Family answers ‘yes to the Lord’s invitation’ for mission work

By Joe Lee
JACKSON – Imagine being very successful in your profession. You and your spouse have a wonderful family, are blessed with many friends and are active church members.

But something crucial is missing from your lives.

“I had always done well in commercial real estate and banking,” said Saul Keeton, a native of the Jackson area who became Catholic in 2001. “But (my wife) Jan and I had a growing dissatisfaction with what the world had to offer us … we sensed the Lord wanting something radical from us.”

Jan Keeton, a cradle Catholic originally from Stafford, Texas, considered the idea of foreign missions for the first time in 2018. But with young children at home (the Keeton kids range from age 20 down to seven), planning such a trip was complicated.

MEXICO – Saul Keeton assists in mixing concrete for a foundation on a mission trip to Mexico in early 2019. He was accompanied by his four oldest children. The Keeton family said “yes to the Lord’s invitation” for mission work. (Photo courtesy of Saul Keeton)

“A Methodist college friend was very involved in supporting a school in Haiti, and she invited me to go with her several times,” Jan said. “Eventually it dawned on me that the only way I’d get to go on a mission trip was if (our entire family) went together.”

Through a simple Google search, Jan learned of Family Missions Company (FMC) and was delighted to learn that in addition to being a Catholic organization, FMC was based in Abbeville, Louisiana, only 250 miles from Jackson.

“All the FMC missionaries and staff live in Gospel poverty, meaning they have all they need to live and nothing more,” Saul said. “Most of my questions (amounted to), ‘What would it be like for our kids to go from living in American suburbia to living in the desert, the jungle or a barrio?’”

Their first mission trip was to General Cepeda, Mexico, in 2018. Saul recalls reading aloud to Jan his journal entries from that week.

“We cried about it together in a jumble of emotions: anticipation, anxiety, relief, excitement, unworthiness,” he said. “I think we experienced all simultaneously. We intensified our spiritual direction with Father Anthony Quyet after the trip and, praise be to God, he confirmed our missionary call.”
They applied with FMC to be full-time foreign missionaries and were accepted. With the new formation year beginning that fall, the couple faced the choice of entering formation within a few weeks or waiting until fall 2019. They chose the latter, wanting the extra year to get their affairs in order and build a team of missionary supporters.

They also wanted time to pray about their son Nicholas’s 2018 diagnosis of autism.

“We knew the Lord was in control,” Saul said, “but trusting in Jesus is pretty easy until a serious trial comes along. And it was hard to see the path ahead more than one step at a time.”

Saul made another mission trip to Mexico in early 2019 with the couple’s four oldest kids, and Jan made one to Costa Rica that year, but they felt the Lord wanted them to put down roots in Jackson and dove headfirst into autism therapy.

Then, in summer 2022, they again heard the Lord’s call to go back into mission work and relocated from Jackson to Abbeville.

“I gratefully accepted the position of Director of Mission Advancement for FMC,” Saul said. “I oversee all fundraising efforts, donor relations, our marketing team, our two retreat centers, and foreign mission trips. For the last year, my family has lived in missionary housing in community with many of the other families that are part of the FMC administrative staff.

“Many people mistakenly believe that the Gospel has been taken to the whole world … that couldn’t be further from the truth. While there are hundreds of organizations that have sprung up in the last 60 years to serve the church in the U.S., I know of no other that is so focused on taking the Gospel to places where it hasn’t been heard yet.”

While the Keetons’ family service with FMC looks different than Saul and Jan envisioned, they look for opportunities to preach the Gospel around their mission post whenever possible.

“I spoke (recently) to 40 high school kids at one of our retreat centers on serving and loving the poor,” Saul said. “When the poor need a water well, we’ll dig one. Or we’ll mix and pour concrete to replace a dirt floor. We’ll also listen and offer a shoulder to cry on – and cry with them – when emotional support is needed.”

“We do find plenty of opportunities to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy within our own family,” Jan said. “This has had a profound experience on our own hearts.

“It’s easy to forget sometimes how hard it is for many people to say yes to the Lord’s invitation. Through much prayer, we’ve said it twice now, and we’re surrounded by people who’ve also given up everything to follow Him. But that shouldn’t dull us to the shock people feel when their consciences are shaken awake for the first time.”

One of the only lay-run Catholic foreign missionary organizations in the U.S., Family Mission Company have more than 200 missionaries serving in nine countries around the world. They work with the blessing of Bishop Douglas Deshotel of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. To support FMC, or to reach Saul or Jan Keeton and learn more about international mission work, visit

Inspiring others to ‘work together as people of faith ’Msgr. Sunds observes golden jubilee

By Joe Lee
MADISON – On the evening of Aug. 7, the family life center at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Madison resembled a fine restaurant, with white tablecloths and soft candlelight creating the perfect backdrop for a huge crowd to congratulate Msgr. Elvin Sunds on the golden anniversary of his ordination as a priest.

It was a fitting tribute to the kind, soft-spoken man who grew up in Iowa and has spent more than fifty years of his life bringing Mississippians of different backgrounds together. The throng waiting to enjoy the mouth-watering dinner was no surprise after the standing room only gathering at Mass, which made Sunds feel, in his words, deeply affirmed.

