By Laura Grisham
WALLS – In one of the northern-most towns of the Delta, a crowd of about thirty invited guests gathered recently for a Mass in honor the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Sacred Heart Church. Those assembled represented many of the founding families and familiar faces that have been a part of the congregation and the missions over the past seven-and-a-half decades.
Many of those present had not been inside the little church in a number of years. Prior to Mass, Father Jack Kurps, SCJ, took them on a tour of the renovations. Recalling the old sanctuary, he said, “I don’t know whether the statue of the Sacred Heart came first, or whether the plastic Jesus did,” noting the importance of Sacred Heart Auto League to the missions.
Gone are the old wooden pews and floors of the original church. With new seating and tile, better acoustics were accomplished. Vivid paint, richly colored marble and refurbished windows complete the new look. The new layout provides an open and inviting space for worship and prayer.
Father Kurps also provided some background on the custom altar, ambo and base upon which the statue of the Sacred Heart rests — all of which are new additions. A Pennsylvania artist carved the stunning wood pieces using the bases of trees to garner the unique look. The new crucifix is a mixed-media collaboration between the original artist and another Pennsylvania sculptor.
Other beautiful pieces also adorn the church. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hangs watchfully from the ceiling. Constructed from antique furniture pieces, one must carefully study it to discern its parts. Flanking the altar, one cannot escape the gaze of the Faithful Companions and Angels of the Heart. The two commissioned paintings honor the saints and angels, and our benefactors, who are devoted to the Sacred Heart.
During his homily, Father Kurps marveled at how a conversation in 1941 between an SCJ and a priest in Natchez, resulted in the formation of this church, and subsequently six parishes, Sacred Heart Southern Missions and two schools. Kurps shared highlights of the struggles and triumphs of those early years.
At that time, the Catholic population in this area was the smallest in the state. Headquartered in Water Valley in 1942, Father John Flanagan, SCJ, found himself serving a mere 29 Catholics scattered over the 2,000 or so square miles of Marshall, Benton and Tippah counties. The next year, Father Flanagan moved to Holly Springs and was given the charge for priestly work in DeSoto, Tate, Marshall, Benton and Tippah counties by Bishop Gerow of Natchez.
In January of 1944, Mass was celebrated for the first time in DeSoto County at the home of Mrs. L.A. Johnson. A week later, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Patterson (Patty) Harris family hosted the service, and in mid-February, the O’Donnell family had the privilege. By that time, there were 40 adults and children squeezed into living rooms and parlors. The tiny Catholic population in northwest Mississippi was growing.
On Feb. 21, 1944, Father William Noelken, SCJ, the U.S. Provincial for the Priests of the Sacred Heart, gave approval for a small church in DeSoto County. Plans were quickly drawn up but constructing a church during wartime was no easy feat. Money, supplies and workers were scarce. The War Production Department was another hurdle. Established to prevent unnecessary construction, the government agency halted many a project. After many applications, permission was finally granted on June 6, 1944. A month later, Patty Harris generously donated land for the church and ground was broken.
In August, Father Stephen Hoyga, SCJ, joined Father Flanagan as construction continued. Remarkably, just three months later, the date for dedication was set.
On Nov. 26, 1944, the church was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Recognizing the parishes in Southaven, Olive Branch, Hernando, Senatobia and Tunica, Father Jack remarked, “From start of this small church at the northwest corner of Mississippi, a lot has happened.”
Noting the contributions of the School Sisters of St. Francis, Father Kurps talked about the positive impact of our schools through the years. He also commended the SHSM housing and social service ministries and all that has been done to lift up the poor in our area.
“Because of the faith of all of these men and women, the faith has taken hold in northwest Mississippi. … It will be interesting to know what this will all look like 75 years from now,” said Father Kurps. “I hope that the progress made in the last 75 years is nothing compared to what is accomplished in the next.”