By Mary Margaret Halford
VICKSBURG – Three pastors in the Diocese of Jackson announced their retirements this year. Mississippi Catholic honors each of these men for their commitment to the people of God and their Church, which they have been dedicated.
Father Tom Lalor
Father Tom Lalor, who grew up in a large Catholic family, credits his devote parents and his two uncles and older brother, who are now priests, for playing an important role in his priestly vocation.
“I just thought they were great,” said Father Lalor about his religious family back in Kilbeggan, Ireland, who were role models and taught him about the faith. “I knew I wanted to be like them.”
Feeling called to the religious life, Father Lalor entered the seminary, and while studying and in formation at Carlow College in Ireland, he was approached by the college president, who asked if he would be interested in leaving the country after his ordination.
“Mississippi was considered to be mission territory. There were not enough priests here at the time,” Father Lalor said. “So, I changed my course; he really encouraged me and wanted me here. If I had to do it again, I would.”
After being ordained in 1966, Father Lalor packed his bags for Mississippi leaving his family behind and anxious to begin his priesthood and ministry. His first assignment – Nativity Church in Biloxi, where he met yet another great teacher, Mercy Sister Paulinus Oakes, who inspired him to be open to any opportunities that might come along as he traveled his new priestly path.
“She told me that if I got a chance to teach, I should go ahead and do it,” Father Lalor said.
From there, Father Lalor began teaching in the classrooms, as well as from the pulpit. In Biloxi, he began teaching at Sacred Heart School as part of his ministry. “The hardest part was on the weekend when I’d say Masses and preach, then correct papers and prepare classes,” he said. “The amount of work involved in teaching is huge.”
After serving in Biloxi, Father Lalor found himself in Jackson where he served St. Mary’s parish and school, and then from there, St. Joseph Greenville, St. Mary and Cathedral school in Natchez, Cleveland, Tupelo, and finally, St. Paul’s in Vicksburg.
“The Catholic schools are very important to me,” he said, noting that he was a classroom teacher in all the diocese’s Catholic schools, except for Saint Aloysius High School in Vicksburg. “But I showed up there just about every day,” he said with a laugh.
When asked about his best memories as a priest, he focuses more on the lessons he learned than the ones he taught.
“So many people have inspired me,” he said. “I’ve seen people work through marriages, raise their families, and do the best they can. It makes me realize how fortunate I am.”
Since retiring in January, Father Lalor has lived at St. Catherine’s Village in Madison, where he helps fill in for priests across the area. “I’m here to serve God’s people,” said Father Lalor, a priest for more than 50 years. “And when people ask how I’m doing, I say ‘I’ve got it made in the shade.’”
Father David O’Connor
Since his ordination 55 years ago, Father David O’Connor can’t remember a single day when he’s woken up and wished he didn’t have to do any of his priestly duties.
“I’ve been extremely happy on the job,” he said. “It’s been an incredible trip.”
A native of Limerick, Ireland, Father O’Connor was one of many Irish priests who came to Mississippi in the 1960s, a time when the state was the epicenter of civil rights activity. Father O’Connor’s first assignment was at Meridian St. Patrick, just south of Neshoba County, where three civil rights workers were murdered.
“I was there for the arrest of the people involved with that,” Father O’Connor said. “It was a very new experience for me.”
Father O’Connor also spent time back in Ireland, recruiting for seminarians to come to Mississippi before moving to Oxford and serving as the pastor at St. John’s and the campus minister for Ole Miss. It was during that time that he did graduate work in community counseling.
With that experience under his belt, Father O’Connor moved to Jackson, where he worked to train committees and councils and served as a resource for liturgical questions.
“If you ask anyone in the Diocese to pinpoint what my central focus has been, it would be developing lay leadership,” he said, adding that he has done pastoral planning for more than 300 parishes across the South. “That has been a blessing for me.”
Father O’Connor also found himself as a pastor in Greenwood, a director of development for St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison and the pastor of St. Mary’s in Natchez.
“I always end up becoming part of the people, and that’s where the fun is,” he said. “I’d like to think the people who came to know me would say ‘he was there for his people and showed up when there was a crisis, and when there were birthday parties.’ I think I’ve become a part of every parish I’ve served.”
Father O’Connor was recognized for just that recently when he was given the 2019 Seton Award for his service to Natchez Cathedral School.
“People are offering congratulations, but that’s not what I feel like,” Father O’Connor said of his retirement. “I feel like I’m walking away from extended family.”
But his retirement should be a fulfilling one, as Father O’Connor plans to lead a few groups to England and Scotland this summer and potentially continue his work training leadership and working with faith formation.
“I feel there are fun and exciting things out there ahead to come,” Father O’Connor said. “And so far it’s been a great, great experience.”
Monsignor Elvin Sunds
When Msgr. Elvin Sunds was a senior in high school back home in Nebraska, he had not spent too much time thinking about what his future would look like, but he knew it was something different than most of his classmates.
“I thought there was something else the Lord was calling me to,” he said. “I felt like it was the priesthood.”
So, Msgr. Sunds studied at Immaculate Conception in Missouri for two years of college, then made his way to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans before he was ordained for the Diocese of Jackson in 1973.
After his first assignment as associate pastor at Sacred Heart in North Biloxi, Msgr. Sunds landed at Catholic Charities, where he served for 19 years.
“The years as an associate are fun years, right after you’re ordained, those are important,” he said. “And my time at Catholic Charities was a challenge, but an exciting time to create new programs and serve needs in Mississippi that had not been met before.”
At Catholic Charities, Msgr. Sunds was instrumental in expanding the counseling program and building up therapeutic foster care, the women’s shelter, crisis center, and other programs. On weekends, he also served at Jackson Holy Family and Flowood St. Paul. After that, he went to Meridian, where he served at St. Patrick and St. Joseph for 11 years before being tapped as the vicar general for the Diocese of Jackson. Since 2005, he’s been the pastor of Jackson St. Therese.
“I have so many special memories, every place I’ve served has been unique and a blessing and each has been a little different,” Msgr. Sunds said. “I’ve lived in wonderful communities, bringing together different cultures, African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic parishes who really see themselves as one Catholic community with wonderful diversity.”
And though Msgr. Sunds might not have been able to predict where his path would lead at 18 years old, he’s loved every part of the journey.
“It’s been an exciting adventure to be a Catholic priest in Mississippi,” he said. “The Diocese of Jackson is a unique diocese with a lot of gifts and challenges and I’ve very much enjoyed being here.”
To celebrate his retirement after 46 years of priesthood, Msgr. Sunds is going on a different kind of adventure — exploring the United States from a travel trailer and pickup truck.
“I’m going to see how many national parks I can visit in the next two months,” he said. “We’ve got a beautiful country that I’m just waiting to see.”