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St. Mary exhibit tells history of first bishop

John Joseph Chanche seemed the right place to begin when the archives committee of St. Mary Basilica began to organize its first exhibit.

The exhibit will be held today, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the rectory next door to the basilica and is free and open to the public.

Chanche, the first bishop of Natchez, born in Baltimore, traveled by river to his new home in Natchez in May 1841, newly consecrated a bishop in the Cathedral of Baltimore prior to his arrival.

By February 1842, the new bishop saw the cornerstone laid for St. Mary Cathedral and two years later saw the exterior of the landmark Natchez building completed.

Several years later, Chanche oversaw the building of his house, now the rectory, adjacent to the basilica on South Union Street in the heart of downtown Natchez.

The times and the accomplishments of this bishop fascinated members of the basilica’s archives committee, especially James E. Guercio, chairman of the committee and a tireless archivist for his church.

As a retired antiques dealer and now an antiques appraiser and as a longtime member of St. Mary, Guercio has found his life experience, both professional and personal, suited to his new avocation in working with the archives and sacred objects.

Those attending the exhibit today also will get a guided tour of the rectory.

In a letter written in July 1848, two years after his house was completed, Chanche wrote, “It’s a pretty, convenient house. It has a good many faults; yet I hope my successors may be pleased with it.”

Guercio particularly likes that quote, as it reveals some of the bishop’s character. “He was thinking about people who would live here in the future. I think that is very nice,” he said.

Chanche had numerous challenges, Guercio said. Natchez, for all its fame as a cotton center and home to some of the South’s wealthiest planters at that time, still was in a remote location.

That Chanche found the resources to build the large Gothic-Revival style church building and then the handsome brick house next door was remarkable.

“Things were pretty primitive around here in the 1830s,” Guercio said. “The Spanish-era church on Commerce Street had burned. We were using public buildings like city hall and other churches.”

The bishop continued in the late 1840s to seek funds for completion of the interior of the cathedral but would not live to see that despite traveling abroad to get more financial support.

Guercio showed off some of the sacred objects and talked about support for Chanche in his efforts.

There is the chalice received from Pope Gregory XVI, the church bell from Prince Alexander Torloni of Italy and the painting of The Assumption from the king of France.

The exhibit today will feature six parts, each section highlighting a part of the bishop’s accomplishments or activities during his 11 years in Natchez.

Committee members who have organized the exhibit, in addition to Guercio, are Anne Allmand, Mary Eidt, Betsy Holleman, Gail Guido Jones, Mike Murphy and Patricia Murphy.

“We’re trying to expose these wonderful details to the local population and enrich them with knowledge of the local founders here so they will know their names and speak their stories,” Guercio said.