By Maureen Smith
GREENWOOD – St. Francis of Assisi Parish and School is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Franciscan Friars this year. The community hosted two celebratory Masses, one at Immaculate Heart of Mary, which the Franciscans are placing back in the care of a diocesan priest, and a second at St. Francis of Assisi.
“Throughout our lives, there are many anniversaries. Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the arrival of the first friars coming to Greenwood. Each time we come to an anniversary, we are called to remember, to celebrate and give thanks,” said Brother Patrick McCormack, OFM, in his homily at the Mass at St. Francis on Sunday, August 5.
He went on to set the stage- commenting that the Civil Rights Movement was years from making its way to the Mississippi Delta when Fathers Bonaventure and Crysostom pulled into town in their 1947 station wagon. “In 1954 the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education would find educational segregation to be unconstitutional. The term separate but equal was a way of life – though equality was nonexistent,” he said.
The lack of quality education was the first issue the Franciscans tackled. “The friars came here to establish a mission and out of that came the school first and then the parish. Whereas a lot of Catholic churches the church comes first and then the school to take care of the children of the parish- that’s not what happened here- just the opposite because the reality here was different,” Fraciscan Father Jachim explained. Many students became Catholic after their exposure to the friars and the Sisters of St. Joseph who first taught there.
In fact, the school has educated generations of students in Greenwood. Dora Mae Hollie remembers coming into the church on Dec. 24, 1964. “I had five children go through this school and then four grandchildren go through this school and now I have three great grand-children going through this school — so this school has been a part of our life for a long time,” said the 83-year-old still-active member of the community.
The friars were very active in the Civil Rights Movement in Greenwood. They went on to partner with local lay people to help found Pax Christi, a group of lay people who worked in education and outreach.
Diane Jones, a graduate of the school, said she and fellow students admired all the hard work the Franciscan community put into education. “They were gifts to the Delta and to Greenwood. I left and went off to college and a lot of the morals and values the nuns instilled into us stuck with me and when I came home, I instill them into my children, who attended here also,” said Jones.
Franciscan Sister of Charity Annette Kurey is in her ninth year of teaching at St. Francis. She said her community of two other sisters and the friars continue to love their work. “It’s very important to be here with the friars. Their Franciscan spirit- and our Franciscan spirit- there is a commonality and a beautiful blossoming, and we seem to enjoy and understand the same things. To me, working with the Franciscans is a blessing,” she said.
For Sister Kurey and her colleagues and Fr. Studwell and his partners, the core of the mission remains the same – to go into the margins and serve. “There are a lot of people her in this area who have no church affiliation, so we are trying to do outreach. Most of the children who come to school here are not Catholic – and that’s not a problem. We don’t proselytize, we don’t try to make you Catholic, we invite people.”
(Tereza Ma contributed to this story)