A Lifelong Journey of Faith

Posted: 6/5/2012

Houston mission member reflects on experience of being Catholic in Mississippi

By Father Bob Dalton

Ruth Agnes CrosthwaitFor many years, Ruth Agnes Crosthwait, 86, and her family were the only Catholics who lived in Houston, Miss. Recently, she talked with Father Bob Dalton, who serves as sacramental minister to Glenmary's Immaculate Heart of Mary mission in Houston, about her journey as a Catholic in northeast Mississippi and the role Glenmary has played in that journey.

In 1926, Ruth Agnes Carty's baptism as a five-day-old infant involved an arduous journey. The priest came by train from Columbus, Miss., to the whistle-stop crossroads community of Pheba. There, his journey continued by car over dusty dirt roads for the last dozen miles to St. Patrick Church in the "Irish Colony" in northeastern Clay County.

Memories and an old cemetery are all that remain of that small wooden church built in 1895. Before the church was built, hearty immigrants with names like Murphy, O'Rourke, McNulty and Cosgrove met in homes for an occasional Mass when a priest happened to be traveling through the area.

For almost 50 years, Mass was celebrated only on the fifth Sunday of a month. Even so, the faith was strong among these farm families. Two women from the community joined the Sisters of Mercy in Vicksburg-Sister Regina Cosgrove and Sister Mary Joseph Cosgrove.

Gradually—as often happens in rural America, even today—the close-knit Catholic community began to decline as people moved away, families died out and others drifted away from their faith.

Among those who moved was Joseph Carty, Ruth Agnes' father, who saw better schools and more opportunities for his family in the county seat of Houston, 15 miles away. No Catholics had ever lived in Houston before the Cartys arrived. Suspicious of this foreign religion, the local community gave a very chilly welcome to the family.

The turning point came when a prominent citizen, Mr. Hill, who owned the hardware store on the courthouse square, made it known that any man who wanted a chance for a better future for his family was welcome in Houston.

First Communion preparation for young Ruth Agnes meant a lonely separation from her family for three weeks for two successive summers. She traveled 40 miles to West Point to stay with Baptist relatives while she studied with Sister Regina and Sister Mary Joseph. The two women religious gathered together Catholic children each summer to prepare them for the sacraments.

During those early years in Houston, Ruth Agnes' family had to travel 20 miles by car to St. Theresa Church in Okolona, where Mass was offered on the third Sunday of the month by a priest who traveled by train from Tupelo.

The roads weren't paved, and often deep mud made the family's trip an adventure—or even impossible. Since fasting after midnight was part of the discipline to receive Communion, the first meal of the day for the family was eaten after they arrived home, usually about 2 p.m.

After Ruth Agnes and Curtis Crosthwait married, they made their lifelong home in Houston.

"As a young married woman, I lived near the back of a Baptist church," Ruth Agnes remembers. "I would look out on Sunday morning and see everyone attending services, and I wondered what it would be like to be able to go to church every Sunday."

After a pause and a little laugh, she added: "Curtis had a car, but it was Baptist like him and didn't go to Mass!" For the last 12 years of his life, though, Curtis did attend Mass with Ruth Agnes. He converted to Catholicism shortly before his death.

Eventually, a few other Catholics moved to Houston, and Mass was offered occasionally in the homes of local residents until a small A-frame church, consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was built in 1954.

In 1965, Glenmary took on the missions in both Houston and Okolona. Mass or Word and Communion services were celebrated each weekend, and she finally began to realize her dream of attending church every week.

Ruth Agnes commented thoughtfully on Glenmary's plan to leave Immaculate Heart of Mary mission in the summer of 2013.

"I felt bad after I learned that Glenmary was leaving next year," she says. "Then I realized that I was being selfish. What Glenmary missioners did for me, they can do for people in some other area like Houston.

"They taught me everything I know about my faith. They helped me become a Eucharistic minister, gave me the confidence to be a lector at Mass and trained me to lead Word and Communion services. I was even appointed to the Diocesan Pastoral Council in Jackson. Some of those who I served on the council with thought I was a radical, but I taught them that it is a different experience being Catholic here in rural northeast Mississippi."

Today, Ruth Agnes is homebound. She has limited mobility and uses a wheelchair or walker to get around her house.

"I miss going to church and I miss my friends there, but I really appreciate the Eucharistic ministers who bring me weekly Communion," she says.

Her journey of faith, which began in the Irish Colony decades ago, continues today. The dream she had so many years ago became a reality. The Catholic Church is present in Houston, Miss.

This article appears in the Summer 2012 Glenmary Challenge.