A Celebration of Faith
By Dale Hanson
On a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon, Sept. 18, 2010, it was standing room only as hundreds witnessed the dedication of the new St. Matthew Church in Ripley, Miss., during a Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph Latino of the Diocese of Jackson.
Built for 250-300 people, the new building held a crowd of 350 mission members and visitors that overflowed into the foyer and entryway.
Glenmary's St. Matthew mission had its beginnings in 1997 when then-pastoral coordinator Polly Duncan Collum was charged with calling together a Catholic community in Tippah County, Miss., which had no Catholic church. Several months later, she and a small group of five Catholic families began meeting regularly.
At the dedication Mass, current pastoral coordinator Sister Kate Regan said if it weren't for the people who come together every week for liturgies, there would be no need for a church.
"You have received a great blessing," she told parishioners. "You have dreamed and worked hard, but ultimately, it is your faith that is to be credited for this wonderful day."
Bishop Latino also praised the people of St. Matthew for these virtues. And he gave them a challenge from Scripture for the future: To whom much is given, much is expected. A large bequest had helped enable the mission to build its new church.
Reflecting on the dedication and celebration, Sister Kate says the mission community is incredibly thankful. "We also understand what our path is because of this generous gift. We must be responsible for continuing to build our church community."
It was a long journey to this point, she says. In 1997, Polly and the fledgling community began celebrating Sunday Mass as often as possible with visiting Glenmary priests, and holding Word and Communion services when a priest wasn't available. They met in a succession of places, including a restaurant, a theater and a motel meeting room
Also in 1997, a shortage of laborers at a local furniture manufacturer (since closed) led to the arrival of hundreds of Hispanic workers from other areas of the country to work in Ripley. And many of the new arrivals joined St. Matthew.
When Polly left in 2000, Sister Kate took on her role. She has spent the majority of her 50 years as a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet ministering in small, rural, predominantly non-Catholic settings—including two years in other Glenmary missions.
"There was just something calling me back to Mississippi, and I was very happy to rejoin the Glenmary family," she says. In 2001 the Catholic community moved into a former drugstore and met there for the next nine years.
Today, the St. Matthew congregation of nearly 150 families is about 75 percent Spanish-speaking and 25 percent English-speaking.
Sigifredo Bonilla was hired as a multicultural worker and came with his family to the United States from Colombia shortly before Sister Kate's arrival.
"I couldn't have been successful without Sigifredo," Sister Kate says. "He is a wonderful pastoral partner. He and his whole family have such missionary hearts."
Sister Kate points out that not all local Catholics chose to be part of the mission. "Through those 13 years, some didn't join, either because it wasn't appealing to gather in a motel or storefront, or because they didn't approve of a woman leading the community, or for other reasons.
"But the faithful stayed through all the stages of our journey because they wanted to be part of a Catholic community."
Although mission members were accepting of their gathering place—"when you're poor, you're happy with what you have," she says-they knew they needed more space. Spanish-language liturgies almost always drew overflow crowds. And large religious education classes and youth group meetings were held in very cramped quarters.
So mission members continued to work hard raising money to build a church building-through taco sales, rummage sales, yard sales, dances, raffles, festivals and the recycling of aluminum cans.
At the same time, Sister Kate says she has always made sure the community maintained a good balance between spiritual development (RCIA classes, religious education, special events) and fundraising activities.
Thirteen acres were eventually bought for a new church in 2004. Two years later, Sister Kate learned that St. Matthew was one of three missions being considered to receive the proceeds from a large bequest.
Two Glenmary donors, Robert and Helen Gardner, stipulated in the bequest that the funds be used to build a church in an area where there was none before.
Sister Kate was notified in late 2006 that St. Matthew was chosen as the recipient. The money from the bequest, combined with their own building fund, made their dream a reality.
"It was such a God experience for us! Just to see the joy and tears of the people when they were told was a powerful thing," Sister Kate says.
"These folks are used to working for what they need and want," she adds. "Even though we received a wonderful gift, the people here didn't rest. They kept holding fundraisers, and some even used their skills to help furnish the new church."
Finally, in early 2009, the bequest cleared probate and the architect and contractor moved forward with building plans, which also included a parish hall, offices and classrooms.
"We've done a good deal of evangelization, from entering floats in the town's annual Christmas parade to having food sales and other community events—partly to let the community know we're here," says Sister Kate. "With our new church, people will clearly see that we're a permanent part of the community.
This gift had to be of God and the Spirit, because it is so far beyond what we could have done ourselves," she says. "Now we have a whole new set of challenges, and we're working hard to figure out how to best meet them."
It's as important as ever, she says, "that we keep developing our parish as a faith community. Our gift of faith came first, and that's what will guide us in the future."
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 Glenmary Challenge.