Padre’s Eagle stories

By Joe Lee
MADISON – Ten years ago this month, during just as steamy a summer as what central Mississippi has experienced in 2019, excitement was in the air as St. Anthony Catholic School opened its doors for the first time. There were less than 200 students in grades K-6 and the first graduating class of sixth graders in May 2010 had exactly 19 students.

Today, as the 2019-2020 school year gets underway, the Madison-based learning facility is known statewide for outstanding academic achievement and daily religious education. The school’s mascot, the eagle, does more than just adorn the gates at the school’s entrance – the lifelike depictions of the beautiful birds encourage the students to “soar like an eagle,” a message Msgr. Michael Flannery had in mind when he dreamed of launching the school.

Padre, as Father Mike is known to so many in the vast St. Anthony family, has written and published St. Anthony’s Eagles, a collection of fictional stories for middle-school students just in time for the new school year. Loaded with photos of students, parents, faculty members and clergy, the book is designed to be read to or with youngsters who are learning why the eagle is so important to the school.

“I love to visit the children in the classrooms, particularly in the lower grades,” Father Flannery said. “I usually tell stories and most of the time there is a religious aspect. Since the mascot of the school is an eagle, I tell stories about eagles and their habits. That is where the stories come from.”

“Father Mike’s vision of firmly establishing the eagle in the life of St. Anthony is easy to see,” said Ed Marsalis, a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi and a devoted St. Anthony volunteer. “If you sit with him and talk about the school, his whole demeanor lights up. He is the true eagle soaring above the school for all of us to see and appreciate, the earthbound symbol of love and dedication that planted the seed and has cherished and nurtured its growth like a well-attending gardener.”

“As our founding pastor, Father Mike will always hold a special place in the hearts of those who know and love St. Anthony,” said Principal Anne Cowger. “His latest book will be a keepsake for the families of the school.”

St. Anthony’s Eagles will be available in paperback for $10 beginning in Sept., with proceeds from all profits going directly to the school. Profits from his previous books, Saltillo Mission and The Prankster Priest, have also been put back into school.

“We will have the book available for Grandparents Day at the school and at St. Francis parish,” Father Flannery said. “Parents or grandparents whose kids are in the book would be interested in it. Anne and I spoke of the possibility of the book being part of required summer reading for students and of giving copies to children whose parents bring them for an official visit.”

“Not satisfied with simply establishing the eagle as the school mascot, Father Mike has been a continuing benefactor to the eagle displays at the school,” Marsalis said. “He is leaving us a legacy to ensure that our parish and community children continue to have a strong, faith-based education so badly needed in these challenging times.”

St. Joseph school marks 150 years

By Joe Lee
MADISON – As Doug Harkins and his wife, Kimberly, watch their twins Jacob and Clare graduate from St. Joseph High School next week, the moment will be even more poignant for Doug, a 1988 St. Joe grad and cardiologist with Jackson Heart Clinic, because of the presence of his mother, Rosemary. A 1950 graduate, she will join her son and daughter-in-law at Thalia Mara Hall as her grandchildren represent the third Harkins generation to cross the stage in St. Joe cap and gown.

But as remarkable as that accomplishment may be, the 70 years spanning the family’s graduations doesn’t even cover half the era represented by the school. The humble beginnings stretch all the way back to 1870, and the St. Joseph Catholic School 150th Class Reunion will launch July 1 and continue through the end of 2020.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime for all of us,” said Tricia Harris, St. Joe coordinator of special events and enrollment. “We have the opportunity to put forth the importance of academic achievement and a Catholic education — there are so many influential people that have graduated from this school and gone on to amazing things.”

In addition to an updated Bruin logo that reflects the sesquicentennial – seen on car bumpers all over the Jackson area – the school will ask for a special proclamation from the state legislature, as well the next Mississippi governor.

“The whole yearbook design for the 2019-2020 school year will integrate a lot of ‘look back’,” Harris said. “The newspaper will be digitized and integrate the logo. Every athletic team will have some semblance of the 150th anniversary worked into their uniform, helmet, and ball they play with. It will constantly tout the fact that we’re in celebration mode.”

While the school has relocated several times its existence, much of what has always drawn both Catholics and non-Catholics to St. Joe remains solidly in place.

“It impacted our perspective on everything,” said 1957 grad Con Maloney, whose high school years were spent in a building that backed up to Central High School in downtown Jackson. “Our class had about 35 people, so I got to know a lot of them very intimately over the years. We were taught by the Mercy Nuns, who were very strict on us. One thing the school never had to buy was erasers. We would harass the Central students and they would throw erasers at us over the fence separating the schools.”

