St. Mary makes history

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 25, 1999

The parishioners of St. Mary rightly take pride in their new basilica.

So said the Most Rev. William Cardinal Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, who was in Natchez Saturday to celebrate the inaugural Mass at St. Mary Basilica.

&uot;This which has been the stage of God’s drama for so many years now&uot; has taken on a new elevation and a new respect with the title of basilica, Cardinal Keeler said.

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And, to celebrate that distinction, Cardinal Keeler led the celebration of the Mass of Elevation of St. Mary Church to the Status of Basilica for the more than 700 clergy, religious, parishioners and community members who attended the two-hour service.

&uot;Sometimes I just get tired of so much pomp and circumstance,&uot; said Mary Estelle Sanguinetti, a parishioner who served as a lector for the Mass. &uot;But today it just seemed right somehow.&uot;

St. Mary has served the Catholic population of Natchez for more than 150 years, most of those as St. Mary Cathedral, the see of the Catholic Church in Mississippi. The church lost its cathedral designation in 1977, when the diocesan headquarters was moved to Jackson.

The title of basilica, which was bestowed Sept. 8, 1998, by Pope John Paul II, reflects the church’s important role in both the community and Mississippi, celebrants said.

The basilica title &uot;recognizes this church for its distinguished history architecture and role in the sanctification of God’s people,&uot; Cardinal Keeler said during his homily.

Catholicism in Natchez dates back to the 16th Century, when Spanish explorers arrived in the area. In 1837, Natchez was designated the see of the newly created Diocese of Mississippi and, in 1841, the Most Rev. John Joseph Chance became the first bishop to serve at St. Mary.

Bishop Chance and those who followed him were &uot;the spiritual giants whose vision made this possible,&uot; Keeler said.

The first Mass was celebrated in St. Mary’s on Christmas Day, 1843, when the structure was little more than plaster walls and a roof.

By the time the cathedral was consecrated

in September 1886, it more closely resembled the grand structure it is today.

Even in the early 1930s, the cathedral was evolving with the addition of Carrara marble screens, altars and a communion rail.

And the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, continues to evolve even today.

Recent improvements include the addition of a copper-clad steeple and restoration of the pinnacles, which is under way now.

While the historical significance of St. Mary and its imposing architecture were an important part of its designation as a basilica, its active parish is equally as important to the designation.

&uot;The basilica serves as a source of renewed spirit and strength, a source of justice,&uot; said the Most Rev. Oscar H. Lipscomb, archbishop of Mobile, Ala.

He furthered challenged the parishioners of St. Mary, and all those attending, to make the basilica &uot;an external designation that must somehow be ratified in our lives in what we do and take forth.&uot;