“When I first saw the church packed for the Mass, I was genuinely overwhelmed,” he said. “I had no idea so many people over the years from so many parishes – and from Catholic Charities – wanted to express their gratitude.”

MADISON – Msgr. Elvin Sunds (second from right) celebrated his golden jubilee on Monday, Aug. 7 at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Madison. (Photo by Tereza Ma)

Sunds felt the call toward the priesthood while a senior in high school, but he wanted something more exciting than the Diocese of Des Moines, especially after being told by his vocation director that he was expected to teach high school for the first ten years after ordination.

“During my junior year at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri, my spiritual director suggested I spend a summer working for a friend of his in New York City named Father John Powis. This was 1967, and Father Powis was working in the rough Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a largely Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood.

“I was impressed at what Father Powis was doing and found an apartment in a condemned building for the summer. I worked mornings at a commercial laundry to support myself and spent afternoons organizing recreational programs for the neighborhood kids.”

Sunds had seminarian classmates from Mississippi who urged him to visit the state, which he did for the first time that fall.

“Cardinal Bernard Law was the vocation director then for what was the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson,” Sunds said. “He arranged for me to spend several months with Father Nathaniel Machesky, who was pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Greenwood.

“This was predominantly an African American parish. They were offering education for the kids in the grade school there, a wonderful alternative to what wasn’t a good education in the Greenwood public schools. I realized the Natchez-Jackson Diocese was where I needed to be.”

Since his ordination by Bishop Joseph Brunini at Our Lady of the Gulf in Bay St. Louis on Aug. 5, 1973, Sunds has pastored in Biloxi, Jackson, Meridian, Greenville and Corinth. Revered for his work with Catholic Charities (where he served as executive director from 1978-1994), he was honored by the Mississippi NAACP in 1982 with the organization’s Outstanding Service Award.

Msgr. Elvin Sunds pictured at his priestly ordination on Aug. 5, 1973 in Bay St. Louis. (Photo from archives)

“We established programs while I was there to serve people that had not been served in Mississippi,” Sunds said. “I really encouraged the employees to think toward trying to change the system and make a bigger impact than just the person we were serving. My first hire was Linda Raff as associate director. We made a great team.”

“Msgr. Sunds brought a sense of social justice for all of God’s children, especially those poor and vulnerable,” said Raff, who succeeded Sunds as executive director in 1994 and served in that role 14 years before returning for a final year as director in 2014. “I appreciated that he administered the agency in a very fair-minded way, and it will always be one of my greatest privileges to have worked for him.”

“We’re only 2.5 percent Catholic in the Jackson diocese,” Sunds said. “But we have a tremendous impact, and we have an even bigger impact when we work together ecumenically. The Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference was Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish – lots of denominations – that worked together in the civil rights era.

“When we work together as people of faith, we can make a tremendous impact in Mississippi, such as the changing of the state flag. The football community, the academic community and the business community were behind it, but it was also the Catholic bishop, Methodist bishop, Episcopal bishop and others that agreed we needed to change it.”

“Msgr. Sunds and I have been friends for almost 30 years,” said retired pastor Raymon Leake. “He invited me to speak in his church (St. Patrick in Meridian at the time), and I invited him to speak in mine (First Baptist of Meridian).

“We’ve worked together on projects as significant as establishing a children’s home, and as seemingly insignificant as sharing with a community that Christians of different backgrounds can work together for the benefit of those who need us.”

“Msgr. Sunds was my predecessor at St. Patrick and did the hard work in setting up a relationship between (predominantly white) St. Patrick and (predominantly black) St. Joseph,” said retired priest Father Frank Cosgrove. “What he did should serve as a model for other places.”

“The attendance at 8:30 Sunday Mass at St. Joseph is now about fifty percent white – they come for the music and hospitality, both of which are wonderful – and Msgr. Sunds deserves great credit for that. A St. Patrick parishioner told me that Msgr. Sunds brought the Meridian Catholic community into the twenty-first century.”

In residence at St. Francis in Madison since officially retiring in 2019, Sunds has taken time off to travel the country, most notably an 8,000-mile excursion that took him to eight national parks and three national monuments. He and Leake, both avid outdoorsmen, have hiked together through the Tetons, the Sierras, the Rockies, and from France into Switzerland through the Alps. He even pastored for a month in 2021 in Nome, Alaska. [Click here to ready the story on his trip to Nome]

Sunds has the admiration of St. Francis pastor Father Albeenreddy Vatti, who praised his brother priest’s work ethic, organizational skills and the simple lifestyle he leads. He has also earned the trust and respect of the parish’s youth.

“When you’re a young priest, you’re kind of a mentor to young people because you’re not far removed from them in age,” Sunds said. “When you get to be middle age, you’re more like a parent, and the relationship changes a bit. Then you get to a stage where you’re more like a grandparent. Maybe they relate to you in a way they wouldn’t relate to their parents.

“You reach out by being accepting and non-critical. And listening.”

Christine Love receives the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross from Pope Francis

By Joe Lee
JACKSON – The reality of being presented with a medal awarded by Pope Francis is difficult for Christine Love to get her mind around.

Recently retired after more than five decades of serving as housekeeper, caretaker, and trusted friend to Jackson Diocese Bishops Gerow, Brunini, Houck, Latino and Kopacz, the soft-spoken member of Cathedral of St. Peter’s the Apostle Church was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross for her fifty-plus years of dedicated service to the Office of the Bishop.

