Church celebrates holiest week

Palm Sunday

Pearl, St. Jude Parish photos by Rhonda Bowden

Carthage, St. Anne Parish photos by Sister Maria Elena, MGSpS

Chrism Mass

Jackson, St. Peter photos by Tereza Ma ans Maureen Smith


Holy Thursday

Pearl, St. Jude Parish photos by Tereza Ma

Good Friday

Jackson, St. Therese Parish photos by Elsa Baughman

No Catholic Church offers Mass on Good Friday. Instead, they may have stations or veneration of the cross.

Easter Vigil

Jackson, St. Peter photos by Maureen Smith


Full STEM ahead, Catholic schools rack up science, engineering awards

By Kristian Beatty
Full STEM ahead!  March and April have been exciting for several students across the Diocese of Jackson!  Students from Greenville St. Joe, Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School, St. Richard Catholic School, and St. Anthony Catholic school attended and won awards at science fairs held in Jackson and Pearl, MS. Many students started working on their science fair projects in the Fall of 2017 and had to win at their school science fair to move on the next level. Congratulations to all the students who participated at the MAIS Overall Science Fair and the MSEF Region II Science Fair. 

JACKSON – A student from Madison St. Anthony school answers questions for a judge at the MSEF Region II Science Fair on Thursday, March 22, at Jackson State University. Schools from across the diocese brought home honors from similar events around the state in March and April.

Wednesday, April 4: St. Joseph Catholic High School (Greenville) students attended the MAIS Overall Science Fair at the Muse Center in Pearl, MS.

3rd place: Mary Patton Meyer, Dorian Rice, Avery Cole, Kamiya Clark, Carsen Mansour, McKenzie Sandifer

1st place: Eli Williamson, Sarah Tonos, Mikayla Dotson

Best of Fair ($200 prize): Eli Williamson

Thursday, March 22nd: Sr.Thea Bowman Catholic School (Jackson), St. Richard Catholic School (Jackson) and St. Anthony Catholic School (Madison) students attended the MSEF Region II held at Jackson State University in Jackson, MS. The following students placed in their categories out of 482 students according to Kristy Love-Kendrick- JSU Region II Science Fair Director:

Sister Thea Bowmen Catholic School had 14 students participate and 8 of those students won awards.

Organic Chemistry

Malick Yedjou – 1st place


Synia Means – 1st place

Medicine and Health

Alexander Mason – 1st place

Inorganic Chemistry

Charis Ngong – 2nd place

Ashleigh Mason – 3rd place

Physics and Astronomy 

Cobe Williams – 4th place

Computer Science and Math

Jon Burse – 5th place

Special Energy Smart Award sponsored by the MS Development Authority:

Malick Yedjou

St. Richard Catholic School had 17 students participate and 3 of those students won awards.

Behavioral science

Mary Margaret Martin-4th

Carrington Fowler-5th


Turner Brown-2nd

St. Anthony Catholic School had 47 students participate and 27 of those students won awards.

Class 1 Awards

Ella Eatherly- Class 1 Overall Individual Best of Fair

Animal Sciences  

John Harris – 2nd Place

Susannah Harmon- 4th Place

Behavioral & Social Science    

Abby Stringer-1st Place

Madelyn Rodrigue-2nd Place     


Josie Ricotta-5th Place


Samantha Naegele-3rd Place

Earth & Environmental  

Katie Ann Venable-1st Place

Inorganic Chemistry      

Ella Eatherly-1st Place


Miller Franklin-1st Place

Jack Kosek-2nd Place

Organic Chemistry

Emily Loyacono-3rd Place

Ellie Latour-4th Place

Class 2 Awards-

Class 2 School Award: St. Anthony Catholic School

 Animal Sciences  

Stella Williams-1st Place

Carolina deLange-2nd Place


Maria deLange-3rd Place


Isabelle Zevallos-5th Place

Computer Science & Math      

JJ Tice-2nd Place

Earth & Environmental  

Jennings Kimbrell-2nd Place

Inorganic Chemistry      

Iliana Blount-2nd Place

Tyler Stovall-4th Place

Medicine & Health         

1st- Eliza Rowlett-2nd Place



Stella McCarty-1st Place

Annsley Maynor-4th Place

Kate Kosek-5th Place

Organic Chemistry

Emerson Erwin-3rd Place

Sophie Sosa-5th Place

Physics & Astronomy    

Cameron Moody-1st Place

(Kristian Beatty is development director for Madison St. Anthony School.)


