By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Saint Gabriel Mercy Center in Mound Bayou is getting national recognition thanks to Catholic Extension. The center is one of eight finalists in the running for the Lumen Christi Award.
The award is the highest honor bestowed by the Chicago-based organization, the leading national supporter of missionary work in poor and remote parts of the United States. St. Gabriel fits that description perfectly. Situated in Mound Bayou, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the center offers hope and assistance to one of the poorest communities in the state.
Mound Bayou was once a thriving center for black commerce – founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The town boasted of cotton mills, manufacturing businesses, even a hospital that treated African-Americans from across the state. A National Public Radio report from March, 2017 told the history of the town. In the story, Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, said desegregation and the promise of better jobs lured away the population and led to the overall decline of the community. The mills closed, the hospital shut down. Empty properties began to fall apart. Once a town of 9,000, the population now hovers around 1,500.
The Catholic Church has been a presence in the community since St. Gabriel chapel opened in 1949. A school followed. As the years went by and the population dwindled, St. Gabriel had to re-invent itself. The school closed in 1990, but the Mercy Center opened to provide resources to the community. The parish closed in 2013.
Sisters of Mercy ran the operation until 2015 when a group of Franciscan Sisters of Charity took over administration. “In many ways, our St. Gabriel Mercy Center is a hub for outreach services that accommodate the people of Mound Bayou and the surrounding areas throughout Bolivar County,” said Sister Monica Mary DeQuardo, current executive director.
She works with a team of locals to anticipate and offer what the people in the community want and need. “Our services are professional, and delivered simply – completely dependent on volunteers, donations, grants and effective and efficient management. Thus, our present programs … offer a variety of adult educational services – at no expense to our patrons.
“We have a computer lab; General Education Diploma training, Parents as Teachers, senior outreach, a sewing program and the Delta Boutique,” she added. The staff offers emergency assistance for food and utilities and a thrift store.
Sister said there are signs of hope in the town once known as the “jewel of the Delta.” A clinic has opened to once again provide medical care. Most of the staff is from the town – in fact, several senior administrators at St. Gabriel have moved back to the town after living elsewhere.
The next project on the center’s list: adult education and tutoring. As the staff assisted parents they realized many adults in the community struggle with literacy.
When a youth group from the Diocese of Biloxi came to visit a couple summers ago, the board of directors set them to work converting the old church building into classrooms for an expanded adult literacy program. The work continued in April when a group from Maine came to offer service. “Though the edifice is still standing empty because we have not been able to secure a grant for furniture,” said Sister DeQuardo. If St. Gabriel wins the Lumen Christi Award, Catholic Extension will provide $25,000 to help with the effort.
The Latin phrase “Lumen Christi,” taken from the Easter Vigil, means “Light of Christ.” Since 1978, the award has honored individuals or groups who demonstrate how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. “Our Lumen Christi finalists have answered Pope Francis’ call to all Catholics to be ‘missionary disciples’ and are proclaiming and living the Gospel in America’s ‘peripheries,'” said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension. “They are an example to all of us.”
Winners will be announced in the fall.
By Maureen Smith