Mississippi Mission Living Life of Faith

Posted: 5/15/2010

Glenmary Father Tim Murphy celebrates Mass in Pontotoc, Miss.When Glenmary Father Tim Murphy talks about the Pontotoc, Miss., mission he's pastored since 2005, he often refers to "building up the Body of Christ" and "opening up the church wall." Both, he says, are good metaphors for what's been happening at St. Christopher the past several years—and both give valuable insights into the mission today.

In the early 1960s, the three or four Catholic families in Pontotoc drove to other towns for Mass, until a visiting diocesan priest started celebrating liturgies in a Pontotoc storefront. In 1965, with the bishop's permission, Glenmary took responsibility and moved the growing Catholic community of 15 to 20 into its first permanent home, a small mobile home on a large corner lot.

In 1986 a new church and parish hall were erected by the Glenmary Brothers building crew. But an unforeseen era of growth was still to come, with the 1990s influx of many Spanish-speaking Catholics eager to find jobs in agriculture and the furniture industry.

"Father Wil Steinbacher, the pastor in 1986, looks like a visionary now," says Father Tim. The church was built to hold 100. But the parish hall and church were built as one structure with a retractable wall in between. When it's opened up, the capacity for Mass increases to about 225. In 2010, the attendees at the weekly Spanish liturgy number about 225!

"Thanks be to God for the wall," he says. "In a way, pulling the wall back represents welcoming everyone-which is one of our real strengths." A double-wide mobile home is used for religious education classes.

"We're grateful for the number of people coming to the mission. If the trend keeps up we'll need to build a new church. But at this point we're continuing to build up the Body of Christ, the faith of the community," says Father Tim, who was previously a pastor for 11 years at other Mississippi missions.

Pastoral associate Sister Soledad Mendoza, who arrived in 2007, is a major part of the team effort. "Her ministry is vital," he says. "She's bilingual and has phenomenal gifts for pastoral work with the Spanish-speaking mission members. She teaches religious education, trains volunteer catechists, and ministers to everyone who needs support and encouragement. Our collaborative model works because she does so much."

Father Gerry Peterson, a Glenmary senior member who lives in Pontotoc and is fluent in Spanish, also helps serve parishioners' needs such as translation.

On a typical Sunday, 40 to 45 attend 8 a.m. English Mass and 225 to 240 attend 9:15 a.m. Spanish Mass. Every other week, Father Tim then drives 35 miles to serve as sacramental minister for Glenmary's mission in Bruce.

Last year, the Pontotoc mission had 40 baptisms, 20 first Communions, 18 confirmations, and two RCIA candidates received into the Church. "The people have a tremendous desire for the Catholic faith," he says.

Father Tim believes what has helped ease the challenging transition for some English-speaking members is that "they see how much the Church means to the Spanish-speaking people, and they see the children. And their hearts are moved to understand."

Parishioners are very active in the mission, volunteering in the music ministry, the strong religious education program and many service ministries.

Sister Soledad also leads the youth and young adult group, who handle much of the care and upkeep of church grounds. In addition, they devote time to preparing for and performing parish religious reenactments—such as the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Way of the Cross. "In the process, they learn more about their faith," says Father Tim.

The mission is also involved in outreach to the larger community. It offers meeting space for an Alcoholics Anonymous group and English classes that are free for area residents. And mission members help the local Habitat for Humanity chapter by doing construction work and providing meals and hospitality for workers.

Father Tim also provides community outreach as a Habitat for Humanity board member; hospice chaplain; visitor to state prison inmates; and part-time individual and family therapist with Catholic Charities.

In addition, for 16 summers he has served as director of Camp Glenmary, a program that offers a two-week camp for Mississippi children from low-income families and a second two-week camp for children of the state's tiny Catholic minority.

"Without the mission work of Sister Soledad and the parishioners," he comments, "it would be much harder to find the time."

Looking ahead, Father Tim says, "Our St. Christopher mission is building on the good work of our predecessors. And we're trying to live a life of faith as a community, with the Holy Spirit leading us into the future."

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.