“It makes me feel good. It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel like I’m going to heaven,” Love said of the medal, which was announced at the Vatican in February and presented to her by Bishop Joseph Kopacz at the Cathedral in late June. (Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, as translated, means “for the church and pope.” See accompanying story.)

A graduate of Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Love earned an undergraduate degree from Campbell College (now Jackson State University) six decades ago. When her husband, A.G., a building contractor, was temporarily ill early in their marriage, Love enrolled in nursing school at Hinds Community College.

“I was just about finished. Pharmacology was my last class,” Love recalled. “I was told, ‘You’re just like a nurse. Come on.’ I started with the Professional Nurses Registry and worked for them a year or so before going on out my own. That’s what led to my work with the diocese and the bishops.”

A major turning point in her life was an opportunity to serve as a private duty nurse for Bishop Gerow, to whom she grew close. Gerow retired in 1967 and was succeeded by Bishop Joseph Brunini, but Love continued to sit with him as his health worsened over the years.

“At the end, Bishop Gerow’s home was at St. Dominic Hospital. He passed away in my arms,” she said. “After he passed, I began working with Sister Claudia Murphy, taking care of the senior citizens of the diocese. When Bishop Houck came along, I started working for him at his home.”

There were lots of lighthearted moments over the years. Love recalls Bishop William Houck always being able to tell a good joke and remembers his Frank Sinatra records; she said Bishop Joseph Latino enjoyed discussing the news and television shows. Using the words “perfectionist” and “tidy” to describe all five men, Love said she built a rapport with each and earned a level of trust that brought her into their inner circles.

“I’ve known Christine more than 35 years,” said Diocesan Chancellor Mary Woodward. “I got to know her better when I started coordinating the dinners Bishop Houck would host at his townhouse. Christine would be getting the house in tip-top shape for guests while I would be chopping lemons and carrots.

“She is one of the kindest people I know. Traits of hers that I think endeared her to each bishop were her dedication to their well-being, availability at the drop of a hat, her knowledge of the household and of each bishop’s personality. She would know exactly how Bishop Houck would want something, compared to how Bishop Latino would like it. Each one she served was unique, and she was very good at adapting to each one’s modus operandi.”

While Love and A.G. raised five kids (all of whom graduated from St. Joseph Catholic School and went on to college), she juggled being a band mom, soccer mom and sports mom while being flexible when it came to her responsibilities for each bishop.

“With my arrival in the Diocese of Jackson, Christine extended her dedicated service to me at my home with weekly house cleaning,” Bishop Kopacz said. “I note ‘extended her service’ because at the time of my arrival she was also attending to Bishop Houck and Bishop Latino.

“She worked with others to prepare my house to receive guests for special events, and she always made sure my Labrador Retriever had some extra loving and treats. She’s rightly enjoying a well-deserved retirement surrounded by her children, grandchildren and friends. I and the Bishops who preceded me – Bishops Gerow, Brunini, Houck and Latino – are eternally grateful for her dedicated care, her strong faith in the Lord Jesus, and her love for the church.”

JACKSON – The pro ecclesia et pontifice insignia cross was awarded to Christine Love on Saturday, June 25 at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle. (Photo by Mary Woodward)

“I tried to bring honesty and work ethic to whatever I did,” Love said. “Bishop Houck always encouraged me. He said, ‘You can do it. You can make it. I want to see those kids graduate from St. Joe.’ He encouraged me to open my own business and was very proud when I created Love Janitorial Services 18 years ago.”

“Christine is a very circumspect person,” Woodward said. “She and I could discuss important matters about the household, but it would never go beyond us. She understood the life of a bishop and had an immense amount of respect for the office and the man in it. Maintaining a bishop’s house is an awesome responsibility, and Christine was an extremely valued and trusted person by each bishop. I knew if I called her to come check on something she would be on her way before we even hung up the phone.”

Love says she’ll always get a bit emotional when talking about Bishops Gerow, Houck, Brunini, Latino and Kopacz and the impact all have had on her life.

“I can’t say I’ll miss the work,” she said, “but I’ll always miss my bishops.”

Pro ecclesia et pontifice decree

From the decree issued by Pope Francis on February 21 at the Vatican:
“Francis, supreme pontiff, has deigned and elected to bestow the august insignia cross “pro ecclesia et pontifice” upon Lady Christine Love, for her excellent works and outstanding diligence, thus making it possible for her to adorn herself with this medal, having earned it through great service to the church and in particular the office of the bishop.”

While rare for a sitting pope to award a medal to anyone from the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, it has happened several times.

“At the request of Bishop Joseph Latino, Pope Benedict XVI awarded Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth, OP, the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross in 2012,” said Diocesan Chancellor Mary Woodward. “He also, at the same time, bestowed the Benemerenti Medal on Judy Cannon, former administrative assistant to Bishops Brunini, Houck and Latino, and Bill Dunning, former diocesan finance officer.

“The medals are requested by the local bishop and an extensive application is completed and reviewed by the papal office at the Vatican. Several individuals were awarded the Pro Ecclesia in the 1950s and 60s.”