Con’s son, Chris, has returned home to manage the Mississippi Braves. He graduated in 1980, giving the Maloney family a second generation at the school. But a truly unique perspective belongs to David Wissel, who has taught Theology and coached track at St. Joe since 1984. He taught Doug Harkins and is now teaching Doug’s youngest son, Noah.

“Teaching a son or daughter of former students is interesting,” Wissel said. “There are similarities and mannerisms that seem to stand out. Each brings something different to the table.

“When a student walks out of St. Joe for the last time, I hope they are a better person, equipped to make their mark on the world, and that they have a stronger faith and the confidence to be successful in whatever God has planned for them.”

Terry Cassreino, whose daughter Camryn is a current Bruin, credits his Catholic education with shaping the person he is today. A newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Bruin faculty in 2011, his journalism program wins dozens of awards each year at the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s annual conference in Oxford. The student newspaper, The Bear Facts, was ranked in the nation’s top 50 by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

“I see firsthand how a Catholic education is helping Camryn deepen her faith and appreciation of the Catholic Church while preparing for her college and life as an adult,” Cassreino said. “And I am beyond proud of my current and former students — St. Joseph Catholic School, without a doubt, has the best high school student media program in the state. It is incredible to me, and extremely important, that we are accomplishing this in a Catholic setting grounded in the teachings of our faith.”

Ronnie Russell, now in his 15th year as band director, instructed two students that went on to win Grammy awards for contributions to major motion picture soundtracks, as well many who performed with college bands all over the southeast and beyond.

“Our campus minister, Kathryn Scikets, is a former St. Joe student and drum major,” Russell said. “One of the most recently-ordained priests in the Jackson Diocese, Father Aaron Williams, is a former band student. Perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever been given came when he asked me to play trumpet in his very first Mass as a priest.”

Theology teacher Ryan Starrett and Sckiets, who teaches in the English department and graduated in 2013, both work with many faculty that taught them in high school.

“I did not expect to teach at St. Joe, but God works in mysterious ways,” Sckiets said. “When the campus ministry position was open, I thought it would be a really unique opportunity to grow in my faith and hopefully help students grow in theirs. I was — and still am — fortunate to have many great role models at St. Joe who showed me by example how to not only be great teachers, but great people.”

“The thing that impresses me most about St. Joe is that you don’t just feel you are part of a school — you feel like you are part of a family and community,” said Bruin athletic director Michael Howell. “We have a unique balance of education, arts and athletics. Our coaches do a great job of working together to make sure our student-athletes can be successful in all areas of school community.”

At the helm of the Catholic school that opened its doors barely 50 years after Mississippi became a state is Dena Kinsey.

“I want our students to understand the importance of the Hand of God,” Kinsey said. “From the faith of a pastor and a few Sisters of Mercy, a school was established based in truth that has overcome all obstacles to not only survive, but thrive for 150 years. The love of God prevails, and St. Joe is a living example in our most secular world of the power of God.”

JACKSON – A view of St. Joseph High School located downtown in 1932. See more photos online at (photo courtesy St. Joseph High School Archives)

(Joe Lee is a member of Madison St. Francis Parish and owner of Dogwood Publishing.)

St. Francis’ Cajun Fest pleases all ages

By Joe Lee
MADISON – The 33rd annual Cajun Fest fundraiser at St. Francis of Assisi on May 6 made approximately $32,000 in sun-baked, mouth-watering profits, as people from all over central Mississippi enjoyed boiled crawfish, pulled pork sandwiches and many other culinary favorites. The proceeds will help repair the interior of St. Clare Hall on the St. Francis campus. On May 12, Knights of Columbus Council 9543 at St. Francis raised approximately $15,000 for seminarian education at their annual Floyd Q. Doolittle Memorial Golf Classic, held at Whisper Lake Country Club of Madison.

90-year old sister not slowing down, teaching the faith

By Joe Lee
At the time Sister Michele Doyle grew up in metropolitan Chicago, it was possible for young Catholic ladies to join a sisterhood after eighth grade and begin a lifelong commitment to faith and religious life.
Now 90 years young, and having spent more than five decades in Mississippi as a Catholic schoolteacher, college professor and parish religious education leader, she’s grateful to her parents for holding firm when they thought she was a bit young to begin chasing her dreams.

Sister Michelle Doyle talks about dealing with loss during a Catholic religion class Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.

