St. Francis New Albany celebrates 75 years

By Galen Holley
NEW ALBANY – The theological term “domestic church” expresses well the genesis of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which began as a modest gathering of Catholics who met in their homes and were ministered to by missionary circuit priests.

In 1922, E.W. Viola, and Dorothy Kelso moved from Jackson, Tennessee, to New Albany, in order to open a bakery. That’s when the first Catholic community began to take shape. Because there was no church in New Albany, the Kelsos had to drive to Oxford or Tupelo for Mass. That changed when an Irish priest, Father Patrick Moran, became pastor of the already established St. Patrick Parish in Water Valley. He also assumed responsibility for St. Patrick’s missionary district, which, among 11 counties, included New Albany.

The fledgling Catholic community celebrated the first Mass in Union County in the fall of 1938. It was in the Kelsos’ home, at 357 Garfield Street, with Father Moran as celebrant. The faithful used a portable altar, about the size of a card table. Dorothy Kelso joked that the table and furnishings were so modest, that, as she put it, “We often thought that only a prayer held it up.” Those present at the first Mass included Viola and Dorothy Kelso, Tom Bonner, a Mr. Flanagan, Mrs. John Tilly and her daughter, Margaret Ellen, and Mrs. Edith Stone.

The following year the center of the missionary circuit shifted from Water Valley to St. John’s in Oxford, and Father Cletus Manon became responsible for making the rounds and celebrating Mass in people’s homes.

Under Father Manon’s leadership, the New Albany Catholics (consisting of less than 20 adults) built their first, physical church on Cleveland Street. Bishop Richard Gerow bought the land in 1948, and the construction was made possible by aid from the Extension Society, along with private donations, including those from Mr. and Mrs. Frank Lewis, as well as Dr. Palmer Patterson, and volunteer labor, as from the Milton DeNault family. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was dedicated on June 19, 1949, by Archbishop William O’Brien of the Extension Society. The first child to be baptized at St. Francis was a young man named Robert Thomas, in 1950.

St. Francis continued as a mission of St. John’s in Oxford, and throughout the years the Sisters of Mercy taught vacation Bible school, and later, Franciscan Sisters from Holly Springs headed educational endeavors. For 10 years, Sacred Heart priests from St. Joseph Parish in Holly Springs served as pastors at St. Francis.

In 1965 it was announced that the small community of St. Christopher’s in Pontotoc would be linked to St. Francis, under the leadership of the Cincinnati based Glenmary Home Missioners. Father Bob Rademacher became the first Glenmarian to pastor both the New Albany and Pontotoc churches in 1967.

Rademacher was a robust, hands-on man, and he continued the tradition of visiting families, celebrating Mass in members’ homes, and maintaining close ties with the rural community. He was even known to help farming families harvest crops.

In October of 1986 the congregation purchased the land on which the church now stands, on Highway 15.

By the late 1990’s many Catholics had begun arriving from Latin America, primarily from Mexico. Mississippi had not experienced an influx of native Catholics like that since the Irish arrived in the early part of the 20th century. Like the Irish, Hispanic Catholics brought with them folk customs, liturgical traditions, and valuable cultural symbols, perhaps none more sacred than the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their contributions enriched and deepened the Catholic heritage at St. Francis and gave members a good perspective on the universality of the Catholic faith.

Glenmary priest, Father Will Steinbacher was pastor when the present sanctuary was built in 1993. He spoke about the intentional choice of architecture. “We chose the design to symbolize arms, reaching into and embracing the community,” said Father Will.

Steinbacher spoke glowingly of the Kelso family, having once humorously referred to Dorothy as “the bishop” as well as of the other hardworking people who built the community. True to the Glenmary spirit, and in perfect agreement with the life of St. Francis, Father Will recalled the creation of the Good Samaritan Center as one of the highlights of his time in New Albany. The Good Samaritan Center is an inter-faith, non-profit that helps meet the emergency needs of the poor.

Father Steve Pawelk followed Steinbacher as the pastor in 1993. Pawelk, a Minnesota native, oversaw many of the developments with which younger parishioners are familiar. Pawelk started the Spanish Mass, as well as overseeing the church paying off its debt for the sanctuary and rectory. He was a member of the Board of Directors at New Albany’s Boys and Girls Club and worked vigorously in ecumenical efforts.
Pawelk spoke warmly about his time in New Albany. “St. Francis will always have a special place in my heart,” said Pawelk. “This was my first pastorate. During this time the parish grew with new converts, people moving in and with the beginning of the Spanish Mass. We had a wonderful youth group. Part of my heart will always be there.”

Father Xavier Jesuraj took over as pastor in February 2016, and he has worked hard to learn Spanish as his third language in order to serve the flourishing Hispanic community, while also honoring the Anglo traditions that were there from the church’s inception.

The welcoming spirit upon which it was founded still abides today in the congregation of St. Francis of Assisi, as together in Christ, they continue their seventh decade of worship.

St. Francis New Albany celebrates 70th anniversary (2019)