St. Vincent de Paul conferences form helping hands for Rolling Fork

By Joe Lee

JACKSON – Donovan Guilbeau, who installs power lines for Southern Electric Corporation and has seen many destructive tornadoes and hurricanes over four decades, said the EF-4 storm that ravaged the Mississippi communities of Rolling Fork and Silver City on March 24 caused the worst damage he’s ever seen.

“This reminded me of the Nagasaki bomb going off in World War II. It took my breath away,” said Guilbeau, a St. Richard parishioner is a long-time member of the St. Richard of Chichester Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVDP), a national organization dedicated to feeding, clothing, and healing individuals and families in their time of need. “The damage and 26 lives lost were in a very concentrated area, and I knew we had to do something.”

Guilbeau has business associates who own property in the Rolling Fork area, and his wife has family nearby. In trying to assess what he could do to help, he turned to the St. Richard of Chichester Conference, one of five SVDP conferences in the District Council of the Diocese of Jackson (the others are St. Martin de Porres at Christ the King, St. Therese Conference, St. Joseph Conference at St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Greenville and St. Elizabeth of Hungary at Annunciation Parish in Columbus).

“I’m the St. Richard conference’s field representative for Rolling Fork and Silver City,” Guilbeau said. “Once the site was secured by the local police and the fire department, Tommy Jordan, a fellow St. Richard conference member, and I invited Carrie Robinson, president of the District of Jackson Council, to go with us.

“In this case, the news media did not blow the destruction out of proportion. I became a news reporter of sorts for SVDP, telling them what we were seeing on the ground.”

Robinson, a member of Christ the King Parish, said that all five SVDP conferences in the Jackson council eagerly came together: food and clothing was delivered from the Greenville conference, and financial assistance from the Columbus conference was provided to St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Amory to support nine families that suffered tornado damage the same weekend as the Rolling Fork storm hit.
“I ordered 875 hygiene kits from Disaster Services Corporation, which is the SVDP service arm,” Robinson said. “SVDP deployed case workers for a period of two weeks and began assisting residents of Rolling Fork and Silver City.

“The St. Richard conference donated $10,000 toward the relief efforts, which made it possible for us to serve one hot meal a day to 500-700 people for those two weeks. We also received a Rapid Response Grant from SVDP for $5,000, and a $5,000 grant from Isagenix Foundation.”

The grant money has gone toward Walmart gift cards, which have been handed out to storm victims in amounts of $25 and $50 to purchase food, clothing and other basic needs. But Dianne Clark, the Southeastern U.S. Disaster Rep for SVDP, said that one of the best things volunteers can do is listen to the victims’ stories and encourage them to talk.

“Each time you relate what you went through, it gets a little easier to talk about. Don’t keep it bottled up inside,” said Clark, who is based in Bradenton, Florida, and has seen plenty of hurricane damage in her decade-plus of SVDP service. “We’ll talk 20-30 minutes with each person to let them get things off their chests.

“It’s especially difficult if you’ve lost family members – there was one man on crutches who told us he’d just lost his mother and grandmother. Another woman said she and her husband lived in a mobile home, and her husband climbed on top of her to protect her. They survived, but the woman was horrified to find that when she looked over at the site where her sister’s mobile home was, it was gone. The sister’s body was found later, unfortunately.

First Baptist Church of Rolling Fork became a central feeding and recovery location for disaster survivors in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

“Pastor Britt Williamson was bringing in counselors to help the victims when we were there,” Clark said. “It’s so important to get children to open up as well as the adults. We give candy to them, try to get them to talk. They’re deeply impacted by what they’ve gone through.”

The inclination by so many goodhearted people once they learn of horrific storm damage is to organize drives to deliver food, clothing, supplies and even furniture. Some even hop in their cars and drive straight to the disaster site, eager to offer whatever help they can.

But despite the best of intentions, those spontaneous acts of generosity can create additional problems. Clark pointed out that when truckloads of furniture and clothing are sent at the very beginning of the recovery, there’s often nowhere to put them because homes and buildings have been destroyed.

“There’s an urge to go in and provide resources without asking,” Robinson said. “The greatest thing we can do is allow those in need to have some dignity, and say to them, ‘We are not the experts. Tell us how we can help you. What is it that you need?’”

Robinson just led a team of volunteers from the St. Richard and Christ the King conferences to Silver City on May 18 to partner with the Mississippi Department of Health and Human Services.

“DHS asked if we could help them feed the residents,” Robinson said. “They’re doing outreach for seniors and the disabled whose services – such as Meals on Wheels – were disrupted because of the storm. We purchased burgers, beans, chips and drinks to serve lunch, and we were also there to find out if there were additional needs from residents, such as those still without electricity.”

Guilbeau and SVDP volunteers all over the Jackson Council will gladly continue to help out in Rolling Fork and Silver City as long as it takes, and in whatever ways are needed – including through spiritual nourishment.

“We have a project called Home in a Box that provides furniture to homes that are being rebuilt,” he said. “The short-term need was for feeding; the long-term need is to rebuild. This is long-haul healing.”

“When we met with Pastor Williamson, he indicated that a lot of Rolling Fork residents are renters,” Robinson said. “Going forward, one of the needs will be to see how we can assist them in moving from renting to home ownership, which creates more stability in the community.

“But the most important thing we’ve done for our friends there – and the most important thing we can continue to do – is pray for them.”

