St. Mary’s Catholic Church will get historical markers

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Vicksburg, Miss. (AP) — For 116 years, St. Mary’s Catholic Church has been a source of spiritual guidance and education for African-American Catholics in Vicksburg and Warren County.

Its importance to the community will be remembered on October 16 with a ceremony dedicating two historical markers – one for the church and another for the elementary and secondary school.

The markers, said Benny Terrell, a member of the markers committee, were the brainchild of the church’s pastor, Reverend Joseph Nguyen.

“He decided he wanted to do something to recognize St. Mary’s; recognize the important contributions of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Mary’s School to the spiritual and educational needs of the Vicksburg community,” he said. “We wanted to cover those things that we did that impacted this community and a lot of minorities in this community.”

The original plan, Terrell said, was to unveil the markers in 2021 to celebrate the church’s 115th anniversary, but the impact of COVID-19 delayed plans.

“We couldn’t finish the markers until 2022, but we decided to go ahead and do the dedication anyway,” he said.

St. Mary’s Parish was founded in 1906 by Reverend Aloysius Heick. The first church was on Holly Street “just behind where United Cleaners is located on Cherry Street, down the hill,” Terrell said.

The Sisters of Mercy provided the first church’s altar, candlesticks, and priest’s vestments, and the priests of St. Paul’s Catholic Church provided a place for Heick to stay until St. Mary’s moved to its current location at Main and Second North streets. later in 1906 and also opened a primary and secondary school. The present church was built in 1923.

The St. Paul’s congregation raised $279.80 which they gave to Heick to purchase the land and philanthropist Katherine Drexel, who was later canonized as a saint, provided half of the money needed to secure the property .

“When they moved from Holly Street, there were three houses on the land,” said committee member Josephine Williams Calloway. “They used one for the priest, one for the school and one for the nuns when they came.”

School attendance at the time was so low, she said, that elementary school and high school were housed in the same building.

“They (the parish officials) had to contact most of the parishioners to see how many would come to the school,” she said.

A two-story Greek Revival building was constructed in 1908 and later used for the high school. Drexel, Calloway said, contributed money for the building.

“She came here to inspect it and by the accounts she was very impressed with what they were doing,” she said.

“She was very dedicated to supporting black Catholics in this country,” Terrell said. “Not only did she provide funds to help secure our property, but when Father Heick went to Jackson, she helped secure the property there by making donations. She also paid for Xavier University in New Orleans. She was very generous and very supportive of black Catholics and Native Americans.

The nuns who taught the children at St. Mary’s were members of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit, who were all German,” said committee member Cherrie Boykin McClelland.

“And to teach in Mississippi, teachers, if they hadn’t completed their teacher training in Germany or Holland, had to go to DePaul University in Chicago and get an additional degree before they were allowed to teach here,” Calloway said. . “So most of our teachers had two degrees and one of our teachers was a professor at Peking University (before the Catholics were expelled from China).”

“They spoke limited English and they were practicing English on the way from Europe to the United States,” Terrell said.

Because they were teaching African-American children in the then-isolated Jim Crow South, “nuns weren’t welcome in Vicksburg and the congregation was the one that really supported them,” Terrell said.

“The nuns wouldn’t go anywhere on their own; they always went in pairs. People still haven’t bought into the idea of ​​white nuns teaching black children,” he said.

“Sometimes they were called the ‘N Nuns,'” McClelland said.

But St. Paul’s members took a different attitude.

“The contribution of the white community should be noted as the congregation was made up of Italians, Irish, Germans and Lebanese and they supported the nuns,” Calloway said. “Mother Hildegarde, nun of the Sisters of Mercy, and her family supported the missionary sisters when they needed food and help.

“A number of prominent white people regularly attended St. Mary’s and still do,” she said. “Although it is an African American parish, it has truly served the Vicksburg community and welcomed everyone who came. Although we are assigned to the back pews of St. Paul, they have been integrated into the total Catholic community of St. Mary’s. They helped us and we helped them.

The elementary school closed in 1970 and the high school closed in 1964. When the schools closed, Terrell said, children who wanted to continue attending Catholic school had to go to Yazoo City.

Calloway’s father, a prominent Vicksburg businessman, took the children to Yazoo City and waited for them to take them home.

When a new high school building was constructed in 1948, McClelland’s father, a contractor, contributed most of the money and materials.

“I think he actually built the high school, along with other adults,” Terrell said.

“Our parents have worked hard to support St. Mary’s,” Calloway said. “We are continuing their effort. What we have done here has influenced the whole community.


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