Lucky day for young people

By Abbey Schuhmann
COVINGTON, La. – On Saturday, March 17, the Feast of St. Patrick, teens and adult leaders from 22 parishes from around the Diocese of Jackson traveled to St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College for the 2018 Abbey Youth Festival (AYF). The theme for the day was “Arise” coming from the gospel for that weekend.
The 2018 AYF logo was designed by seminarian, Luke Mayeux of the Diocese of Beaumont. The image is an imitation of the Dom Gregory de Wit painting in the apse of the St. Joseph Abbey Church which hosted AYF. Inspired by St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer, the logo exemplifies the Christo-centric aspect of the prayer, while the 12 stars symbolize discipleship as well as the Blessed Mother inviting us to her son. The image of the Risen Lord invokes the message found in the Gospel from the day: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” John 12: 20-33.
The seminarians at St. Joseph Seminary College play a vital role in the production of AYF including Andrew Bowden and Tristan Stovall from the Diocese of Jackson. This year’s festival brought in more than 3,000 young people from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. The festival always boasts a packed schedule that includes faith-filled music, prayer, catechesis, fellowship and fun. Showers on Friday did not make for ideal conditions, but organizers made accomodations and the day went forward as scheduled. For the first time, much of the festival was hosted on the main campus. Another new addition to the program schedule was the opportunity to attend breakout sessions throughout the day. Father Brad Doyle and Father Bryce Sibley offered the keynote presentation. Emily Wilson presented the breakout session for teen girls while Austin Ashcraft, Joe Bass, Father Doyle and John Finch led the session for teen guys.
Adult leaders had the opportunity to attend a session discussing “Ministry in the Modern Age.” The Vigil Project and Ike Ndolo, Catholic song-writers and recording artists, entertained the crowd with two different concerts. The Vigil Project also provided music for Mass and Eucharistic adoration. All participants had the opportunity throughout the day to visit different vendor booths including religious orders and communities from all around the country. Because of the venue change, groups could tour the beautiful Abbey church on campus. Many teens and adults took advantage of the opportunity to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.
This year’s prayer chapel area featured an exhibit of Eucharistic miracles from around the world. The day wrapped up with Mass and candlelight adoration – the highlight of the event for most participants. Archbishop Gregory Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans celebrated the Mass; the homilist was Father Colm Cahill of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The common theme throughout the day was for teens to “take action” in their faith. Each person is called to something great and now is the time to “Arise” and heed the call.
The Luck of the Irish kept the rain away for the majority of the day, while the ground was still very muddy from the previous day’s showers; most teens embraced the day and the circumstances.
Abbey Youth Fest is an excellent opportunity for teens to see the bigger church and enjoy fellowship with other young Catholics. This was the eighth year for thisdiocese to sponsor a trip and it won’t be the last. Make plans to participate in the 2019 event scheduled for Saturday, March 23rd. For more information visit or contact the Office of Youth Ministry at 601-949-6934 or

(Abbey Schuhmann is the coordinator of youth ministry for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Bishop Kopacz with kids from Holy Cross, Philadelphia

Group from St. Stephen's, Magee

Seminarians Ryan Stoer and Tristan Stoval visit with parishioners from St. Francis, Madison

