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Catholic church realizes 25 years of expansion dreams

LAUREN WOOD/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Nancy Laird of Sign Graphics affixes leaf decals to a tree mural painted on the wall of the newly built and renovated family life center Thursday evening. The leaves bear names of supporters of St. Mary Basilica, which will host the dedication of the building at 3 p.m. today.

Anyone who has been to a program in the basement of St. Mary Basilica — known to parishioners as St. Thérèse Hall — in recent years has probably noted that it can get a little crowded.

But today, the church will officially dedicate its new 15,000-square foot family life center, which will serve to host church functions and hopefully provide a little more breathing room.

Located in what was most recently the Main Street Marketplace building, which the church has owned for years but leased to the City of Natchez for a time, the structure that would become the family life center has undergone a significant transformation.

The main entrance of the new St. Mary Basilica Family Life Center sits on Main Street, across from St. Mary Basilica. The building was most recently the Main Street Marketplace, but has now been completely revamped into a space that meets the church’s needs as well as its architectural style.

The once open-air café is now an enclosed building with an assembly area for 300-400 people, a commercial kitchen, conference rooms, office spaces, a theology library, a nursery, a commercial kitchen and shower facilities in case it ever needs to be utilized as an emergency shelter. A self-contained, 6,000 square-foot wing for the parish youth program was added on the northeastern side of the building. The front end of the building was extended by 21 feet to accommodate the library and one of the conference rooms.

On the outside, the building was transformed from a plain, rectangular brick structure to something resembling a European monastic cloister. Its façade was built to mirror the spires of the basilica, and Donna Martello, a member the design committee for the project, said that was intentional.

“We wanted people to know immediately it belonged with the church as they passed by,” she said.

And the church family has not been the only ones who have kept an eye on how the family life center turned out, St. Mary pastor the Rev. David O’Connor said.

“We have gotten a tremendous amount of interest from the community in what we have done throughout the construction,” he said.

While the church did expand the building during the construction phase of the project, O’Connor said the church tried to preserve as much of the property on which it was located as they could.

LAUREN WOOD/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — The youth center inside the new building features a kitchen, seating booths, TV and entertainment center, and different sorts of games including pool and foosball.

“It was very important to us to have that green space, so we would have as much space as possible to put a safe wrought-iron fence around it so children could play out there and have no danger of getting into the street,” he said.

The dream for the family life center began nearly 25 years ago, Martello said, though it began in earnest in 2006.

“We have never had a space where the whole membership could gather for anything other than church, and we didn’t want to use the church for social programs,” she said.

“I always tell people that if you’re going to do something in St. Thérèse Hall, you’re going to have to dodge the (support) posts.”

With input from the parish community, the design committee, pastoral and finance councils guided the project through its initial phases, fundraising and construction. The church also sought input from the Historic Natchez Foundation and the city planning commission.

“I think it is an example of a building where there has been an immense collaboration,” O’Connor said.

One of the things that was particularly important to the church was that the youth be given their own space, Martello said.

“Our biggest need, the gap in our offerings here, have always had to do with youth,” she said. “We have always had a youth program but they have never had a space of their own.”

The new youth space includes its own assembly area, breakout rooms and a quiet space for prayer and reflection. The parish youth have already started using the space, Martello said, with great excitement.

Donna Martello, right, talks Thursday to Gabriel Cassagne, left, and Pat Tumminello about decorations for this weekend’s festivities at the St. Mary Basilica Family Life Center. The volunteers were preparing the center for the grand opening and dedication ceremony today.

The youth wing will be dedicated to the Daughters of Charity, the group of religious women who operated schools and orphanages in Natchez for many years.

But while the youth were a consideration in the design of the project, the building is meant for the entire church to use, and O’Connor said one way that will be encouraged is the advent of a weekly meal together every Wednesday night.

“One of the themes of the building is a sense of community,” O’Connor said. “Our hope is with the inauguration of the weekly meals the different groups in the church might select Wednesday in conjunction with the meals to be when they have their meetings.”

The space now available in the family life center has also cleared up room in St. Thérèse Hall, where the church was able to develop a Montessori-style atrium for its catechesis of the Good Shepherd program.

“Moving the church library across the street has really opened up that space for it to be used as it should be,” Martello said.

The new center makes it easier for the church to offer many new things for parishioners and the community alike, Martello said.

“It has a lot of little things that are going to add up to something very special for us here at St. Mary and to the community as a whole,” she said.

“We are not sure what all of the possibilities are.”

The community is welcome to the dedication, and O’Connor said the church was hand-delivering invitations to the neighboring businesses.

The dedication, which will be made by the Rt. Rev. Joseph Latino, bishop of the Diocese of Jackson, will be 3 p.m. today at the family life center.