Camp says goodbye to congregation at St. Mary

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Joy mingles with sadness as the Rev. Alfred Camp looks back over his Natchez experience. As he prepares to leave the flock he has shepherded for the past 12 years, he recalls people and events that will remain fixed in his heart.

Priest, pastor, eulogizer, comforter and friend to the hundreds of men, women and children who have known him as rector of St. Mary Basilica, Camp will leave the parish this week to become rector of two churches in Clarksdale.

&uot;We have experienced the joy of new life in Baptism, the strength that comes from the Eucharist and Reconciliation, the profound love of newly married couples, the thrill of victories on the field of play,&uot; Camp wrote to his congregation in December. &uot;We have grieved at funerals at the loss of loved ones and friends old and sometimes all too young.&uot;

Email newsletter signup

Recalling his move to Natchez in 1991, Camp said he was unsure what the new position would hold for him more than a decade ago. As one who primarily had been associated with schools as a teacher, chaplain and principal, he was facing a new kind of position in Natchez.

&uot;After being in school work most of my life, I had to get used to a new kind of treatment,&uot; he said, his well-known sense of humor evident in his voice. &uot;Being a pastor is like going to heaven.&uot;

Camp came to the Natchez parish after 23 years in Vicksburg, where he taught at St. Aloysius High School and then became its principal, a position he held for 17 of those years.

Leaving Vicksburg was &uot;like getting a divorce,&uot; he said. But he took a three-month sabbatical to Rome, where during the second week he received word that he would go to Natchez.

&uot;That was a wonderful break for me,&uot; he said. &uot;I was so relaxed when I got to Natchez. And the staff had everything working perfectly.&uot;

Packing boxes of books and other personal belongings on Friday, Camp looked around and said he likely would never have such a place to live again as the historic rectory next door to the landmark church on South Union Street. &uot;I remember a tourist not long after I got here said, ‘what did you do to be assigned to such a beautiful church,’&uot; he said.

The history and beauty of the church are part of what makes St. Mary &uot;a wonderful place to worship,&uot; Camp said. &uot;They don’t make places like this anymore. It would not be practical. But this place says something about the way of life in Natchez.&uot;

Yet it will be the people, not the buildings, that Camp will miss the most and remember the best. &uot;You see such great examples of great faith in people, especially in ones who are dying,&uot; he said. &uot;You get so close to people like that. You watch them as they say, ‘oh, I’m going to beat this,’ and then they know they are not and they say, ‘I’m not going to get any better,’ but their faith is so strong.&uot;

As a former teacher and principal, Camp relished the association with Cathedral School, he said. &uot;It was great being involved with the school.&uot; He praised St. Mary parishioners for the $2.2 million in school subsidy during the past 12 years and more than $1 million for school buildings and maintenance.

Further, he recalled the generosity of the parish in helping to preserve and restore the beauty of the church. &uot;We had a storm, you know,&uot; he said, referring to the tornado or straight-line winds that tore through Natchez in February 1998, seriously damaging the exterior of the church and causing damage at the school, as well.

The storm was a &uot;blessing in disguise,&uot; he said. &uot;It allowed us to do some things that were needed, outside and inside.&uot;

At 72, Camp has passed the age at which he might consider retirement. He is not ready. Still, he is taking advantage of the move to lighten his load. &uot;Moving can be a blessing. I’ve thrown out half of my belongings but still not enough,&uot; he said. &uot;I didn’t have the courage to do what I needed to do. But I’m down to about 15 boxes of books. That’s a remarkable feat&uot;

Camp chuckled at the idea that he is remaining right alongside the Mississippi River &045; Vicksburg to Natchez and now to Clarksdale. &uot;I’m spending my life on Highway 61,&uot; he said. &uot;But I’ve never been unhappy anywhere I’ve been. I’ll be happy where I’m going.&uot;

Clarksdale is economically depressed, &uot;more so than the rest of the area,&uot; Camp said. &uot;The church is beautiful. And they have built a new school. But there are so few people.&uot;

He will serve as rector for St. Elizabeth Catholic Church as well as for Immaculate Conception, a small black parish.

As he did in Natchez &045; leading his people through joyful times as well as through troubled times such as the disaster on Sept. 11, 2001 &045; Camp is certain to take the new congregations through their own ups and downs.

&uot;They have a debt, and we’ll have to retire that. I’ll try to carry on what they’re doing there,&uot; he said. &uot;I don’t project too far into the future. I’m 72, but I really enjoy the challenge.&uot;

And with his famous twinkle, he added, &uot;And it’s great to be employed.&uot;