Rev. William Henry Elder, was appointed Bishop. He spent the Civil War years on the battle fields and in hospitals.
On July 17, 1863, Francis Pont was appointed Pastor. In 1865, he purchased the property in the rear of the church and improved the existing house as a Rectory. Father Pont also expanded the size of the Church to provide more pews and added a front vestibule.
Father Pont built the first schoolhouse which he situated west of the church. It was a two-story structure measuring 50 by 18 feet, consisting of two classrooms downstairs and provided a Rectory upstairs, thus leaving the former priest house for Sisters for whom he had hoped would establish a girl’s school for Pass Christian. He also expanded the cemetery. In addition, he also built churches at DeLisle and Red Creek Road and attended to Handsboro and Mississippi City monthly.
While at the Pass, he witnessed the opening of the St. Mary’s College for boys that had been established by the Christian Brothers in 1865.
In September 1867, while personally administering to building a fence around the St. Paul Cemetery, he fell ill and soon after, died from Yellow Fever.
Henry Georget was appointed Pastor in January 1868. While serving in other areas, he dedicated the Handsboro Church on December 25, 1868. In the Pass, he continued the uncompleted work of expanding the school, church, and cemetery started by Father Pont.. Through his efforts, three Sisters of Mercy arrived on January 11, 1870 to open the Girl’s School consisting of 30 pupils.
These were Mother Superior Mary Vincent Browne, Sister Mary Aloysius Houch and Sister Mary Berchmans Petit who established themselves in a small four-room cottage on Second Street.
Because of the inadequate living conditions for the Sisters, in 1870, Father Georget purchased 42 ½ feet on the east side of the church property to erect a new Convent.
The Christian Brothers College suffered through bad times, even with the continued assistance of Father Georget, who donated to them his entire salary for 1871. The College closed in 1875, resulting in the responsive Sisters providing education for the boys in separate classes with the girls in 1876.
In 1874, Father Georget had promoted The Blessed Virgin Sodality which started with 18 members. He also helped form The Sodality of the Infant.
In the mean time, in February 1876, the church and 14 other neighboring downtown buildings were lost to fire. In May 1879, a new church was completed measuring one hundred feet long by forty-three feet wide and twenty-five feet high. The tower and spire were one hundred feet high. A bell was purchased in 1880. While construction was underway, The Hall, as it was called, located west of the future Rectory, was used as temporary facilities for the Church.
On February 2, 1880, Father Florimond Joseph Blanc was introduced as the new Pastor. He was a wise fiscal officer as he faced the economic stresses of the Parish and neighboring communities. It became Blanc’s project to furnish the interior of the new church building. The Altar was built by Frank Wittmann in 1882.
Father Blanc urged the beginnings of The Apostleship of Prayer and The League of the Sacred Heart on April 11, 1882.
In 1887, Blanc purchased 42 ½ feet on the east side of the church property. In 1888, the four-room Sisters’ Convent from Second Street was refurbished and moved to the newly prepared grounds.
On May 1, 1881, Rt. Rev. Francis Janssens was appointed the Fourth Bishop of Natchez. His first visit to the Coast and the Pass was on June 11 and dedicated the new church on Sunday, June 13, 1881.
On June 18, 1889, Rt. Rev. Thomas Heslin was consecrated fifth Bishop of Natchez after having served as Pastor to St. Michael’s Church in New Orleans.
In October 1890, Father Victor Bally was appointed Pastor by Bishop Heslin. He had previously served as Parish Administrator during a temporary absence of Father Blanc in 1888.
On September 13, 1896, Father Aloise J.M. Van Waesberghe was appointed Pastor, having previously served in missionary capacity for the areas of Jourdan River and Ocean Springs.
During his former tenure as a missionary priest, in 1882, he had written Bishop Janssens, stating the fact that during winters, he had to travel 50 to 60 miles on roads that were waist high in water with few or no people to be greeted. In another letter, he wrote, “Rain almost every day– Water bound for five days – had to wade bayous waist deep – bridges are swept away – horses fall down – Mass attendance low – No Easter Communions – alone in my house – Servant gone.”
Father Aloise was transferred from Pass Christian to Bay St Louis in June 1903, where he died in 1906.
In July 1903, Father Auguste Althoff became Pastor. He took charge of building the Rectory on the beach side of the Church grounds and added a second floor to the Convent with constructions completed in 1904. He had stained glass windows placed in the church in 1905 and a spacious sacristy built in the rear. Stations of the Cross were erected and new pews were installed in 1908. He also improved the school buildings and added a second floor, in 1909.
As a summer resort, Pass Christian was attracting more and more visitors each year. Church accommodation became an urgent need. When built in 1879, the congregation numbered about five hundred souls. With the colored population and the summer increases of visitors. In 1910, it was decided to erect a separate church for the Colored parishioners.
Father Althoff was considered one of the most active priests who brought about many changes to the Catholic compound and all of its buildings.
On August 29, 1911, Right Rev. John Edward Gunn was appointed the sixth Bishop of the Natchez Diocese. Failing to find a temporary replacement for Father Althoff, who was in bad health and needed a sabbatical leave; finally, in December 1914, it was decided that Bishop Gunn himself would assume the Pastor’s role in the Pass.
This resulted in Bishop Gunn making the Pass his home for a number of years, where he served both as Mississippi’s Bishop and the Pass’s Pastor.
