Mississippi summers provided bishop with many challenges

From the Archives
By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – As we begin our journey into the lovely days of summer filled with that heat and humidity we treasure so much, I thought I would share some more experiences of Bishop John Gunn’s adventures. These few entries detail his battles with travelling in July on the Gulf Coast, which was once part of our diocese until the Diocese of Biloxi was established in 1977.

The 17 counties that make up the Diocese of Biloxi would have been Deanery VII of this Diocese in Bishop Gunn’s time. It stretches up to Laurel and over to Tylertown. Bishop Gunn enjoyed being on the Gulf and spent a lot of time in Pass Christian. He attributed it to the easier access to rail and road travel from the Coast than Natchez had.

DeLISLE – The interior of Our Lady of Good Hope parish is pictured in Christmas of 1920. Bishop John Gunn takes readers on summer adventure at the parish when he visited in July of 1912. Established in 1872, the church was first destroyed by fire in 1905 and rebuilt by Father René Sorin and ultimately destroyed beyond repair by Hurricane Camille in August 1969. (Photos courtesy of archives)

The week of July 23, 1912, Bishop Gunn, who was only a few months into his tenure as bishop, spent a couple of days visiting DeLisle and its missions. Once again, the entries reflect Bishop Gunn’s dry wit and matter-of-fact demeanor. As a disclaimer, the reader needs to remember this is 110 years ago and conditions would have been different in the state of communities and parishes.

“July 23 – DeLisle and Missions: Big reception at the church – dinner in St. Joseph’s Hall. DeLisle has a long history and is connected with big men. The present Bishop of Oklahoma [Théophile Meerschaert] commenced his missionary career at DeLisle. Father [Alphonse] Ketels, now in Biloxi, followed him and Father [René] Sorin has spent nearly 20 years in the most abject poverty and isolation that it is possible to imagine a priest can have.”

“July 24 – Gave Confirmation after Mass in DeLisle. Gave a lecture at Cuevas at eight o’clock on Wednesday night and got the scare of my life in the house to which I was assigned to sleep after the lecture. It was a little bungalow, and I got the best room in the house and I think I got the concentrated heat of the entire coast.”

“I was wet and tired, and I fell asleep as soon as I could. … In the middle of the night I thought my last hour had come as something got into the bed with me and fought me like a tiger. I had nothing but a sheet covering me and in my surprise, to get the bed all to myself I rolled the sheet round the visitor and we had an unequal tussle.”

“It seems a big Scotch Collie had been accustomed to sleep in the bed and had not been notified of the change of occupants. I rolled the sheet ‘round the collie who objected to the familiarity and frightened me thoroughly before I let him loose.”

“July 25 – I gave Confirmation in Cuevas or Pineville. After the Mass and Confirmation and a sermon, I felt as if I had been pulled out of the ocean and it was then I was told that I had to see all the people.”

“I was wet – the church itself was the reception room. The Protestant idea of using the church for everything obtains unfortunately in Mississippi when actual service is not going on. For a little while, I endured the handshaking and the heat, but I begged the priest to get me somewhere where I could get rid of my wet clothes and effect a change at least in parts.”

DeLISLE – Our Lady of Good Hope parish was served by Father René Sorin, from 1896 until his death on Feb. 6, 1955.

“There was no available spot in the church nor in the sacristy, nor behind the altar – nor anywhere and I found my wet clothes now growing cold. Finally, the priest asked me if I would use a kind of closet that was in the sacristy. The closet was about three feet square and contained a barrel in which all the things the ladies of the Altar Society did not want the Bishop to see – old flowers, old candles, broken vases, etc., but I was glad to get even there to get out of my wet clothes.”

“I was progressing rapidly and quickly, when I looked at a slit in the closet and there to my horror, I saw a snake looking right into my eyes. About four or five inches of him stuck to the wall and the rest of him hissed at me.”

“I did not take long to beat a retreat and I never thought I could be such a coward. Irishmen and snakes don’t agree.”

So, I sit here in my air-conditioned office, thinking of those mid-summer days growing up without this luxury and how we managed to endure it. Then I imagine the most likely wool-suited Bishop Gunn perspiring in buckets in his missions throughout the diocese – fending off creatures in the night and slithering snakes in closets – to be shepherd to his sheep. God bless him.

As we make the slide into the heat and humidity of Mississippi’s summer through the traditional doorway of Memorial Day weekend, let us remember to offer prayers and thanks for all who have served our country and paid the ultimate price on the battlefields of the world. Bishop Gunn, who loved three things – his Catholic faith, his Irish heritage, and his American citizenship – would expect that of us. Amen.

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