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St. Mary Catholic Church commemorates 116 years with historic markers



St. Mary vicksburg

St. Mary Catholic Church in Vicksburg will unveil two historic markers, one for the church and one for the elementary and high school, to commemorate the institution’s 116-year history of service to the community.

Rev. Joseph Nguyen proposed the markers “to highlight the significant contributions of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Mary’s School to the spiritual and educational needs of the Vicksburg community,” Benny Terrell, member of the marker committee, told the Associated Press. “We wanted to cover those things that we have done that have impacted this community and a lot of the minority people in this community.”

The church originally planned to dedicate the markers last year in celebration of the 115th anniversary of St. Mary Catholic Church, but the markers were delayed due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. Mary’s parish was founded in 1906 by the Rev. Aloysius Heick. The first church was located on Holly Street, down the hill right behind where United Cleaners now sits on Cherry Street. The present church was built in 1923.

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

In 1908, philanthropist Katherine Drexel funded the construction of a two-story Greek revival building that would become the high school.

“She was very dedicated to supporting Black Catholics in this country,” Terrell said. “Not only did she provide funding to help secure our property, but when Father Heick went to Jackson, she helped secure the property over there by donating funds. 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,” committee member Cherrie Boykin McClelland said.

Teaching Black children in the Jim Crow-era South was controversial to say the least.

“The nuns were not that welcome in Vicksburg and the congregation was the one that really supported them,” Terrell added. “The nuns would not go anywhere by themselves; they would always go in pairs. People still did not cater to the idea of white nuns teaching Black kids.”

Still, the church did find support from some members of the community.

“The contribution of the white community should be noted because the congregation consisted of Italian, Irish, German and Lebanese and they supported the nuns,” Calloway said. “Mother Hildegard, a Sister of Mercy nun, and her family supported the missionary sisters when they needed food and help.

“A number of prominent whites attended St. Mary’s on a regular basis and still do,” she said. “Although this is an African American parish, it has truly served the community of Vicksburg and welcomed everyone who came. Although we may be assigned to the back pews of St. Paul, they were integrated into the total Catholic community at St. Mary’s. They helped us and we helped them.”
The dedication ceremony for the historical markers is planned for Oct.16.

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