By Maureen Smith
NATCHEZ – The kindergarten students at Holy Family Parish probably do not realize the significance of the history they acted out Sunday, Nov. 22, but hopefully, in time they will appreciate their place in the story of this community. The play depicting the 125-year history of Holy Family Parish was the closing activity to a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the parish.
Holy Family is the oldest parish for African Americans in the state, founded on the heels of the third plenary council of Baltimore, at which American bishops decided they should found parishes specifically for black Catholics. Prior to the council, black Catholics in Natchez worshiped in the basement of St. Mary Basilica.
Duncan Morgan’s grandmother sang in the choir the day the parish was dedicated in 1894. His grandfather was on the committee that polled black people to see if they even wanted a parish. The day he was born a pair of sisters walked to his house to check on the baby.
History shows that the parish was the center of the Civil Rights Movement in Natchez. Morgan said the Josephite priests and Franciscan and later Holy Spirit Sisters unwittingly started on it long before the turbulent 1960s with their focus on education. “Even in the worst of times with Jim Crow and segregation, if you were at Holy Family you were treated with dignity. You were prepared with the best education possible,” he said. “Our graduates became lawyers, doctors, military officers,” he added. Morgan said this education and respect prepared community members. “It laid the groundwork for what happened in the 1960s – they already had self-respect.”
Father William Morrissey, SSJ, played a pivotal role in guiding those parishioners as well as the community at large through the Civil Rights Movement. He let the NAACP use the parish hall for office space, serving as the only white officer in the state chapter of the organization. He led the effort to get black people admitted to the National Democratic Party. “Father Morrissey could help balance them (community leaders) from going overboard and at the same time, meet with city and state officals on an equal basis,” said Morgan. The priest sponsored interracial gatherings and encouraged his parishioners to integrate schools in Natchez.
“He sacrificed his own school to integrate Cathedral School,” said Valencia Hall, catechist and parishioner. She and her sisters were some of the first African Americans to attend Cathedral. Her family made the decision to try it for a year when she was 11. “I vividly remember sitting at the dinner table telling my Daddy, ‘I don’t want to stay,’” Hall recalls. He told her he thought it was best she stay. “It was best, it built my character. It was from that experience that I learned all people are persons of dignity and integrity.” The transition was hard at times, she was the only African American child in the fifth and sixth grade.
“There were a couple of people who I felt welcomed by. To the day I die, I will be indebted to those who made me feel welcome,” she said. Hall helped organize an effort to renovate the church several years ago, helping secure a grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in recognition of the role the parish played in the Civil Rights Movement.
Current pastor, Father James Fallon, SSJ, said the celebration was meant both to honor the past and plant seeds for the future. “We try to look at this as the intersection of the past and future,” he said. “We want to recognize the people like Father Morrissey, who made headlines, but we also want to advertise the lady who said her rosary and made it to daily Mass,” he added.
Today the parish boasts a multicultural congregation and an Early Learning Center. Both Hall and Morgan hope the celebration is a sign of a vibrant future here. “I would like to see our Catholic faith deepened and for others to see the struggle our church had to go through to have a place of worship,” said Hall. Father Fallon said one of the challenges is regaining the sense of sacrifice and pride the whole community once felt about its church. He considers part of his vocation to inspire faith in the young people in his community.
The original Holy Family was in a wood frame structure on the edge of town. The founding pastor went on a tour of the Northeast to raise money for the present brick structure, located on a hill in what was then a growing neighborhood of families. St. Katherine Drexel was one of the donors. “Holy Family has always been a beacon. It was sitting on a hill for a reason, I guess,” said Morgan. “When there was no leadership anywhere else, you could get it here,” he added.
By Maureen Smith