Project aims to preserve Holy Family Catholic Church
NATCHEZ — Brick mason Kenneth Fitzgerald uses the simplest of tools as he goes about his daily work. It is nothing more than a small block of wood with the head of a nail sticking roughly 2 inches from one end.
Carefully, the 27-year-old mason scrapes 120-year-old mortar from between the bricks on the exterior of Holy Family Catholic Church on Orange Avenue in Natchez.
This labor has taught him patience.
“You’ve got to take your time going around each brick,” he said.
Fitzgerald said one difference exists between his current job at Holy Family and other places he has worked over 12 years in the business — height.
As Fitzgerald scrapes away old mortar and replaces it with new, he is kneeling on scaffolding some 50 feet above the ground.
“This is my first time working that high,” he said with a smile. “But I’m not too much afraid of heights.”
When he’s down on the ground mixing the new mortar or breaking for lunch, Fitzgerald says passers-by voice their disbelief in his treetop height workspace.
“‘You’ve got some nerves,’” he said with a laugh. “That’s what they say.”
“You’ve just got to watch your step,” Fitzgerald said.
The work being done on the steeple is part of a long-term project aimed at preserving the historic structure that has served the community in numerous ways since its dedication in the summer of 1894.
Trevor Brown, deputy director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, said the project is being paid for through a Mississippi Civil Rights Historical Sites Grant awarded by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The grant is worth $169,500 and is matched with $42,500 that the church raised.
Brown said along with the work being done to the steeple masonry, the metal steeple roof will be repainted and parts of the cast stone on the steeple’s exterior will be replaced.
Once the improvements to the steeple are completed, a new roof will be installed over the church’s sanctuary.
Brown said the repairs to the structure have been needed for some time.
“They’ve been experiencing water getting into the building for many years,” Brown says.
Parishioner Duncan Morgan, well versed in the history of the church and the congregation, said the historical significance of the structure cannot be overstated.
“This is the oldest church for a basically African-American congregation in the lower Mississippi valley,” Morgan said.
The importance of the church to the African-American community in Natchez only increased as time passed and the Civil Rights movement came to Natchez in the middle of the 20th century.
“This was, to a great extent, the hub of the Civil Rights area in Natchez,” Morgan said.
“Charles Evers was the mouthpiece of the Civil Rights drive here,” Morgan says. “But Father (William) Morrissey was the planner.
“Father Morrissey was the vice president of the state chapter of NAACP,” Morgan said. “They used the offices (at Holy Family Church) for meetings.”
Father James Fallon, who has been Pastor at the church since October 2010, said that for all these reasons, the church is a valuable link to the history of Natchez, as well as Mississippi.
“Besides being a locus of activity during the Civil Rights era, it is a very important in the history of Catholicism among African Americans in Mississippi,” Fallon said.
Morgan, himself a longtime brick mason, is also keenly aware of the attention to detail that must be paid by the masons replacing the old mortar.
“It’s very tedious,” Morgan said. “What complicates it is you have to match the color, texture and the mixture (of the mortar) being used in the 19th century.”
Morgan says that Fitzgerald and his fellow masons working on the steeple cannot use modern commercial mortars.
“If you use any of the commercial mortar mix, it’s harder than the old brick,” Morgan warned. “It will cause moisture to get trapped and cause the brick to flake off.”
Fitzgerald acknowledges he is aware of the significance of this project.
“I feel that I’m a part of history by restoring the building and putting my effort and time in to it,” Fitzgerald said, as he looked from the sidewalk. “It’s a part a Natchez.”
When asked about the work being done by the laborers on the scaffolding that surrounds the steeple, Fallon cannot hide his anxiety at the thought of standing in their shoes.
“Jokingly,” he said while shaking his head, “When they go up, I leave town.”
“I thank God for them,” Fallon added. “But I do not like to look.”