Seminarian Andrew Bowden assists at the first aid tent

Seminarian Mark Shoffner visits parishioners from Greenwood

Flowood St. Paul

Flowood St. Paul

Life-changing opportunity: families needed for foster care program

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Hundreds of children in Mississippi need foster homes so Catholic Charities is putting out a call for willing families right now. Charities can train, certify and support families who take on this very special challenge.
Kelly and Kendall Spell wanted to adopt and started their process by becoming foster parents while Aiysha Johnson-Burks and her husband Justin Burks are supporting a nine-year-old foster child as she works toward family reunification. Both families foster through Catholic Charities.
The Spells talked about adoption back when they were high school sweethearts. They were working on a private adoption when they lost touch with the mother. When the baby was born, they got a call, but not from whom they expected.
“The mother tested positive for drugs and so did the baby when she was born, so of course CPS (Child Protective Services) was called. In order to bring the baby home we had to become licensed foster parents,” explained Kelly. Amy Turner, director of children’s services for Catholic Charities, took on their case, working to get their home certified and complete their training quickly.

JACKSON – The Spell family, (l-r) Kelly, Brooks, Kendall and Paxton. The family fostered their daughter before they adopted. (Photo courtesy of Spell family)

When Johnson-Burks married she and her husband knew they wanted to be foster parents, but she already worked for the Department of Human Services and could not take in a child from the county where she worked. Additionally, Justin’s late-night shifts at a local television station prevented them from going to the classes they needed to be certified. As a family protection worker, Johnson-Burks often had to take kids into custody from situations of abuse or neglect. She learned first-hand how overwhelming the need for foster families is in the state.

Aiysha Johnson-Burks, her husband Justin Burks became foster parents after their son, Roman, was born.

“I knew we had more than 500 kids in custody in Hinds County. In my very first case, I took two kids into custody, but did not get home until 3 a.m. because we had no home to place them in. That same week, I took two more kids into custody and had to drive them to Hattiesburg (to a group home) because we had no foster homes,” she said. She learned about Catholic Charities as she referred clients to programs such as the Solomon Counseling Center and Born Free/New Beginnings that helps mothers with addiction stay off drugs during and after pregnancy. A few years later, Johnson-Burks changed jobs and her husband changed shifts. They had a son of their own, but still wanted to foster so they started training.
“The whole process took about two-and-a-half months. We got licensed one day and got her (their foster child) the next,” she said. The family consciously chose to go through Catholic Charities. “For the support. We could have gone through DHS, I knew everyone there, but I wanted the support, especially for the child. Most of the children in custody in Hinds county are on psychotropic medicines. With Catholic Charities, she has a therapist, so we have a therapist. The foster team is awesome. They are so present and so patient. We have had to call the hotline,” she said.
Kelly Spell said the family had some rough days and nights when the baby first came home so they, too, relied on the extra support Charities offers. “We had been praying for her for so long because we knew about her so I guess its just what we felt like we needed to do,” she said. All foster families attend a monthly support and education group.
She tells families considering foster care or adoption they might be surprised. “We can do a lot more than we think. If anybody had asked us prior to this, I would have said no, I would have said there is no way that he and I could do it.” They are glad they worked with Catholic Charities. “This is more like a family. I can call them when I have something I want to talk about without having to make an appointment,” said Kendall Spell.
His wife said faith and support have been key throughout this process. “It’s God. God puts the child in your home and he helps you get through all the hurdles and crazy times.”
The Spells have a son, Paxton, who loves to play with his sister and he knows she’s special “because she got adopted.”
Johnson-Burks said she tries to make sure her foster child gets lots of opportunities to play and interact with extended family. “She was in an adult role in her home and doing adult things, so we want to let her know that she is a kid and she can be a kid.” She also wants to support her child’s desire to reunite with her biological family.
“She has an aunt who wants to go through the foster training process so she plans to reunite with her family,” said Johnson-Burks. “We explain to her that her mom has a problem she needs help with. One thing my husband and I understand is that we are fostering. We are keeping and caring for someone else’s child,” she said.
She and her husband see foster care as a way to be present not just to a child in need, but to a whole family. “Becoming a foster parent, I didn’t think about the what-ifs, I know what God’s gifts to me are and I run with that. I tell people to always have an open mind, you never know how you will be blessed. You will come to a crossroads in your life when you need help – financially, spiritually, physically. This is a family that needs help, so I can provide that,” she said.
“I think just knowing that you can provide what a child needs for a week or a month, that may be more than they may have had their whole life, so (do) anything you can do to show them that they are loved. Tell them that God loves them – even if it’s just for a week, we have no way of knowing what impact that will have on that child,” said Kelly Spell.
Turner said her office is ready to start training any family who has the calling and meets the standards. Therapeutic foster parents complete extra training and have extra supervision, all coordinated by Catholic Charities. To inquire, call Shamir Lee at 601-624-5288.
Those who wish to support the program overall can run or donate to Run, Foster Run. See page 6 for details.

