St. Mary dedication set for Saturday

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 23, 1999

&uot;Oh, well, it’s just another day.&uot; The Rev. Alfred Camp laughed quietly as he uttered that sentence Thursday, well aware of the irony it carried. Camp’s parish is readying today for one of its most historic celebrations: the inaugural Mass of St. Mary Basilica.

The Mass, which begins at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Union Street church, is expected to draw more than 700 worshippers and participants, including dozens of clergy and religious – among them His Eminence William Cardinal Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, and eight other bishops.

&uot;Well, we had the 150th anniversary of the church (St. Mary) and the 150th anniversary of the school (Cathedral),&uot; Camp said when asked about the historic importance of the ceremony.

Email newsletter signup

&uot;I guess those were kind of a warm up for this,&uot; he added with a laugh.

The dedication of St. Mary Basilica comes nearly a year after the parish learned its church would become Mississippi’s first basilica – a title and honor given to few Catholic churches.

The laborious process of nominating the church for the basilica title – which was bestowed by Pope John Paul II – began more than seven years ago. The designation is based on several criteria, including historic significance; an active parish (including outreach programs); and a structure that draws visitors or pilgrims.

The basilica designation honors both the structure and the parish’s long involvement in the history of Natchez.

Catholicism in Natchez began with the Spanish explorers in the 16th century, and in 1837 Natchez was established as the See (or head) of the new Catholic diocese of Mississippi.

The Most Rev. John Joseph Chance was the first bishop of that diocese, and his was the grand vision that created the church that is now as basilica.

&uot;He certainly must have been a visionary,&uot; said Sallie Ballard, a parishioner who leads Elderhostel tours of the church. &uot;He was trying to impress upon the state of Mississippi that Catholicism was here to stay.&uot;

The first Mass was held at St. Mary in the early 1840s, and, Ballard said, &uot;we had a roof, the windows were all boarded up and there were dirt floors … with no pews.&uot;

By 1843 the Cathedral was dedicated and in 1859, under its third bishop, it took on a more stately form. The stained glass windows were added in 1886, in preparation for its consecration as a cathedral. The Carrar marble altars, communion rail, episcopal chair and screens were designed in 1930.

A special recital will be performed at 6:30 p.m. today by Sharon Davis Cole, a former member of the parish. The recital is open to the public.