The Church in Northeast Mississippi: Maintained and Nurtured

Posted: 12/30/2014

Father Joe Dean with Mississippi co-op participants, 1965.By Jean Bach

In a letter of appointment in 1965, Bishop Richard Gerow of the then-Diocese of Natchez-Jackson welcomed Fathers Clem Borchers, Joe Dean and Bob Rademacher to northeastern Mississippi with a suggestion to "keep clear of the race question."

The missioners were arriving in Mississippi at a pivotal time in the history of the United States and the Church. Mississippi was embroiled in racial strife, violence and drastic social change related to the U.S. civil rights movement.

The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law in 1964 and the Voters Rights Act had just been enacted in July 1965. But "the race question" was still very much an issue, one which the missioners did not sidestep.

They were threatened for having integrated congregations. Some black Catholics in West Point were afraid to attend Sunday Masses, so unscheduled Masses were celebrated in a house trailer. The trailer was eventually burned. Glenmarians, ostracized often for the mere fact of being Catholic, were harassed for reaching out to and working with the black population.

Volunteerism in the United States was also on an upswing. President John Kennedy challenged the youth of the United States to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" in his 1961 inaugural address. They responded by volunteering to serve the poor both in the U.S. and abroad.

And there was also major change occurring within the Catholic Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965.

One of the council's documents, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, called the Catholic laity to active evangelization and service in the life of the Church and its members. "Since the laity...live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ."

The influence of all these factors produced a "leaven" of coworkers (pastoral ministers, Glenmary Lay Missioners, volunteers) and local people collaborating with Glenmarians to establish Catholic mission communities in Mississippi counties where the Church had never been effectively present. And together they began social outreach efforts that spread like wildfire.

The summer of 2014 marked the return of missions in Bruce, Pontotoc and Houston to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Jackson and Glenmary's departure from Mississippi. But according to Father Bob Dalton, Glenmary's 49-year presence in the region has created an impact that lives on.

Father Bob has served in the region since 2005, first as pastor of the mission in Aberdeen and most recently as a senior member serving as sacramental minister to nearby missions.

"The cooperation between blacks and whites, clergy and laity, and Catholics and non-Catholics was not commonplace in the South or in the Church in the mid-1960s," Father Bob says. "People then—and some probably now—thought we were crazy to try it!"

But the "craziness" worked. From the initial four missions in West Point, New Albany, Aberdeen and Pontotoc, satellite missions popped up in the years that followed. Eventually Glenmary would serve those living in and around Amory, Fulton, Houston, Okolona, Vardaman, Eupora, Ackerman, Ripley and Bruce.

"Father Clem Borchers, who was energetic and practical, had a vision of how coworkers and volunteers could be utilized to serve the large number of counties that Glenmary took responsibility for," says Father Tim Murphy. He was the last Glenmarian to serve in Mississippi as a mission pastor and has spent more than two decades serving in the diocese.

"It was a time when young missioners, full of excitement and enthusiasm, arrived in new mission territory. The possibilities were limitless," Father Tim says, adding that Father Clem's vision helped create "a church of service and prayer, of sacrament and community." His vision of Church, Father Tim says, continues on today.

After missioners arrived, missions were called together and parishes without resident pastors were staffed. Numerous social outreach programs to clothe, feed, support and provide medical services to those in need were launched with the help of volunteers and residents.

"Catholics in these small rural counties had and continue to have a great gratitude for the gift of the Church," Father Tim says. "It's through this gratitude that they have been open to the many innovative ways of being Church that have been introduced in the region."

Among those innovations was the Three Rivers Regional Ministry (TRRM) begun in 1972. An ecumenical, regional team ministry, TRRM was designed to share resources, personnel, talents, ideas and finances across parish, county and denominational borders. It was the brainchild of Fathers Lou McNeil and Kent Lewis with the help of fellow Glenmarians, diocesan clergy, religious, professional coworkers and volunteers.

The team members provided services to those living in an eight-county area that ranged from Meals on Wheels to religious education and services to youth and aging. One of the by-products of TRRM, which ended in 1977, was Camp Glenmary.

The camp, founded by Father Lou and Father Larry Goulding and staffed by Glenmarians and local and national volunteers, began in 1974 and was among the first integrated programs of its kind in the state. Today participants attend four weeks of camp each June: two weeks for at-risk children and two weeks for Catholic children to experience being with Catholic peers.

Father Tim has served as the camp's director for the past 20 years and calls it a "privilege." The camp is "holy ground for me," he says. "I inherited something that is a jewel and I do my best to keep it going in the spirit in which it was founded."

The region was also ground zero for the implementation of Glenmary's Lay Pastoral Coordinator Program in the 1990s. The program enables professionally trained laypersons, appointed by a local bishop, to serve as pastoral leaders of mission parishes while Glenmary priests serve as sacramental ministers.

At one time, seven missions in northeast Mississippi were led by lay pastoral coordinators. Four of the seven were new mission communities in counties where the Church was not present. Two of those four are now in the third generation of lay leadership.

The increased role of lay ministry professionals has been "very positive in the life of the Church and the growth of these mission communities," Father Tim says. "They have made it possible for the Church to be present here."

Pastoral coordinators eventually served missions in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi, which had the largest cluster.

"Northeast Mississippi is about three hours away from Jackson," Father Bob explains. "There aren't enough priests to cover a diocese this large (64 counties). Having these folks (lay leaders) living in mission counties, being the local face of the Church day in and day out, has made a huge difference in both the lives of Catholics living here and in the way Catholics are perceived by the larger community."

Glenmary's efforts to promote lay ministry have expanded thanks to a collaborative effort with the diocese and Loyola University, New Orleans. The Loyola Institute for Ministry EXtension (LIMEX) program has been offered in the diocese for many years as a way to help prepare future lay ministers. The graduate program offers Catholics the opportunity to earn master's degrees and certificates in pastoral studies and religious education.

"What we've done here is pioneered a program working with the laity to serve the needs of Catholics in this diocese," Father Bob says. Currently, four diocesan parishes in the northeastern deanery are being led by lay leaders, and two of those leaders are graduates of LIMEX.

"Glenmary has given this region a vision of collaboration and lay ministry," Father Bob says. "And people have been empowered with tools to ensure the Church's active presence here for years to come."

About 20 years ago, the landscape of the region began to change with the arrival of Spanish-speaking Catholic immigrants who were employed at local furniture factories and in agriculture.

Staying true to Father Bishop's mandate 75 years ago that missioners serve all those living in their mission areas, outreach efforts began to the newly arrived. Missioners worked to learn Spanish to ease communication efforts. And pastoral associates and multicultural workers, fluent in Spanish, helped the immigrants assimilate to U.S. life, provided religious education and assisted in any other ways needed.

"We've had a model in place for 30 years where missioners and the laity use their talents to meet the needs," Father Bob says. "Glenmary couldn't have been here to open the doors of the Church and receive and serve many recently arrived Catholics without these lay leaders and this model of ministry."

Today, the leadership roles are being filled by both English- and Spanish-speaking Catholics working together to ensure their parishes remain vital and growing.

When asked what Glenmary's legacy has been in Mississippi, Father Tim says it's difficult to briefly sum it up when a book could be written about all that has taken place in the past 49 years.

But, he says, "Glenmary's ministry has maintained and nurtured the Church in Word and sacrament in these small towns, which feeds people spiritually. We've also nurtured the vision that Fathers Clem, Joe and Bob brought to the region in 1965: the Church is all of us working together to serve each other. That's the gift that remains."

This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 Glenmary Challenge.