At annual convention, Catholic educators reminded of missionary roles

CINCINNATI, – (CNS) Nearly 5,000 Catholic school educators and administrators attended the National Catholic Educational Association Convention and Expo at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati April 3-5. Among them were about two dozen educators and administrators from the Diocese of Jackson.
The three-day convention was filled with workshops dealing with how to help students write more creatively or tackle math concepts, use modern technology safely and live their faith in the modern world, but it also examined constant challenges and a way forward for educators and Catholic education at large.In the opening session, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, encouraged educators from around the country to continue in their role as missionaries and evangelists.
He urged the convention delegates to take to heart what the pope has said about education, primarily to always place the heart of the Gospel in their ministry and to see the importance of their work as evangelization, not just with students but parents and in dialogue with the larger world.
“You are forming young people for service to the church and society,” he told them.
In a keynote address, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, similarly echoed the pope’s call for missionary disciples and how it applies to teachers at Catholic schools and religious education programs.
A highlight of the event was the exhibition hall that featured more than 260 educational products and services, including cutting-edge technology.
Meridian St. Patrick School principal Montse Frias said the vendors were one of many highlights from the trip. “At every one of the sessions I attended, I learned something,” said Frias. She said she paid special attention to the sessions on improving recruitment and creating an effective work environment. “I loved the session on tools to help a principal work more efficiently. The leader had been a principal who became a director of communications. I learned a lot of strategies from him,” she said.
Karla Luke, assistant superintendent for Catholic Schools in the diocese, said she came home invigorated and ready to integrate what she learned into her work.
During the convention, awards were presented to individuals and organizations that have contributed significantly to Catholic education through innovation, advocacy, outreach and sheer dedication. Distinguished teachers, principals, pastors, presidents and superintendents were also honored.
Thomas Burnford, president and CEO of NCEA, described the annual convention as “three days packed with professional development for teachers, principals, pastors and superintendents who educate and form nearly 2 million Catholic school students in the United States.”

(Maureen Smith, editor of Mississippi Catholic, contributed to this story.)

CINCINNATI – Priests and bishops process in to Mass at the National Catholic Educational Association convention April 3. Almost two dozen educators from the Diocese of Jackson attended. (Photo by Jennifer David)

Educators from the Diocese of Jackson

Catholic Day at the Capitol rescheduled

By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – This year’s Catholic Day at the Capitol was postponed due to bad weather in February, but organizers feel the topic is too important to not reschedule. On Wednesday, May 23, Catholic Charities will try again, gathering advocates and experts to talk about the need for continued reform of mental health care in Mississippi.
“We hope to present a balanced look at the reforms already achieved, and those still in need of promoting. We will also include a segment on advocacy, led by John Lunardini, new COO at Catholic Charities, in place of the traditional press conference and visit to the capitol,” wrote orgainzer Sue Allen in an email to Mississippi Catholic.
Mississippi is currently facing a lawsuit for its lack of compliance with the 2009 Olmstead Supreme Court ruling which required states “to provide community-based treatment for persons with mental disabilities when… such placement is appropriate.”
To offer perspective on day-to-day issues involving mental health, Angela Ladner, executive director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association and Joy Hogge, executive director of Families as Allies, are the keynote speakers for the day. The agenda also includes a panel discussion on various aspects of mental health care issues.
Hogge said her organization is made up of families whose children face mental health challenges. It offers parent-to-parent support, insight for policy-makers and advocacy for children. “We want to help on a system-wide level so organizations can be more responsive.”
Angela Ladner is the executive director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association, a statewide medical specialty organization whose physician members specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illnesses, including substance use disorders. Angela has persistently lobbied Mississippi lawmakers to make the necessary changes that will allow for more community-based treatment options.
The day starts at 9 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle’s parish center and ends around 3 p.m. Register online at or contact Sue Allen directly at (601) 355-8634 or Large groups are welcome.