In April 1915, Father John J Burns was appointed Administrator. On October 3, 1915, a severe hurricane hit the Coast and damaged all of the church buildings in the Pass. The Church spire crashed through the roof and the Rectory was severely damaged. But with Bishop Gunn’s presence, all of the buildings were quickly repaired and improved upon. The Convent and the Rectory were enlarged and concrete walks were laid to all the buildings.
In 1903, Pass resident Ellen Curran bequeathed half the proceeds of her home to the Convent. The funds were used to build the second story and to renovate the Chapel.
On October 12, 1920, Father William J Leech was appointed Administrator.
On June 24, 1922, Father Leech erected both Senior and Junior branches of The Holy Name Society.
While Bishop Gunn maintained his residency in the Pass, in September 1921, he dedicated a beach-side social club as a facility for the male parishioners, naming it St. Paul’s Club.
On December 20, 1923, Bishop Gunn left Pass Christian to officiate in the Christmas Mass at the Cathedral in Natchez. While there, he fell ill and died the following February.
Another grand accomplishment to occur during Bishop Gunn’s stay was the enlargement of the St. Paul Cemetery. In 1923, the cemetery was extended a hundred feet on the northern boundary and sewer drains were laid through the extension. Iron fencing was placed along its front side in 1925.
On November 12, 1924, Right Rev. Richard Oliver Gerow was appointed Bishop of the Natchez - Jackson Diocese. Bishop Gerow was the first American born Bishop to serve in Mississippi, having been born in Alabama.
On July 20, 1925, Bishop Gerow appointed Father Leech as Pastor of the Pass Christian Catholic Church.
Bishop Gerow is particularly noted for his promotion of three noted publications on the Catholic history of Mississippi. They are: Catholicity of Mississippi by Bishop R.O. Gerow, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837 - 1865 by Father James J. Pillar, and The Story f the Sisters of Mercy in Mississippi by Mother Mary Bernard.
The new St. Paul’s Church was dedicated by Bishop Brunini on Sunday, February 27, 1972. The new triangular-shaped steel structure with exterior walls of white stucco finish. was built as hurricane resistant with seating for 550 people. Added design features included controlled lighting and audio-visual response equipment. The baptismal font is sunk in the floor at the sanctuary and nearby is an electric organ in a below surface well. A very ornate bronze crucifix casting stands seven feet to mark the altar centerpiece.
Bishop Brunini’s Message of January 6, 1972
. . . The present generation at St. Paul's can feel blessed in that they have been given the opportunity to build a home for God's dwelling on this earth of ours and a place of worship for our people.
. . . I am sure that all of us are grateful for the response of Bishops, priests, religious and laity after the disaster of Hurricane Camille, enabling us to rebuild the coastal area of our diocese.
One of the first parish ceremonies performed by Bishop Howze, was at the evening Mass of Saturday, July 30, 1977. He dedicated the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that was installed on the front lawn of the church.
The 18-foot statue is the first shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Southeastern United States. It took Ocean Springs artist-sculptor, Harry Reeks, thirteen years to complete. He processed his own hand-crushed colored marble, which was poured separately into each casted mold and joined the parts to make the completed statue. Symbolically, the Golden Triangle represents the Holy Trinity; the stone encased in the base of the Pyramid was take from the same Tepeyac hill in Guadalupe, Mexico where the miraculous vision took place. Father John O’Brien related that, "This historic religious revelation took place 39 years after Columbus discovered America on the morning of December 9, 1531, as the Aztec Indian, Juan Diego, was walking to attend Mass at the Franciscan Monastery. In proceeding along the rocky path atop the Tepeyac hill, he was confronted by a dazzling light from which he viewed a beautiful Lady smiling tenderly and speaking to him in his native language. Once the apparition disappeared, he ran to tell the account of the conversation to Bishop Fray Zumarraga. The Bishop then witnessed the appearance of the image of Our Lady blazing from a cloth lining. That cloth from the year 1531, is still preserved in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
Former Pass Christian resident, Henry J. Ritayik, in his Will, left a major portion of his enormous estate to churches and charities of which St. Paul Catholic Church was willed 28% as determined in 1981. Although a multimillionaire, Ritayik lead a miserly and reclusive lifestyle, all the while, establishing a vast land acquisition program which approximated $15 million in assets. In his remembrance, the St. Paul Elementary School dedicated the Student Library in his honor.
In August 1985, the parking and storage facility was completed and is used to house school busses and to store Carnival and Seafood festival materials. In September 1985 Hurricane Elena heavily damaged the rectory brick siding and sent its roof hurtling down the street.
On June 29th, 1988, Bishop Howze dedicated and blessed the new St. Paul Rectory following an evening Mass.
Land Acquisition -- In 1996, the remaining vacant property South and East of Scenic Drive was purchased. This property is not only used for the Seafood Festival but provides a continuous expanse of Gulf view, thereby adding to the St. Paul Church and School compound by providing its own milieu for a "Parc St. Paul."
The Church front was modified with a new portico construction in 1996. The appended overhang protection compliments the front entranceway to the church and provides an ambiance of architectural symmetry.
St. Paul Church and its parishioners celebrated Jubilee 3 in 1997, by way of commemorating its 150th year.
Front Entrance Renovations through 2005
Religious Relics Returned -- Window and a Station
Below -- the Cross from the 1870 Church