To learn more about SVDP, visit

ROLLING FORK – St. Vincent de Paul conferences across the diocese work to serve the people of Rolling Fork after devastating tornado struck the community on March 24. (Photo courtesy of Carol Evans)

Homegrown Harvest event celebrates, supports
diocesan seminarians

A ticket admitting two to the Homegrown Harvest Festival is $100. The event includes a silent auction and a sit-down meal served by the Knights of Columbus 9543 at St. Francis of Assisi in Madison. To purchase tickets, to view sponsorship levels for this year’s event, or to make a donation to seminarian education, visit:

By Joe Lee
MADISON – Once he was named vocation director for the Diocese of Jackson, Father Nick Adam went right to work on developing a grand plan to get seminarians acquainted with parishioners from all over the diocese.

That dream became the Jackson Seminarian Homegrown Harvest Festival, now in its third year and set for Saturday, Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Madison. The event includes a sit-down meal, a silent auction and a seminarian presentation.

“I knew we needed to raise money to support the education of future priests,” said Father Adam. “But I wanted there to be an event where we came together to ‘see’ what was happening with our vocation program.

“Homegrown Harvest began with a vision of an event to celebrate our faith and the future priests of our church, and this year we are going to ‘see’ that we have nine seminarians. That’s four more than we had just this past May.”

Seminarian education is hardly inexpensive. Bishop Joseph Kopacz estimates that education plus room and board for each year of college seminary and theology is in the $40,000 range per student. Then there’s travel, summer assignments and summer formation programs for the seminarian, bringing to cost per student much closer to $50,000 annually.

“The Homegrown Harvest is becoming the featured event to celebrate the gift of priesthood, to encourage vocations, and to personally invite candidates for seminary discernment and formation,” Bishop Kopacz said. “It is also an opportunity to build up the community of parents, family members, friends and supporters of priestly vocations.”

It might make sense to guess that most seminarians are in their early twenties, though this season’s group of nine ranges from early twenties to early fifties. For older seminarians, the discernment process is different because of their station in life, as well as the role parents play in the life of a fifty-something seminarian compared to that of a teen who may hear the call and look to his parents for guidance and encouragement.

The third annual Jackson Seminarian Homegrown Harvest event will take place on Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Madison.

“I always tell young men that my job is to discern with them,” Father Adam said. “Seminary is not the end; it is a resource for young men to discover whether the Lord is calling them to priesthood. If a young man has the desire and the maturity to enter into the seminary and use the resources there for a couple of years to discover whether priesthood is for him, then he should go.”

Father Adam and the diocese have started a new initiative called POPS (Parents of Priests/Seminarians/Sisters) which works alongside the Homegrown Harvest Festival.

“Just like we are using the festival to build community and prayerful support for our seminarians,” Father Adam said of POPS, “we want to make sure we are directing resources toward parents who have made a great gift to the church by supporting their sons and daughters who are pursuing a religious vocation.”

Bishop Kopacz, though, is quick to point out that Father Adam and other vocation directors are not recruiters.

“At times (the vocation director) is directing a young person to consider the beauty of marriage, religious life, or single way of life for a time — or for a lifetime — in service to the Lord,” he said. “Ultimately it is a matter of recognizing one’s gifts and talents for one’s own good, the good of others and the glory of God. This is the gift of our Baptism that, properly nurtured, is the foundation for all vocations.”
Father Andrew Bowden, associate pastor at St. Richard in Jackson since June, said he began thinking of the priesthood at a young age.

“For most of the time I was in middle school and high school I was about 90 percent sure that it was what God was calling me to,” he said. “But I would not say that this is the norm. I locked in mentally, becoming sure that this was what God was calling me to, during my first year in the seminary.

“People today tend to try to distract themselves from what God asks of them. Ultimately this only causes greater dissatisfaction. It is never too early nor too late to start asking God what He wants you to do and to encourage the people around you to do the same. God is the source of our joy, so the greatest joy will be experienced in doing what He asks us to do.”

As Bishop Kopacz points out, presentations, prayer services and conversations are ways of planting seeds that God can bring to fruition in the years ahead. In addition to donating generously, plan to have a nice meal at the Homegrown Harvest Festival and get to know the current crop of seminarians. You may never know what impact you could have on their journey.

Journey of Hope event to highlight addiction,
recovery and healing

By Joe Lee
MADISON – Known nationally for his business books and Ted Talks, Oxford native David Magee seemingly had it all before his beloved son William – who lettered in track at Ole Miss and attended Honors College – died of an accidental drug overdose in 2013, a year after graduation.

But it wasn’t just William who was hurting at the time of his death.

David Magee

“I had to go look at what happened in our family,” Magee said. “How did what looked like a picture-perfect American family chasing the dream get completely shattered?”

Author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Dear William, Magee is the keynote speaker at this year’s Journey of Hope luncheon, set for Tuesday, Sept. 20 at the Jackson Convention Complex. Much more than simply a tribute to his late son, Dear William is a brutally honest look at a family that had been in crisis for many years.

The long, hard gaze into the mirror began with Magee himself, who was adopted and unaware of his birth parents’ identity until well into adulthood.

“I lived a great life in this wonderful university town,” he said of Oxford. “We knew everyone and could walk to the Square. But my house was very dark because there was a lot of depression and emotional pain inside me.”