2018 Confirmations

Saturday, Apr 14, 4:30 p.m. – Tupelo St. James
Sunday, Apr. 15, 11 a.m.– New Albany/Ripley St. Francis
Wednesday, Apr. 18, 6 p.m.– Clinton Holy Savior
Thursday, Apr. 19, 6 p.m. – Oxford St. John
Friday, Apr. 20, 6 p.m. – Brookhaven St. Francis
Saturday, Apr. 21, 11 a.m. – McComb St. Alphonsus
Saturday, Apr. 21, 5 p.m. – Natchez St. Mary
Sunday, Apr. 22, 10:30 a.m. – Woodville St. Joseph
Sunday, Apr. 22, 5 p.m. – Madison St. Francis
Tuesday, Apr. 24, 6 p.m. – Vicksburg parishes (Mass at St. Michael)
Sunday, Apr. 29, 5 p.m. – Jackson St. Richard
Wednesday, May 2, 6 p.m. – Meridian St. Patrick and St. Joseph
Thursday, May 3, 6 p.m. – Flowood St. Paul
Friday, May 4, 6 p.m. – Cleveland Our Lady of Victories
Saturday, May 5, 11a.m. – Greenwood St. Francis and Indianola
Saturday, May 5, 5:30 p.m. – Greenville St. Joseph
Saturday, May 19, 11a.m. – Amory St. Helen
Saturday, May 19, 4 p.m. – Houston Immaculate Heart of Mary
Sunday, May 20, 9 a.m. – West Point Immaculate Conception
Sunday, May 20, 5 p.m. – Gluckstadt St. Joseph
Saturday, June 2, 11a.m. – Carthage St. Anne
Sunday June 3, 9 a.m. – Jackson Christ the King
Sunday, June 3, 1p.m.– Jackson Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle

Parish calendar


CHATAWA St. Mary of the Pines Retreat Center, The Art and Heart of the Spiritual Life, June 17-23. The spiritual life is the ongoing process of being transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others and breaking free from the agenda of the false self, living in the present moment and willingness to resist temptation and to forgive others. Presenter: Father Albert Haase, OFM, preacher, teacher, spiritual director and former missionary to China. Suggested donation: $450. Details: Sister Sue Von Bank (601) 783-0801
CULLMAN, Ala., Benedictine Sisters Retreat Center, “Listening with the Ear of One’s Heart: The Benedictine Way of Living,” May 4-6. Curious about who they are and their monastic way of life? If you are a single, Catholic woman who is curious about the Benedictine way of seeking God, we invite you to come spend some time with the Sisters to learn about their life together and to ask questions. Details: contact Sister Magdalena Craig, OSB, at (256) 615-6114,