Sister Michelle Doyle talks about dealing with loss during a Catholic religion class Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.

“From the time I was a small child, I knew I wanted to be a (religious) sister,” Doyle said. “All during elementary school and high school, I continued with that desire. My parents were wise, because at that time religious communities were taking people out of eighth grade. I would do a little tantrum because I wanted to go, and they would say, ‘No, not until you finish high school.’”
After graduating in LaGrange, Illinois, Doyle entered School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That year she and her fellow sisters took the first in a series of vows which, over a period of several years, led to a lifetime vow the women were asked to make.
“We call ourselves sisters,” Doyle said. “Nuns are formally cloistered. Sisters are active (in the local community). For a long time we were trying to live both lives: the active life and the prayer life. And we still pray, of course. But today we understand that you can’t be a fully contemplative community and at the same time be an active community.”
Doyle asked to be sent to China once she was ready for active life, but when the assignment from the mother house came in 1949, she was told she was being sent to Mississippi.

Sister Michelle Doyle leads a Catholic religion class Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.

Sister Michelle Doyle leads a Catholic religion class Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.

“I was in Yazoo City for 20 years at St. Francis, an all-black mission school. I taught and was principal part of the time,” Doyle said. “The purpose in sending sisters down was in response to a request from Bishop (Oliver) Gerow, because this was a period of strong segregation — we were asked to go and not so much convert people, but the ultimate goal was to educate the African American students to help them move forward in the world.”
Doyle joined the faculty of St. Joseph Catholic School in 1969, the year St. Francis of Yazoo City closed its doors. St. Joe, now on Mississippi 463 in Madison, was located on Boling Street in West Jackson then.
“It was the year the schools were integrating, and I thought I still had something to give to the African American community,” Doyle said. “So I taught at St. Joe part time and taught history at Jackson State University part time.
“I did that seven years — I’d gotten a master’s in history from the University of Loyola in Chicago and a master’s in religious education from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, so by then I was free to move into the Jackson diocesan office in the areas of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and Adult Formation.”
Those areas of study — which involve, respectively, bringing new Catholics into the church and getting parish catechists (teaching candidates) certified — are crucial in rural parishes that may not have anyone on staff who is trained in religious education.
Although Doyle retired from full-time work in 2005, she remains very active in Adult Formation today. She continues to work closely with Holy Family of Jackson, St. Mary of Yazoo City, St. Thomas of Lexington and St. Francis of Assisi in Madison, and she’s teaching small groups of catechists right now at St. Mary and Holy Family.
Joyce Adams coordinates Adult Faith Formation at Holy Family and is also working toward certification while enjoying the series Doyle is currently teaching, “Mary and the Saints: Companions On the Journey.” It’s one of eight different classes Doyle has taught at the parish.
“Sister Michele is very meticulous,” Adams said. “She ensures that we get a minimum of 16 hours of instruction with each class. Discussions often include ways that the content has impacted one’s personal spiritual journey. Seeing the sunrise, visiting the zoo and hearing the sounds of children playing took on new meaning for me after taking the ‘Christian Prayer and Spirituality’ class.”
“Sister Michele taught me religion in 1976 (at St. Joe),” said Mary McDonald, part of the Adult Formation class at St. Francis of Assisi. “I always thought she was a wonderful teacher, and she was always very dedicated to her profession. It was so clear even to a high school student that she not only talked about service to others, but she lived it.”
“I think there is something extraordinary about a person who does not see age as a limitation to maintain a sense of purpose,” said Fran Lavelle, director of the department of faith formation with the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. “She is a great inspiration to me as I think about all of the years she has served God’s people. She could sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labor. But, for Sister Michele, the fruits are her labor.”
Diane Melton, religious education coordinator and a St. Mary’s parishioner in Yazoo City, took catechist Level II classes from Doyle in 2009 and became certified to teach adults at her parish. Doyle is currently teaching “Christology: Jesus of the Gospels and History” at St. Mary’s through the end of February.
“She has a way of making things relevant to our day and time as well,” Melton said. “Several of us have taken some of her classes the second time because she is so easy to listen to, and just to gain more information regarding our Catholic faith.”
It has been a full 75 years since the eighth grade sister-to-be was itching to leave home and serve. And as her students see each day, Doyle shows no signs of slowing down.
“I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s an opportunity to be with people and be creative,” Doyle said. “And to share the gifts I have — everyone has gifts. I don’t garden and I don’t cook and I don’t sew, so I do what I can do. People keep coming back.”
(Reprinted with permission from the Clarion Ledger.)