“I did not know who I was, and the lack of sense of identity was something I didn’t deal with well. I tried to pretend it wasn’t there with alcohol and prescription Adderall.”

In addition to losing William, Magee and his wife, Kent, nearly lost their son Hudson to an overdose. Magee’s infidelity led to divorce before he and Kent remarried. But as facing their fears put them on a successful path to recovery and healing, Magee consulted his family about going public with everything they’d gone through in hopes of benefitting those in crisis.

“It took some years, but I had their blessing to do it – Kent, Hudson and our daughter Mary Halley,” he said. “The strength of Dear William is not that we lost him, but that we found joy and recovery together. The book applies to families who feel like they’ve lost something; they can get joy beyond what they ever imagined. It also applies to communities. We look around and see despair, but it is doable. You must have a plan and work hard to execute it.”

Author, David Magee of Oxford is the featured speaker at Catholic Charities Journey of Hope event on Sept. 19 and 20 in Jackson. Magee is the author of Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love and Loss. (Book cover courtesy of author)

What would Magee, who is helping launch the William Magee Institute for Student Well Being at Ole Miss, tell his twenty-one-year-old self?

“To believe in yourself,” he said. “The self-doubt is so poisonous. When you’re going through a hard time, it’s easy to point fingers at others. The twenty-one-year-old me had all these dreams of the American family I would have, and I coached my three children in most every sport they played. I taught Sunday school. I was on the City Council in Oxford.

“I was checking all the boxes,” he continued, “but rather than having a strong faith foundation and a strong belief in myself, I had a lot of self-doubt. I wish I could tell that version of me to get some counseling. I could have saved myself and my family a lot of pain and grief.”

Magee will have a strong message for parents at the Journey of Hope luncheon.

“Their own fears will often get in the way of raising their kids,” he said. “We want our children to have the best of everything. If warning signs flare up, the parents may fear that if they do ask for help – such as counseling – they may be labeled.

“A lot of kids have lost their joy. A lot of them tell us, ‘I’m making A’s, I’m on the sports teams, I’m on the homecoming court. Why do I feel so bad?’ We should worry about exposing them to what will help them, such as a good education. Faith is a big, positive part of their joy, while misuse of alcohol and substances steals that joy. We must do a better job of educating parents in navigating that path.”

Journey of Hope – Table Captain

Meet and Greet at Sal & Mookies

Sister Thea Bowman School welcomes new principal

Christopher Payne

By Joe Lee
JACKSON – Succeeding a legend like Shae Goodman-Robinson would be a daunting task to some, but for Christopher Payne, the incoming principal of Sister Thea Bowman School, it’s a comfortable fit as well as an opportunity to continue paying forward the many life lessons he learned from his mentor.

A graduate of Mississippi State University, Payne has spent the last seven years teaching social studies and technology to Sister Thea Bowman students in grades 3-6. A native of Jackson, he graduated from Jim Hill High school and knows the city and its challenges well.

“In my first year, I noticed a student whose behavior was changing. He was more aggressive around others and a bit standoffish,” Payne said. “I’ve seen boys do that and felt I needed to have a heart-to-heart with him. He started talking about what was going on at home, his relationship with his parents, and he broke down and cried.”

“I started sharing some of my experiences from the past, and he hugged me and said he hadn’t had anyone to talk to. That was the moment I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the impact I can have on these students’ lives.’”

In the short term, Payne says that while Sister Thea Bowman School already has a safe, loving, Christ-like environment, he wants to bring it “times ten” and immediately increase enrollment.

“I want to help guide the school to be one of the premier Catholic schools in Jackson,” Payne said. “Sister Thea Bowman is up for canonization, and we look forward to our school being known as ‘Saint’ Thea Bowman Catholic School. Having at present a prominent African American student body, I’d like to see kids of all races at our school. That’s what Sister Thea wanted: harmony among all groups.”

(Sister Thea Bowman School is now enrolling grades PreK-3 through sixth grade. Interested persons may contact the school at (601) 352-5441. Financial contributions to Sister Thea Bowman School as well as donations of your time and talents are greatly appreciated. Visit to learn more.)

Robinson reflects on years at Sister Thea Bowman school

Shae Goodman-Robinson

By Joe Lee
JACKSON – Something especially meaningful dawned on Shae Goodman-Robinson as she drove to Sister Thea Bowman School one morning near the end of her thirteenth and final year as principal.

“I told my parents that I started at Sister Thea Bowman in kindergarten when it was Christ the King School, and here I am retiring there as principal,” Robinson said. “What a beautiful full circle of how God puts you in places to pay it forward.”

In the midst of an emotional few days of saying goodbye to students, parents and her employees, Robinson reflected on the many pay-it-forward moments she’s had in more than four decades of being an educator.

“I’ll miss the children and the face-to-face contact with them,” she said. “It put a smile on my face, whatever may have been on my mind at the time. Kids will tell you what they see, in their honesty and love for you. ‘I love your hair, Ms. Robinson. I love your dress, Ms. Robinson. I love your shoes, Ms. Robinson.’ I will genuinely miss that. It’s kept me going all this time.”

Sister Thea Bowman, whom Robinson met two years before her death in 1990, had a profound impact on the way approached her calling.