CLEVELAND Our Lady of Victories, April Fellowship Luncheon for everyone, Tuesday, April 17 at 11 a.m. at Christina’s Exquisite Edibles, 331 Cotton Row. Details: Ellen Duplantis (662) 402-9722.
GREENVILLE, Sacred Heart, Parish Mission April 23-26. Speaker: Father Maurice Nutt, CssR. Details: church office (662) 332-0891.
JACKSON Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, Mental Health Care Reform in Mississippi, Wednesday, May 23 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Details: Sue Allen (601) 383-3849, or register at
St. Richard, Bible Study for Ladies, Beginning Sunday, April 29 at 9:15 – 10:15 a.m. in the Library. Facilitators: Dabbs Curley and Wendy White. Details: (601) 366-2335.
Walk for Life, begins at St. Richard School, on Saturday, April 28. Check-in begins at 7:30 a.m. and walk begins at 8 a.m. Brunch will be served by the Knights of Columbus upon return. There will be prizes for the top team and individuals who raise the most money. All walkers who raise $25 will receive a t-shirt. Details:
MADISON Healthplex Performance Center, Run Foster Run, Thursday, April 19. Check-in begins at 5:30 p.m. Start time is 6 p.m. for children’s run and 6:30 p.m. for 5K Run/Walk. Food and fun for the whole family. Tickets for 2018 Nissan Rogue Giveaway to benefit the programs of Catholic Charities are $100. Details: John Lunardini, (601) 355-8634 or
NATCHEZ Holy Family, A Southern Road to Freedom, a Choral Presentation, The Natchez Saga of African-Americans from Slavery to Modern Times, Tuesday, April 17 at 8 p.m. Details: church office (601) 445-5700.
St. Mary Basilica, Adult Sunday School, Sundays at 8:30 a.m. in the O’Connor Family Life Center. The group is currently studying the Ascension Press Bible program of the Book of James. Details: Karen Verucchi, (601) 870-5388.
OLIVE BRANCH Queen of Peace young at heart group for all seniors meets for lunch at various restaurants on the third Thursday of each month at 11 a.m. Details: Ann Liberto, (662) 895-6950


AMORY St. Helen, CYO fundraiser event, Sips ’n Strokes, a group painting class for the women of the parish, Saturday, April 28, 10-12 a.m. at the hall. Cost is $30 and includes all paint supplies and brunch. No painting skills necessary. Details: Nancy H. or Tracy at (662) 256-8392.
GREENVILLE, Sacred Heart, Vacation Bible School, June 4 – 8. Volunteers are needed and also five teams of parishioners to prepare lunch for the children. Details: church office (662) 332-0891.
HERNANDO Holy Spirit, First Communion retreat for children grades five through eight (all cluster parishes), Friday, April 27 at 6:30 pm. retreat for children grades two through four, Saturday, April 28 at 9 a.m. Details: Donna (662) 342-1073.
JACKSON St. Richard, Theology on Tap, Thursday, April 26 at 7 p.m. in the Youth Center. This is a monthly program that anyone in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s is invited to attend. It is a program that brings people together to discuss important topics of today’s times and who are interested in learning more about their faith all in a relaxed environment. Details: Contact Casey Stevens at (601) 624-8377.
MADISON St. Francis of Assisi, Cajun Fest, Sunday, May 6 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mouth-watering food will include crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, boiled crawfish and other Cajun delicacies. Festival favorites also include corn dogs, funnel fries and sno-cones. Entertainment will include games for the kids, awesome raffle prizes, and bingo. Dance to live music or pick up a bargain at the Cajun Fest General Store. Arts and craft vendors will also have a variety of Mississippi-made products on display. Come join us! Details: call Amy Hornback at the church office (601) 856-5556 or
NATCHEZ St. Mary Basilica, Vacation Bible School, June 4-8. Students who are eighth grade and older are eligible to serve as helpers. Details: contact Jessica Stubbs at (601) 445-5616.


Sister Patricia (Pat) Potok, a Blessed Virgin Mary (Liberata) sister, died March 18 at Marian Hall in Dubuque, Iowa. She was born in Chicago on May 25, 1934 and professed final vows on July 16, 1961. In the Diocese of Jackson, Sister Pat taught at Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Clarkdale. Burial is in Mount Carmel cemetery, Dubuque. Memorials may be given to the Sisters of Charity, BVM Support Fund, 1100 Carmel Drive, Dubuque, Iowa 52003, or online at
Sister Vivian Votruba, a Maryknoll sister, died on March 22 at the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Maryknoll, New York. She was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on January 3, 1920. She made her First Profession of Vows on March 7, 1943 and her Final Profession of Vows on March 7, 1946. In 1991, Sister Vivian was assigned to Rosedale for three years to do pastoral work. A funeral Mass was held March 27. Interment was in the Maryknoll Sisters Cemetery on the Center grounds.

