By Maureen Smith
CLARKSDALE – Many will tell you the founding of Immaculate Conception Parish was a routine happening in a diocese that was expanding in leaps and bounds at the time. Others will tell you it was a miracle. The characters in this story include a soldier, a death row inmate, a loving community leader who never even got to see the mission he helped found and the Blessed Mother.
Members of Immaculate Conception gathered Sunday, Sept. 13, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding with a Mass and brunch. Before the Mass started parishioner Linda Johnson gave a short history. Bishop Joseph Kopacz was the principal celebrant with Father Scott Thomas, pastor. Choir members from other local churches joined the celebration.
During the Mass representatives from the parish and school, including Father Thomas, Sister Teresa Shields, former teacher and current director of the Jonestown Community Center, and Earl Gooden, finance council member, lit candles honoring deceased bishops and priests, religious sisters and brothers and parish members.
Father Robert O’Leary, SVD, served in World War II. In 1940 he made a promise to found a church in honor of the Immaculate Conception if he survived. Years later, and halfway around the world, death row inmate, Claude Newman, admired a fellow inmate’s miraculous medal. The inmate gave it to him and soon after Newman said a beautiful woman visited him in his cell telling him, “if you want to follow my son, call for a priest.” Father O’Leary answered the call and he and some Sisters began to instruct the convict in the Catholic faith.
As the story goes, Newman claimed the beautiful woman had already instructed him about confession and the Eucharist. He also reminded Father O’Leary about his promise to found a parish for Mary. The priest and sisters were stunned. Before Newman was executed, he is said to have told Father O’Leary that he would act as an intermediary with the Blessed Mother if the priest ever needed anything.
In the early 1940s a group of African-Americans in Clarksdale, including Samuel Keith Harrington, appealed to then Bishop Oliver Gerow for a school. The bishop used $5,000 sent to him for a mission in the black community. He sent Father O’Leary in 1945 and the promise was fulfilled when the school was running by 1947.
By the time the parish was built and ready for dedication, founding father Harrington was near death. His friends hatched a plan to carry him to the church for Mass, but he didn’t make it. He was the first person to he buried out of the parish.
The school closed in 1990, but the parish still makes use of the building for activities and receptions. The old convent has been converted into a dormitory house for the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. During the anniversary celebration parishioners looked at old yearbooks and shared their memories of the parish while speaking of their hopes for a strong future.
By Maureen Smith