“Her legacy was, ‘I try,’ and one of my favorite Sister Thea sayings was, ‘I know God is using me in ways beyond my comprehension,’” Robinson said. “As principal, I tried to make sure the students understood the importance of education, and that they took responsibility each day. I tried to make sure they understood that everything comes full circle regarding academic education and spiritual growth.”

A kindergartener in the early 1960s, Robinson recalls her parents earning approximately $200/month but insisting on paying a tuition bill of $32/month to send all three of their children to Christ the King School.
“They believed in the importance of the education we were getting at Christ the King,” she said. “All of that propelled me to want to come back to the school and help pay it forward.”

Another full circle moment is the friendship and work relationship Robinson has had with her successor, Jackson native Christopher Payne, who has taught at Sister Thea Bowman school for seven years and will serve as principal beginning this fall.

“I worked with his grandmother at Bailey Alternative School back in the 1980s, and I told Chris that I remember when his parents got married and when he was born,” Robinson said. “He attended my children’s birthday parties – I remember him as a toddler and growing up. My daughter went to Mississippi State, and so did he.”

“When I heard Chris was in education I talked to him, and when he said he wanted to teach, I offered him an open position I had. Once he got here, I saw leadership skills. He was not a teacher that raised his voice. He was always mild-mannered, and the kids loved him.”

“Shae was the main reason I ended up at Sister Thea Bowman School,” Payne said. “I wasn’t even sure teaching was my calling, but she saw something in me. She said to me, ‘You aren’t just here to work for the students; you’re here for the parents, your co-workers, the church and the community. She has instilled in me the bigger picture, that what happens outside the classroom matters most.”

Robinson will certainly miss her cherished interactions with the many students she mentored at Sister Thea Bowman School, but she has no doubt the right person was selected to succeed her.

“There was never hesitation when I asked Chris for help. He was always ready to help, and he volunteered to do things he saw that needed to be done without me having to ask,” Robinson said. “He has the personality, intelligence and another level of ideas that can take Sister Thea Bowman School to another level.”

(Joe Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Dogwood Press, a small but traditional publishing house. He is a regular contributor to Mississippi Catholic and a parishioner of St. Francis Madison.)

Click here for accompanying story on incoming principal – Christopher Payne

Sister Dorothea, rather ‘wear out than rust out’

By Joe Lee
MADISON – Growing up an hour from Chicago, Illinois, long, cold winters were a way of life for Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth as well as an opportunity to enjoy sports that most Mississippians may never experience.

“We went ice skating, sledding and snowmobiling,” said Sister Dorothea, a registered dietician and a 2017 recipient of the Catholic Health Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her ministry at St. Dominic Health Services. “Later, I snow skied in Utah and Colorado when meetings would take me to that part of the country. I’ve gone dog sledding out there.”

MADISON – Sister Dorothea Sondgeroth and Bishop Joseph Kopacz share a laugh at the opening of the Clarence and Sue Smith Rehab Center and Tuscany Skilled Nursing Center at St. Catherines Village in July 2019. (Photo by Joanna King)

The broken neck Sister Dorothea suffered on Palm Sunday in 2015 brought an end to the sledding and snowmobiling the beloved Dominican Sister still enjoyed by then, but in no way did it put a stop to her desire to remain active.

“My broken neck wasn’t from skiing or dog sledding,” she said. “I was at the chapel at St. Catherine’s Village. I got out of a chair, lost my balance, fell back and hit my neck on the back of a padded chair. I had no pain when I stood, but as I drove back to the convent, I felt a lump in my throat and decided to go to the E.R. and have it checked out.”

Sister Dorothea, as she would learn, had torn a ligament in her neck. She had surgery that night and left the hospital the next morning wearing a neck brace.

“I didn’t need rehab, and I thank God and the doctor for the surgery,” she said. “It was a miracle. I had an assistant whose mother is a paraplegic after being injured in a tornado. Another assistant, when I was a dietician, was broadsided in a car accident and died from a broken neck. I said, ‘The Lord has something for me to do.’”

There would be no more snowmobiling, no more daydreams of skydiving. But Sister Dorothea remains active to this day, walking often and gardening the lovely expanse behind the convent every chance she gets. She’s quick to offer gentle encouragement to those who find it difficult to cope with the aging process.

“I was not depressed. It was the reality of it,” she said of the Palm Sunday fall. “I knew God had intervened. God has plans. There’s a reason for everything. We’re not as young as we used to be, and when I’m asked by people, ‘You’re really still working?’, I say, ‘I’d rather wear out than rust out.’

“My mantra is to have everything in your life in balance, everything in moderation. Good exercise, good nutrition, good rest and prayer.”

For Senior Wellness Resources – Click here

Leap of faith fuels diving adventure

By Joe Lee
MADISON – Former President George H. W. Bush might be the first person that comes to mind when one thinks of skydiving late in life.

Our country’s 41st president, Bush passed away in 2018 at the age of 94. A Navy pilot during World War II, he jumped from an airplane in 1999 to commemorate his 75th birthday. He enjoyed the experience so much he did so again on birthdays in 2004, 2009 and, remarkably, in 2014 – at the ripe old age of 90.

“It’s vintage George Bush,” said spokesman Jim McGrath to Fox News after Bush’s skydive in 2014. “It’s that passion for life. It’s wanting to set a goal, wanting to achieve it. I’m sure part of it is sending a message to others that even in your retirement years you can still find challenges.”

