By Mary Margaret Edney
GREENVILLE – As a seminarian, Father Thomas Mullaly wrote a letter to his superior general of the Society of the Divine Word who resides in Rome, detailing where he’d would like to end up as a priest. In the letter, he asked to go south, which is where he’s been ever since.
Mullaly, a native of Emmett, Michigan, has retired from administering of parishes after 50 years of service as a Divine Word Missionary priest.
“It went by very fast,” Mullally said with a laugh, reflecting on his decades spent in the priesthood. “If you are open to people, if you are compassionate and merciful, the laity will respond. They enjoy a priest who can laugh and cry with them and minister to them.”
And that’s exactly what Mullally did.
“I’m not a cook, so I ate with a lot of families,” he explained. “One of the great joys I had was sitting down and having a wonderful meal with parishioners. People love to have their priests come to their home and have a meal with them.”
But being a parish priest in the deep south wasn’t originally what Mullally had in mind. While he was a junior in high school, he talked to his guidance counselor about going overseas to work in foreign service. His counselor suggested priesthood, and he imagined he would end up being a missionary in a foreign country after his ordination on Dec. 19 1970, in Techny, Illinois. However, Mullally wasn’t a linguist, and his health at the time wasn’t ideal for international travel, so he decided to stick with the southern United States.
“I was very happy; I definitely made the right decision,” he said, when reflecting back on his decades of priesthood. “I have no complaints, I love my ministry.”
Though his vocation didn’t take him to foreign countries, it did bring foreign countries to him. Since 1996, Mullally has mentored young missionaries of his religious order, the Society of the Divine Word, which pastor in many of Mississippi’s African-American Catholic and multi-cultural churches. From Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Brazil, Ghana and Benin — he’s had the chance to mentor young priests from all over the world.
“I tell them that to learn about the black community or any community, you have to walk in the streets and get to know them,” he said. “To minister, you must visit their homes, visit the sick and listen to their stories.”
From St. Martinville and Jeanerette, Louisiana, to Pine Bluff, Arkansas and finally to Mississippi’s Sacred Heart in Greenville, St. Francis in Shaw and Sacred Heart in Rosedale, Mullally always made it a goal to become entrenched in the local community he serves. By spending quality time with his parishioners outside of Sunday Mass, he really got to know them, and they got to know him.
“I really enjoyed working with the youth, I’d go to basketball and football games,” he said, adding that when he left St. Martinville in 1975, he was given a team letter jacket. “It’s 45 years old, and I still wear it. I wore it yesterday, and I’ll wear it tomorrow.”
Now, as a retired priest, Mullally’s responsibilities have shifted, and he still plans to fill in for priests who need a substitute. But, one thing that won’t change with his retirement is his commitment to knowing his community.
“I always evangelize, especially with young people,” he said. “I just walked recently even though was cold in a park in Greenville, and I talk to group of young teenagers and — ask them how they’re doing, how school is coming along. Even in Kroger, I talk to the young cashiers and asked them if them know where Sacred Heart church is located, and if they do not, I tell them where the church is.”
“It’s been a wonderful experience to know African-American people and understand their side of their side of the story of life,” Mullally said. “The relationships I’ve made are incredible. I’m a missionary, that’s me.”