By Joe Lee
JACKSON – As the week of Feb. 15 unfolded, students all over the Diocese of Jackson jumped for joy at the possibility of a snow day or two as well as having the Presidents’ Day holiday off. But in parish offices, priests and staff had to make urgent decisions as a once-in-a-generation winter storm turned the Deep South into a rare deep freeze and left a trail of damage in its wake.
In addition to a loss of power at St. Michael of Vicksburg and a solid sheet of ice in the parish parking lot, a window in the cry room was broken. St. Mary Basilica of Natchez was hit especially hard, creating the need for a noon Mass on Sunday, February 21, after harm to the sanctuary.
“We have removed a lot of ceiling tiles in St. Therese Hall as well as sections of flooring on both levels,” said Father Scott Thomas on the St. Mary Facebook page late that week. “The extra Mass time is because an entire aisle will be blocked off, making every pew section on that aisle unavailable. Additionally, the elevator does not work due to water damage. It will be out of commission for a while as it is being repaired.”
Father Scott added in the social media post that nothing of historical value at St. Mary was lost, but water damage – or loss of water – swiftly became a serious problem in Jackson.
“We had no structural damage and no water pipes that burst, but we were out of school for four days,” said Jennifer David, principal of St. Richard Catholic School. “One positive from COVID is that we went right to our virtual plan and won’t have to make up any days.
“The water is less than ideal, but we are making it work. We have two amazing maintenance men who have kept our facilities running. We have sink water but don’t have good pressure in the toilets. Our first day back in classrooms for traditional learning was Feb. 26.”
In addition to parents donating bottled water and hand sanitizer, the school purchased sixty-five cases of bottled water. St. Richard was also helped immeasurably by Adcamp, Inc., a Flowood company that donated two 1,000-gallon water trucks.
“That’s been a lifesaver,” David said. “Without that, we couldn’t have kept the school running like we did.”
Another group hit especially hard in Jackson was Carmelite Monastery, where Carmelite nuns have lived for seven decades. Without water at their Terry Road location, the nuns resorted to boiling melted snow for water and – once the snow was gone – collecting rainwater. The journalism department at St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison is one of many groups who have answered a call to help the sisters.
As arctic air plunged into the region and brought accompany bands of snow, sleet, and freezing rain, Msgr. Michael Flannery found himself celebrating Ash Wednesday Mass in front of exactly of one parishioner that morning – even the parishioner that livestreamed the service did so from home. And that was before the power went off in the neighborhood where St. Francis of Assisi is located.
“The neighborhood was without electricity for sixteen hours,” Msgr. Flannery said. “A utility pole split, and power wires were on the ground. Because of the driving conditions and weather, we cancelled the evening Ash Wednesday Mass and gave ashes to parishioners at that weekend’s Masses.”
Though there was extreme cold in the northernmost reaches of the Diocese – with record-breaking single-digit temperatures and below-zero wind chill readings – most of the precipitation came in the form of snow.
“Desoto County’s 911 system was down for a large part of a day due to a power outage,” said Laura Grisham, communications director for Sacred Heart Southern Missions, which serves six parishes and two schools in Desoto, Tate, Tunica, Marshall, and Benton counties. “Most areas in Desoto, including Walls, Horn Lake, Southaven, and Olive Branch, cumulatively had around ten inches of sleet and snow.”
Several Masses and all but one Ash Wednesday service, Grisham added, were cancelled during the week of Presidents’ Day. Both Sacred Heart and Holy Family Schools went immediately to virtual learning for the week. The monthly Mobile Food Pantry at Landers Center in Southaven was also cancelled.
Not surprisingly, temperatures around the Magnolia State (and all over the Southeast) roared back into the 60s and 70s, melting all traces of ice and snow and sending students back to their classrooms for the final weeks before spring break. Repair work is underway at parishes which sustained damages and, as usual, the people of Mississippi are displaying their inherent generosity toward those less fortunate.
“Our morning announcements serve as a reminder that we need to think about all the people in Jackson who don’t have water in their homes,” David said. “We’ve been praying for them and the people in Texas.”
(Editor’s note: As of press time on Tuesday, March 9, the Carmelite Sisters now have running water. The pressure is low but they can now at least flush toilets. Sister Jane Agonoy still welcomes donations of drinking water, since the city of Jackson is still under a boil water notice. She can be reached at (601) 373-1460.)