At age 83, Lois Booth of Sacred Heart Canton fulfilled her bucket-list item to skydive. She is pictured here with her grandchildren after her skydive over Thanksgiving in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Lois Booth)

Adventures in parasailing
Lois Booth didn’t make the national news after her skydive last Thanksgiving. Neither did Rita Martinson, her neighbor at St. Catherine’s Village in Madison. But the motivations for both – and their shared sense of accomplishment afterward – were comparable to those of our nation’s late Skydiver-in-Chief.

“My identical twin sister and I went to Orange Beach, Alabama, two years ago and parasailed. I loved it and she did, too,” said Booth, who grew up in Drew, Mississippi, became Catholic a year ago, and is a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Canton.

“The exhilaration I felt as we lifted off the back of that boat had me squealing like a teenager,” she continued. “I think we were 3,000-4,000 feet up. We were in the air about five minutes. There were six of us on the boat. You go off the back of the boat, and land on the back of the boat. I learned from parasailing how to land while skydiving.”
She also began thinking about skydiving for the first time that day.

Fascinated with flying
Rita Martinson, who served District 58 in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1992-2016, is a long-time parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Madison. A native of Gloster, Mississippi, she thinks she has adventure in her blood.

“If you’d been raised in a little town like Gloster, you’d have it in yours, too,” she said of her formative years. “We lived in our imaginations.”

Always fascinated with flying, Martinson received her fixed-wing pilot license in 1965 and became certified to fly glider aircraft several years later. The move to parasailing probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew Martinson and her late husband, Billy, who encouraged her and went along on her flights.

“Every chance I got, I flew,” Martinson said. “I was fascinated with hot-air balloon rides and rode in them. The next thing was to jump out of a plane. Billy and I joined several flying clubs. One was a Cessna club.”

In learning about flying a glider, Martinson became well-versed in thermals, or the combination of warmth provided by the sun and the ground that’s necessary to keep the lightweight craft aloft. As the sun warms the ground, the ground warms the air directly above it. This provides lift for the glider, which counters the natural sinking tendency of the plane.

“The higher you could get in one of those thermals, the longer you could stay up,” Martinson said. “The worst thing I ever experienced was actually a dream I had, where I pulled the rope too soon and couldn’t get the plane high enough to have altitude to land. That put the fear of the Lord in me for a while.”

Martinson and her husband went to Puerto Vallarto, Mexico, seven or eight times to parasail. In keeping with her lifelong sense of adventure, Martinson began to consider jumping out of a plane, thinking it would be fun.

“I’m in New Orleans often and found a skydiving club in St. Tammany Parish. I made sure they had precautions and safety measures,” she said. “Billy was still living when I made my first jump.”

Religious experience
Booth’s skydive took place last Thanksgiving in Raleigh, North Carolina. She relished the opportunity to go with her grandchild.

“I was tethered to an ex-Marine I met that morning,” she said. “He was delightful. I watched them pack the parachutes, and I had all the confidence in the world in him. There were 14-15 people on the plane, and when the green light by the door goes on, it’s done. There’s no turning back.”

“The most uncomfortable part is that once you jump, you freefall several thousand feet. It’s hard to breathe. Once (the ex-Marine) deployed the parachute, we sat upright, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was late afternoon, and the sun was getting ready to go down. It was a religious experience.”

“This was a drop of 13,000 feet,” Booth continued. “It was quiet and calm. You could not hear anything. It was about as serene as I have ever been. I told a friend that I soared like an eagle and landed like a feather. A lot of the people on the plane were true parachutists. One woman was making her fourteenth or fifteenth jump.”

Rita Martinson of St. Francis Madison, took her first skydive in November 2017 with grandson Eric McKie. She plans to ‘step out on faith’ in another dive on her 85th birthday on Sept. 11. (Photo courtesy of Rita Martinson)

Booth, who turns 84 in June, considered the skydive a bucket list item. Although she has no plans for another jump, the overwhelmingly positive first experience is something she’ll always carry with her.

“I think being able to step out of the box at this age is important, both to keep yourself up and running and interested – and interesting,” she said. “The pandemic took its toll on everybody, and I’m no exception. That was one more reason I needed to prove to myself that I could still do anything I wanted to do.”

“Sock it to me”
Martinson’s jump took place in November 2017. Like Booth, she went airborne with a grandchild.

“First, you don’t jump – you walk out of the plane,” she said. “Eric, who had jumped once before, was tethered to someone else. We were asked if we wanted to do any loops or twirls. I said, ‘Sock it to me.’ We were up at 11,000 feet when we jumped. It made me a little dizzy, but it’s fun to know what it’s like, and that you can do it.”

Martinson, who will celebrate her 85th birthday on September 11, will do what President Bush did on his 85th birthday – step out on faith and watch the world as she knows it come into focus while she floats back to earth.

“People who are afraid to take a chance never get to see what they can do,” Martinson said. “It helped me and our children that Billy always urged us to get out there and take risks. He did that, too.”

“I would like others to know that there are no firm boundaries keeping them from at least trying to do new things. There is so much to gain by at least giving it a whirl. I only wish there were more time to do more.”

(Joe Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Dogwood Press, and member of St. Francis Madison.)