O’Brien to leave Natchez for post in church in Jackson

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 4, 2003

NATCHEZ &045;&045; His Natchez stay was less than three years, but the Rev. Mike O’Brien will remember it as a heart-warming and significant experience.

With a new assignment to St. Richard Catholic Church in Jackson, O’Brien prepares to say goodbye to parishioners and friends in early September, leaving his position as pastor of Assumption and assistant pastor of St. Mary churches in Natchez.

His departure will coincide with the arrival of the Rev. David O’Connor, St. Mary pastor from 1986 through 1991, returning to Natchez to take O’Brien’s place and then to replace St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Alfred Camp, pastor since 1992, who will be reassigned in January. An open house at Cathedral School, 3 to 5 p.m. on Aug. 31, will provide an opportunity for well-wishers to say goodbye to O’Brien, who will leave Natchez on Sept. 3.

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St. Richard, a church of about 1,400 to 1,500 families, will be a big change for O’Brien, who looks forward to the challenge. &uot;They have just lost their pastor, who died of cancer,&uot; he said. &uot;They are a church still in mourning.&uot;

Natchez and its people won his heart, O’Brien said. &uot;I think Natchez is the prettiest town in Mississippi and has more character and more characters than any other town in Mississippi,&uot; he said.

He loves the natural and architectural beauty. &uot;I love the river, the history, the old homes, the hills, the kudzu and the Louisiana swamps and farmlands. It’s a great place to visit and a wonderful place to live. It’s my size town.&uot;

The people of Natchez have been warm and hospitable, he said. And at Assumption Church, he has had the opportunity to become a part of a warm family. &uot;We’ve talked, shared faith and came up with good ideas and programs. Together, we’ve gotten in touch with the history of the church and celebrated the history.&uot;

That celebration included honoring the 100 years since the church was founded by Italian families who had come to the area to farm. Descendants of many of those same families continue to worship at Assumption.

&uot;It’s a lovely history. Those families settled in, integrated into the community and have made wonderful contributions to the community,&uot; O’Brien said.

Assumption and St. Mary are sister parishes, he said. At Camp’s departure, the two will have one pastor in O’Connor &045;&045; a sign of the times of diminishing numbers of priests, O’Brien said.

&uot;Natchez once was the center of Catholicism in Mississippi, with the bishop, priests, nuns and Brothers of the Sacred Heart,&uot; he said. &uot;Going from that presence to one priest serving St. Mary and Assumption is a dramatic sign of the times.&uot;

In Mississippi, only about 4.5 percent of the population are of the Catholic faith, he said. Worldwide, Catholicism is growing &045;&045; particularly in the countries of Africa. &uot;We’re very vital and active at the grass roots level in the United States. We are an enthusiastic, faithful, committed people.&uot;

But our clergy is getting older, with the average age of priests in our diocese at 57.&uot;

And the numbers of clergymen are diminishing.

In time, dialogue among the leaders of the church must address the issues that contribute to a declining number of seminarians. &uot;We should be willing to look at the issues and talk about them. We are a eucharistic church. The Eucharist is at the heart of the church. And we need an ordained clergy to be eucharistic.&uot;

In Jackson, O’Brien will live near the large, contemporary-style church off Northside Drive, sharing his quarters with three other priests &045; one, his assistant at St. Richard; one a retired priest; and the third, a priest working for the diocese.

The church building will be one of the biggest changes for him as he leaves the tradition of Assumption and the ornate beauty of St. Mary. &uot;St. Richard is not a building that draws attention to itself. St. Richard cries out for people and doesn’t come to life until it is filled with people. After all, the church is not a building but the people of God.&uot;