Church celebrates Easter, welcomes new members, kindles new fires


JACKSON – Bishop Joseph Kopacz inscribes the Pascal candle at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle during the Easter Vigil Saturday, March 31. A new fire burns in every parish in the Diocese of Jackson thanks to the celebration of Easter on Sunday, April 1. See photos from Holy Week on pages 8-9 of this edition. (Photo by Maureen Smith)
















Holy Week youth pictures here

Holy Week at Parishes pictures here

King anniversary recalls bishop’s desegregation efforts in Mississippi

(Editor’s note: A story about this research project appeared in the March 23 edition of Mississippi Catholic.)
By Tim Muldoon
CHICAGO (CNS) – When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress Sept. 24, 2015, he pointed to the witness of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting that a great nation “fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters.”
As we remember the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it is important to recall the hard work of social change that helped bend our nation in the direction of greater justice. The integration of Catholic parishes and schools in Mississippi provides an important window into the moral struggles that existed inside the church’s own institutions, and offers us lessons for today.

JACKSON –The August 6, 1964 letter issued by Bishop Gerow to be read at all parishes announcing that Catholic schools would accept all children, regardless of race, resides in the Diocese of Jackson archives. (Photo by Tereza Ma)

In the decade between 1955 and 1965, Mississippi was a hotbed of racial unrest, and Catholic schools and parishes were not immune. It was a period sandwiched between two racially motivated murders that drew national attention: the murder of the 14-year-old boy Emmett Till in 1955 and the Freedom Summer (or “Mississippi burning”) murders of three young civil rights activists in 1964. In Catholic parishes, groups of whites threatened blacks attending Mass at St. Joseph in Port Gibson; Sacred Heart in Hattiesburg; St. Joseph in Greenville; and many others.
Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow, head of what is now the Jackson Diocese, had been nurturing hopes for desegregation of his parishes and schools for years, keeping meticulous files of racial incidents. A realist, he understood that episcopal fiat could not undo generations of racial prejudice, and so worked slowly to develop collaborators.
One example in 1954 was in Waveland, where a parishioner threatened black priests sent by Father Robert E. Pung, a priest of the Society of the Divine Word, who was the rector of St. Augustine Seminary, the first black seminary in the United States. Father Pung composed a strongly worded letter to the man:
“And what did the priest come to your parish to do: just one thing – to celebrate Mass and bring Christ down upon your parish altar and to feed the flock of Christ with his sacred body. And that the majority of the parishioners looked upon the priest celebrating holy Mass as a priest of God and not whether he was colored or white is evident from the fact that last Sunday over three Communion rails of people received holy Communion from his anointed hands.”
He assured the man that these same priests would be praying for him.

Bishop Richard O. Gerow, pictured in an undated photo, headed what is today the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., from 1924 to 1967. He was a strong advocate of desegregation for Catholic parishes and schools in his diocese but in such racially charged times he promoted incremental change, to protect black priests and parishioners from retaliation. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Jackson Archives via Catholic Extension) See RACIAL-DESEGREGATION-MISSISSIPPI April 6, 2018.

