By Galen Holley
NEW ALBANY – Parishioners celebrated Mass outdoors on Oct. 16, on a cool, crisp fall morning, with birds and squirrels darting through the pines encircling the yard. What better way to honor the legacy of their patron and namesake of the church, St. Francis of Assisi.
“St. Francis was known for loving nature and animals, and for loving others,” said Father Xavier Jesuraj, preaching his homily in front of a crowd of 300, most of them sitting in lawn chairs, others standing around the makeshift soccer and volleyball field that would soon be teeming with energetic athletes.
An unpainted statue of the saint, his hand held aloft in pious blessing, stood beside the altar, along with fragrant bouquets of flowers. On the west end of the yard, just behind the church, a Hispanic band, complete with bass, guitar, tambourine and a litany of female singers, serenaded the faithful. During Holy Communion, they sang, “The Prayer of St. Francis,” in Spanish. “Make me a channel of your peace,” they sang. “Where there is despair in life, let me bring hope.”
Catholics from Tupelo and Ripley also came to New Albany to worship. The “Danza” group, honoring their Aztec tradition, also performed.
Fluffy, bundled children scurried about, gathering handfuls of dried pine needles off the pavement. In the impromptu midway, on the north side of the church, the mechanical bull and the bouncy house were going up. The succulent smell of carne asada filled the air, along with the sweet smell of grilling onions, and the crisp, fresh bite of chopped cilantro.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish celebrated 72 years in 2022. The first gatherings were in the home of the Kelso family. Priests from the Glenmary Home Missioners staffed it until four years ago, when diocesan priest, Father Raj, began shepherding the community.
Today, the church is a vibrant mix of Anglo and Latino members, along with other races and nationalities, who collaborate on festive occasions, like this one, to express their unity in Jesus Christ. Their diversity and mutual love testify to a broken world that division is only a deception, and that faith in the risen Jesus is the tie that binds.
Father Raj spoke of his recent trip to the holy sites of Europe, including Assisi. He became emotional when speaking of Carlos Acutis, a remarkable Italian youth, who died of leukemia, in 2006, at the age of 15. The boy had vast computer skills, and documented, online, miracles concerning the Holy Eucharist. He was beatified in October 2020.
“The Pope says that we need saints in jeans,” said Father Raj, during his homily to the crowd of jean wearers gathered at the celebration Mass. Maybe modern saints are living among us.