By Janna Avalon
Mississippi Catholic began its 50th year of serving Catholics in the Diocese of Jackson on Dec. 5, 2003.
The occasion of our 50th anniversary offered a golden opportunity to share not only the religious and historical riches of the past 50 years of our church community, but also challenges.
The anniversary gave us an opportunity to begin or continue our work on the challenges of peace.
Over the years, the name has changed — from The Mississippi Register to Mississippi Today to Mississippi Catholic — and the coverage area has changed too — from the whole state served by the Diocese of Natchez, then the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, to the Diocese of Jackson and the Diocese of Biloxi, and now just to the Diocese of Jackson. Browse our list of topics.
The front page of the first issue of The Mississippi Register carried a story which quoted Bishop Richard Gerow saying, “I am confident that our new diocesan paper will be, with God’s help, a great and growing influence for the good of souls, and to that end it is our aim to have every Catholic family numbered among its subscribers.”
The Mississippi Register replaced the Natchez edition of the Catholic Action of the South which had served the area for many years. The Mississippi Register carried four pages of local news and at least four pages of national and international news prepared by the Register System of Catholic Newspapers headquartered in Denver, Colo. At that time 35 dioceses were served by the Register system.
Father Francis Reid was the first editor of The Mississippi Register. Other priest editors were Father Peter Tormey, Father Bernard Law, Father Adrian Mercier and Father Joseph Mercier.
The Register staff in Jackson put together the local news and shipped it to Denver a week before publication. Then the Denver staff would layout the local copy and mix it with national and international news provided by world news services and the talent of some of the best Catholic writers, journalists and editors in the country.
But as times changed so did the needs of Mississippi Catholics. The first lay editor Jim Bonney was appointed on June 1, 1970. At the same time, Father Patrick Farrell, director of pastoral services, became editor-in-chief. The Register system was notified that its Mississippi contract would be terminated.
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On Dec. 6, 1970, a dramatic change in the paper occurred when the first edition of Mississippi Today was printed at the Star Herald printing company in Kosciusko. The dateline was changed from Friday to Sunday.
Deadlines were moved closer to actual printing time on Thursdays. The newspaper took on a completely different look as layout and type styles were changed. Larger type, pictures and an airy, easy-to-read format became standard. A new adult education feature, “Know Your Faith,” was added. Frank Callaway retired after 13 years as advertising manager.
In June 1971 Janna Pepper was hired as associate editor and advertising manager. Her job included traveling to parishes around the state to provide more local coverage of parish-oriented events and features.
A major staff change happened in December 1974 when Jim Bonney resigned and Janna Pepper Avalon became the second lay editor of Mississippi Today.
In June 1977, the next change occurred when the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson was divided. Mississippi Today became a joint publication of the Diocese of Biloxi and the Diocese of Jackson with Bishop Joseph Brunini and Bishop Joseph Howze as publishers and Father Michael Tracey as associate editor based in Biloxi.
In January 1978 Mississippi Today published its first “Legislative Preview: A Catholic Perspective” to follow up on the 1977 Synod of Bishops challenge to “pay close attention to the requirements of justice and charity in reporting the news” and to help “contemporary Catholics evaluate their experiences in light of Christian values . . . .”
To save money, the newspaper decided to do its own typesetting in-house in October 1978 and the paper’s new Compugraphic computer was purchased.
In March 1980 Mary Wimberly was hired to work full time as associate editor in a new office in Biloxi.
Bishop William Houck, who was ordained to serve as auxiliary bishop of the Jackson diocese in May 1979, began writing a column “Proclaim the Lord” in October 1980 which alternated with Bishop Brunini’s column, “As One Who Serves.”
Also in 1979 the newspaper changed its format from broadsheet to tabloid. This change gave greater flexibility and ability to compartmentalize the news.
In September 1981, Mississippi Today began publishing two editions — one for each diocese which included four pages of local news and features for each.
By 1983 the Biloxi diocese started its own diocesan newspaper, the Gulf Pine Catholic, with Wimberly as editor.
Bishop Houck became ordinary of the diocese in June 1984 and publisher of the newspaper.
To celebrate the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary of the diocese, Mississippi Today began a parish history series in May 1986 complete with sketches of each of the 75 parish churches and the 25 mission churches.
The series, written by Cleta Ellington and illustrated by Carole Pigott, gave the People of God a chance to tell their favorite stories about the church — “the links between town and church and school and family and friends and home.” The rhetoric became flesh and when the series was completed the newspaper published the series in a 534-page book, “Christ: The Living Water, The Catholic Church in Mississippi.”
At the time of the diocesan celebration in October 1987, a special supplement highlighted the bishops and the church during their administrations.
Fabvienen Taylor joined the staff in 1987 as a photojournalist and began traveling all over the diocese for stories and photos. Joe Murphy also began working part-time that year after retiring from the railroad and eventually took over upkeep of subscriptions.
An advisory board for the newspaper was re-established in 1991 and included readers, pastors, religious women, journalism professionals and marketing specialists as well as the bishop-publisher, newspaper staff and the director of communications.
The board meets three times a year and not only offers professional advice about the content of the paper, but advises the staff about promotion efforts at the parish level and issues like letters to the editor and columnists.
To keep average Catholics informed about upcoming meetings and conferences, the First Friday Forum began publication in December 1992. The four-page insert contains a calendar of diocesan events as well as retreats and a list of where and when Spanish Masses are celebrated throughout the diocese.
More sophisticated computer equipment was purchased in 1995 and the staff was networked for the first time and given access to the Internet. A new front page design was incorporated in December 1995.
In 1996 Elsa Baughman was hired as office manager to replace Mary Woodward who became director of the Department of Evangelization and communications director for the diocese.
Baughman’s duties include advertising sales, writing parish and diocesan news and, like other staff members, designing and laying out certain pages of the newspaper each week.
Beginning with a special grant from the Catholic Foundation in October 1997 Mississippi Today began publishing a Spanish section, El Mensajero Catolicó de Mississippi, four times a year under the leadership of Baughman. The four-page supplement is now published every other month and is partially funded by the diocesan Communications Collection.
Tyna McNealy joined the staff as production manager in 1998, and by 1999 she had produced a website for the paper (www.mississippicatholic.com) and designed a new flag (nameplate) for the newspaper when the advisory board recommended the name be changed to Mississippi Catholic.
To celebrate the new millennium, Jubilee Year 2000, Mississippi Catholic sponsored a visual art contest focusing on the theme “Fresh Inspiration: Catholic Art 2000.”
The competition drew almost 200 submissions from 97 artists from across the state. The exhibition included 61 works by 43 artists plus another 16 works by invited artists. Cash prizes totaled over $3250.
Bishop Joseph Latino became publisher of Mississippi Catholic following his ordination as bishop on March 7, 2003
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the newspaper sponsored a second art contest, “Fresh Inspiration II: The Challenge of Peace.” The contest which also included poetry competition was launched in February 2004 with winning entries displayed in two exhibits, one in Jackson and another in Oxford during the fall of 2004. The poetry contest for adults focused on the same theme “The Challenge of Peace.”
Joseph Murphy Jr. worked as subscription manager until 2003 when he retired a second time and was replaced by Pamela Butler. Butler also works as a receptionist on the chancery switchboard.
At the suggestion of Bishop Latino and the newspaper’s advisory board, in 2006 Mississippi Catholic hired Sister Michele Doyle, OSF, to work 10 hours a week as the liaison between Catholic schools, religious education program, youth programs, young adults and Mississippi Catholic.
Also in 2006, the board undertook the rewriting of the newspaper’s mission statement to reflect the new millennium.