Vandalism damages items procured from days of ‘Apostle of the Delta’

From the Archives
By Mary Woodward

JACKSON – Somewhere around Jan. 26, our diocesan church family was wounded by an act of violence and evil against Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Greenwood.

Most likely the work of someone high on crack or mentally ill, nonetheless the church was broken into and vandalized – the altar was overturned, and an antique five-foot statue of the Blessed Mother was heavily damaged. The Blessed Sacrament was removed from the tabernacle and placed on the church’s original altar. The antique baptismal font was damaged, and songbooks were strewn all over the pews. Fortunately, no spray paint was involved.

Throughout its early history, Greenwood Catholics were served from Water Valley and Lexington. The initial church structure was built in 1901 and in 1912, Father John Clerico, a young priest from Italy, was appointed the first resident pastor.

Msgr. John Clerico was known as the “Apostle to the Delta” because he ministered to much of the area, including Grenwood, Shelby, Leland, Hollandale, Anguilla, Indianola and Belzoni. Many of the items damaged in a break-in at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish were procured from Italy by Msgr. Clerico.

Father Clerico was ordained on June 9, 1906, in Genoa, Italy and came to the diocese in March 1907, where he began serving in Shelby at St. Mary Church and its missions. Father Clerico who became a monsignor in 1951, became known as the “Apostle to the Delta” because he ministered to much of the area from Greenwood for the next 52 years until 1964.

Msgr. Clerico considered the entire area, which included Greenwood, Shelby, Leland, Hollandale, Anguilla, Indianola and Belzoni, as his parish and he knew all the families of the region. Hence, he was given the title mentioned above. There is even a park named after him in Greenwood.

Many of the furnishings in IHM church were procured from Italy by the apostle. The 100-year-old statue which was heavily damaged was hand-painted and made of plaster. I have brought it to Jackson in the hopes that a local artist might be able to repair it.

The altar that was turned over was restored more than 10 years ago and was rededicated by Bishop Joseph Latino in a beautiful ceremony with the whole parish present. The parishioners were so excited to have another piece of their history becoming a part of their worship.

On Tuesday, Feb. 1, in a very moving and compassionate manner, Bishop Joseph Kopacz celebrated a Mass of Rededication for the parish and again anointed the altar and walls of the church returning it to sacredness from the evil that had been wrought upon it. There was a sense of resolve and relief among those present that what Msgr. Clerico had put in place was now made whole and healed once more.

It is hard to put into words the myriad of feelings experienced when evil attacks the church – even if it was a misguided or mentally ill person who perpetrated the acts. It was still evil. IHM is home to many, and the violence of this vandalism was heart-breaking.

In its infinite wisdom, Holy Mother Church has beautiful and deeply profound rituals that bring solace and a renewed sense of hope in the Lord by reclaiming the sacred from the profane. I consider it a blessing and a privilege to have been present for Bishop Latino’s dedication of the refurbished altar many years ago and for the rededication on Feb. 1, by Bishop Kopacz.

As Bishop Kopacz anointed the walls of the church with Chrism, I imagined Msgr. Clerico looking down lovingly upon all gathered in IHM from where he now celebrates endlessly at the table of the heavenly banquet.

The next morning as I was driving home from Greenwood in the rain with the broken statue of the Blessed Mother lying in the back of my car, I reflected on the liturgy the night before and the beautiful depth of faith shared at IHM. What an awe-inspiring numinous moment in the life of our universal church where the communion of saints joined with the people to restore a sacred space.

When it began to rain harder and I approached several 18-wheelers spraying blinding mist on my windshield, I felt fear rising in my heart as I engaged to pass them one at a time on the slick, ponding road. We have all been in this situation and it is no fun thinking about passing these mammoth vehicles in those conditions.

GREENWOOD – Pieces of the Blessed Mother statue damaged in a break-in at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, pictured below, ride in the back of Chancellor Mary Woodward’s vehicle brought back to possibly be repaired by a local artist. (Photo by Joanna Puddister King)

Suddenly, I remembered I had the Blessed Mother with me in the back seat. Even though she was battered and broken in many pieces, she came together and gave me the strength to put the pedal to the metal and get past those trucks.

Thank you, Blessed Mother! What a great church!

(Mary Woodward is Chancellor and Archivist for the Diocese of Jackson)