Centennial faith: the enduring spirit of Our Mother of Mercy

From the Archives
By Mary Woodward

JACKSON – Last Saturday, Jan. 27, was a cloudy damp day in the Mississippi Delta, but the joy and the warmth flowing from the pews filled with the faithful and friends of Our Mother of Mercy Mission in Anguilla dispelled any thoughts of the atmospheric conditions outside. The church was marking the 100th anniversary of the first Masses celebrated in people’s homes.

Anguilla is situated on Highway 61 in Sharkey County. In the early 1900s, Father Andrew Gmelch would come from Merigold. Father Gmelch served the Austrian Catholic farmers in that town, but the continual flooding challenges caused this small contingent of Catholic farmers to move away. Around 1912 Anguilla became a mission of Cleveland and Belzoni All Saints became a mission of Greenwood where Msgr. John Clerico, known as the pastor of the Delta, based himself.

Msgr. Clerico roamed the entire Delta tending to the flock scattered across the Alluvial plain. In 1927, Anguilla became a mission of Greenwood and Msgr. Clerico made regular visits to celebrate Mass in homes of the faithful and share meals and conversations in Italian with those who shared his Italian heritage and birth.

With donations from its faithful and a nice grant from Catholic Extension, Anguilla bought a small piece of land in March 1929 and built Our Mother of Mercy Church. Bishop Richard Gerow dedicated the church on Aug. 6, 1929.

Belzoni and Anguilla became missions of Leland in 1944 when Msgr. Clerico’s Greenwood parish was divided. A few years later in 1953, Belzoni was elevated to a parish and Anguilla became its mission. Today, Anguilla is served by Father Panneer Arockiam Selvam from Yazoo City.

This is a brief history of Our Mother of Mercy and its journey taken from Cleta Ellington’s book Christ the Living Water written for the 150th anniversary of the diocese in 1987. These excerpts capture only a small glimpse of the closeness of this small Catholic community in the Delta.

To get an eyewitness account of the dedication day festivities, I looked up Bishop Gerow’s account of the day in his diary and below is his entry for Aug. 6, 1929.

“This morning at 9 o’clock, assisted by Father Clerico and in the presence of a large number of people, I dedicated the new Church of Our Lady of Mercy at Anguilla.

“The lot on which this church is situated was bought with funds raised by the people of Anguilla and thereabout. Extension Society gave the people $2,500 for the building of the church and $400 worth of equipment, vestments, etc. It is quite a nice little church and substantially built, and the people are very justly proud of it.

Linda Alford gets a hug from her former pastor, Father P.J. Curley at the anniversary celebration at Our Mother of Mercy on Saturday, Jan. 27.

“Joe Prestiano, a zealous and enthusiastic member of the congregation at Anguilla, was determined to make this a big day. He had, therefore, advertised it very extensively. Through his efforts the Knights of Columbus band came up from Vicksburg for the occasion. Father Clerico brought his Greenwood choir over and a great many friends from Vicksburg, Greenville, Greenwood and surrounding cities and towns were in Anguilla for the dedication; besides a great number of the faithful from the small towns who will attend Anguilla as their mission church.

“The dedication started at 9 o’clock. A procession formed at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cook, headed by the Knights of Columbus band playing lively march music – the procession made up of the men of the congregation and a few altar boys, with Father Clerico, and the Bishop dressed in cope, miter and carrying his crozier – and marched to the front of the church.

“After the dedication Father Clerico sang the high Mass – the Greenwood choir did itself proud – and the bishop preached a sermon to the people; and after the church ceremonies a general picnic was held, the people remaining upon the grounds all day, the Knights of Columbus band supplying very good music for the occasion. It was a great day for the people of Anguilla.

“Although the congregation of Anguilla itself is very small, yet Anguilla is centrally situated and people from many other places, such as Rolling Fork, Hollandale, etc., come to church at this point.”

I was struck by how much of that same zeal and flavor was present this past Saturday in January.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz was the celebrant; Father P.J. Curley, former pastor, provided an inspiring homily only he could deliver; several former pastors were present; friends came from all over the region; and the reception after Mass in the parish hall (now occupying those original grounds) was adorned with fabulous food, fellowship and memories – a quintessential Delta brunch.

Even though there was no Knights of Columbus Band or big choir, those present filling the church to capacity offered beautiful hymns, prayers and responses of which they could be proud. I find I am as inspired by these celebrations in smaller communities as much as any Cathedral Mass. The love and joy that flows in and around the sacred mysteries is a powerful witness to the vibrancy of our faith in the diocese. Who knows what the landscape will be in another 100 years, but on a cloudy day in January 2024, Anguilla bore witness to that vibrant faith.

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