By Mary Margaret Halford
For Father Sam Messina, priesthood has been all about the people. From fostering young minds as a teacher in Catholic schools to working as a hospital chaplain who counseled people at the end of their lives, Messina has seen it all. And after 52 years as a priest, the 78-year-old is retiring.
“I just love people, and I love a challenge,” Messina said, noting that he could have retired eight years ago, but just wasn’t ready to hang it up then. “But I just knew it was time.”
After being ordained in Ohio in 1965, the Greenville native made his way back to Mississippi, where he got his start in Hattiesburg, teaching Latin and theology at Sacred Heart. From there, he went to Greenville, where he also taught, and then to Vicksburg as the parish priest at St. Michael. He also served in Chatawa, where he was chaplain at an all girls school, as well as the priest of churches in Osyka and Magnolia. He then did stints in West Point and Natchez, before going back to Vicksburg as the chaplain of Mercy Hospital. After 12 years as parish priest in Belzoni, he ended his career with 13 years in Batesville/Sardis.
Messina has countless fond recollections of his service across Mississippi, but his time spent working in the hospital evokes some special memories.
“Although it’s difficult work, I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Messina said, adding that once, he made 150 visits in just a day. “It was 24/7, you were expected to answer calls and minister to people at all times.”
One day while having lunch, Messina’s beeper went off, paging him to the emergency room. As he rushed into the ER, he heard a mother tell her ailing child “You’ll be alright, look, here comes Father Sam.”
“The more I worked, the more I loved it,” he said.
Though Father Sam has retired to St. Catherine’s Village in Madison now, his love of people is stronger than ever.
“I’ve already been called on to do different ministries here,” he said. “We have daily Mass, and I’ll always be here to counsel people. I do like to fish, and they don’t lack things to do here if you’re capable of doing them. I’m getting settled – so far, so good.”
From the time that Father P.J. Curley came to the United States from his home of Roscommon, Ireland, he’s been consistently pleased with how well people have treated and accepted him, both because of and despite his humorous side.
Throughout his career as a priest – which is nearing the 47-year mark – Father Curley has made connections with parishioners across the state.
“I think that no matter where I’ve been, as far south as Biloxi and as far north as Shelby, everybody was continually friendly and kind and loving,” Father Curley said. “I’d say 99 percent of the people were gracious enough to accept silliness as part of my personality.”
Father Curley began his priesthood on the southern end of the state in Biloxi before moving to Jackson. He then went south again to Woodville, which had a mission at Fort Adams. From there, Father Curley moved north to Shelby, and he also served in Belzoni, which had a mission at Anguilla. His last two stops were Yazoo City and finally, St. Michael in Vicksburg.
And of all his experiences in those assignments that spanned the state, Father Curley said he’ll miss preaching the most. “I just love preaching, probably because nobody listens,” he said with a laugh “But really, I love preaching; and I love liturgy; I love Eucharistic celebrations.”
And as for retirement, his big plan is to just soak it in.
“I intend to enjoy myself, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’ll be living in Vicksburg and helping out anywhere I’m needed.”
Not long before Father Curley sat down to draft his letter of retirement to Bishop Kopacz, he came across a poem that struck him when he thought about parishioners missing him in retirement.
When you’re feeling so important and your ego is in bloom,
When you simply take for granted you’re the wisest in the room,
When you feel your very absence will leave a great big hole,
Just follow these instructions, they will humble any soul.
Take a bucket filled with water, put your hand in to the wrist,
Pull it out, and the hole remaining is how much you will be missed.
“Anytime I think about people missing me, I remember this poem,” he said. “And I just ask the people of God to pray for me.”
(Mary Margaret Halford is a member of Vicksburg St. Paul Parish)