By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – On Friday, Feb. 27, Bishop Kopacz signed a decree of extinctive merger for Jackson St. Mary and St. Therese Parishes. This means St. Mary Church will close and St. Therese will take over the territory. The previous Friday the bishop and Msgr. Elvin Sunds, the former vicar general, met with members of St. Mary parish to make them aware of his decision.
About 25 people attended the meeting.
Bishop Kopacz made the decision after prayerful discernment of information gathered over a period of months from the pastor, parish community, presbyteral council and the engineering firm Laird + Smithers, as well as consultation of Canon Law.
“Motivated by church law and pastoral ministry for the care of souls, over the past 10 months I have inquired about the viability of St. Mary’s through parish meetings, a comprehensive engineering evaluation of the church building, an evaluation of parish membership and finances, countless conversations with diocesan staff, and the convoking of the Priest Council to ascertain their recommendation,” said Bishop Kopacz at the meeting. “The final piece required by church law was the convoking of the Priest Council in January to thoroughly and openly discuss the current state of the parish with respect to her viability. “That council supported the extinctive merger.
The church structure suffers from cracks in the walls, ceiling and floor due to the shifting Yazoo clay beneath it. The school merged with Christ the King to form Sister Thea Bowman School in 2006.
The school building, convent and gym started to show similar wear-and-tear. The engineering firm that consulted on the building on behalf of the diocese said that while the structure remains safe at the present time, continued decay should be expected and could render the building unsafe. It would be hard to know when that happens and the safety of the community had to be one of the priorities in this decision.
St. Mary was built to satisfy a need for a parish church and school in booming post-war South Jackson. As the years went by, the young families who founded the parish moved away and the area declined. JoAnn and Pete Foret, who attended the meeting, moved to the area in 1972 and joined St. Mary. “When we first got there, every Mass was packed,” said Pete Foret. His children attended St. Mary School and the family was involved in numerous parish activities including coaching sports teams. “The real shame of it was watching the area go down. It was heartbreaking,” said Mr. Foret. The family now lives in Clinton.
“It’s just not an up-kept neighborhood anymore. There’s not even that much crime, the whole area is being abandoned,” added JoAnn. The couple is sad about losing St. Mary, but both said they understand. “Even if we had the money to fix everything, there are not enough people to keep the church open and pay the expenses,” said Pete Foret.
A Hispanic community had been using St. Mary for liturgy, religious education and cultural gatherings, but they outgrew the space available and the deterioration of the facility became a concern. Last year, that community moved to St. Therese where they use the former school building.
There are three parishes within three miles of St. Mary, Christ the King, St. Therese and the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle. Parishioners who live in St. Mary’s parish boundaries are encouraged to become a member of their new parish, St. Therese Church. Those living outside the parish boundaries are encouraged to join the churches where they live.
St. Therese pastor Father Ricardo Phipps said at the meeting he believes Christ the King and St. Therese can continue to evangelize in the South and West Jackson communities.
Some parishioners indicated a desire to appeal the decision. According to canon law, when a territorial parish is merged, only someone living within the territory of the original parish can submit an appeal. That person must find a canon lawyer outside the diocese and then has to hire another canon lawyer in Rome to take up the case. The appeal has to be submitted within 15 working days of the issue of the decree. The process can take several months. St. Mary would remain closed in the meantime. A copy of the decree is available on the news section of the diocesan website, www.jacksondiocese.org.
The sacred objects inside the church, including the altar, windows, tabernacle, candlesticks and other items will be placed in storage or made available to other parishes for their use. Bishop Kopacz suggested that an iconic item from St. Mary be moved in a procession to St. Therese as a symbol of the union of the congregations.
“I know losing a beloved parish church is difficult and this was not a decision I made lightly or quickly. My prayers are with the families who have a historic connection to St. Mary Parish, including the dedicated individuals who have supported St. Mary up to this very day. I know the members of St. Therese are ready to welcome them warmly with their many gifts.”
The community will gather for a final Mass at St. Mary Sunday, March 8, at 3 p.m. Father Phipps said he wants to invite everyone who feels a connection to the historic parish to come celebrate its history as they look forward to a new future at a new parish. JoAnn Foret agreed. “You just don’t know what new life you will find in another parish, how we can grow.”
By Maureen Smith