Bishop Gerow kept an extensive file including this and many other racial incidents. In an entry from November 1957, he shares the advice he gave to a group of Catholic men who were distressed at the ill treatment of black parishioners. He wrote:
“We are facing a situation in which we as a small minority are up against a frantic and unreasonable attitude of a greater majority of the community. If we attempt to force matters, we are liable to do injury not only to ourselves but also to those whom we would wish to do help, namely, the Negroes. Imprudent action on our part might cause them very serious even physical harm.”
His position on desegregation was a delicate one, which attempted to balance a complex array of factors and forces:
• First, there were the pastoral needs of black Catholics in the region, some of whom had to travel to celebrate the sacraments and who sometimes faced verbal or physical threats.
• Second, there were the established parishes comprised mostly of whites, themselves a minority in a region that was dominated by Protestants.
• Third, there were men in both state and local government, not to mention law enforcement, who were sometimes hostile even to white Catholics, and so the presence of blacks in Catholic congregations was a further potential danger.
• Fourth, there were a growing number of organizations supporting the cause of integration: organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as Catholic organizations, like the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, or NCCIJ.
In 1963, Henry Cabirac Jr. of the NCCIJ began to force the hand of Bishop Gerow, when Cabirac called for integration of schools at meetings in Mississippi City. Responding to Cabirac’s advocacy that black families apply for admission to white Catholic schools, Bishop Gerow wrote in his diary of July 1 the following:
“My point is this: School integration is going to come in the course of time, but at present we are not ready for it. I feel that the first step is to create a better relationship between the two races.”
He wrote guidelines for sermons to be preached throughout the diocese on the moral demand of integration, but remained convinced that school integration would be dangerous for black parishioners. Nevertheless, only two days after this entry, on July 3, the bishop wrote that he had received letters from two black families requesting admission of their children to schools “which we have considered white.” He laments being in an embarrassing position, feeling that “a bit more preparation of our whites is prudent.”
No doubt the bishop was sensing great tension in the air. Only two weeks earlier, the field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers, had been assassinated, and once again the nation’s attention was on Mississippi. The immediate aftermath of the assassination saw Gerow in a political role to which he was naturally averse.
He had been active in drawing together white ministers in the various churches in Jackson for some time, and in fact had arranged for a meeting that included black ministers only five weeks earlier. The groups had hoped that their combined voices might thaw the icy relationship between blacks and the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. But after the assassination, the bishop felt compelled to make a public statement which he shared with the press.
The opportunity to act decisively happened one year later, July 2, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. Bishop Gerow issued a statement to the press the next day.
“Each of us, bearing in mind Christ’s law of love, can establish his own personal motive of reaction to the bill and thus turn this time into an occasion of spiritual growth. The prophets of strife and distress need not be right.”
On Aug. 6, the bishop published a letter to be read in all churches the subsequent Sunday (Aug. 9), indicating that “qualified Catholic children” would be admitted to the first grade without respect to race. He called on all Catholics to “a true Christian spirit by their acceptance of and cooperation in the implementation of this policy.” In a letter to his chancellor, Bishop Gerow describes this move as “more in accord with Christian principle than of segregation.” The following year, he desegregated all the grades in Catholic schools.
In recent months, we also have seen tragic examples of racially motivated hate crimes. Later this year, the U.S. bishops plan to release their first pastoral letter on racism in nearly 40 years. Mindful of the gifts that people of all races bring to the community of faith, and of the need to work towards a just social order, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, said at the launching of the racism task force last August, “The vile chants of violence against African-Americans and other people of color, the Jewish people, immigrants, and others offend our faith, but unite our resolve. Let us not allow the forces of hate to deny the intrinsic dignity of every human person.”
For ore than a hundred years, Catholic Extension has been serving dioceses with large populations of the poor, the marginalized and people of color, and have sent millions of dollars to ensure that they have infrastructure and well-trained church leaders that will form them for positive social change. Our dream is that these leaders will, in the words of Pope Francis, “awaken what is deepest and truest” in the life of the people, and ultimately be the catalyst of transformation in their communities.
During this 50th anniversary of Rev. King’s assassination, we are mindful of all those Christians who have gone before us in the struggle for a more peaceful and just society, so that we may be inspired by their example to confront and struggle with the pressing questions of our day. Bishop Gerow’s extensive efforts to chronicle the important period of his episcopacy remind us that we, too, live in the midst of a history that others will remember and judge in the light of God’s call to live justly.

(Tim Muldoon is director of mission education for Catholic Extension. Contributing to this article was Mary Woodward, chancellor of the Jackson Diocese, who assisted with the Bishop Gerow archive.)