Some local church doors surrounded by mystery and faith

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Four-year-olds don’t respect the message of privacy a closed door sends; just ask any mom.

So its no surprise that little ones often barge and barrel through sacred spaces not only at home, but at church as well.

For Josiah Reed, 4, exploring Cornerstone Church in Vidalia led to the perfect hiding place, until he got stuck.

Email newsletter signup

The closet in a Sunday school room contained one of the church’s air-conditioning units, but under the unit was a crawl space just right for a curious child.

“I would just get in there every Sunday,” he said. “I just kept sneaking in there.”

One Sunday, though, Reed pulled the door closed behind him and found himself trapped. The doorknob was above the top of the crawl space.

So the frightened child did the only thing he could — he crawled to the nearest vent under the air-conditioning unit and began to yell.

“I kept sticking my finger out the holes and yelling for help,” Reed said.

Help came, and now whenever he sees another child straying too closely to the door in question, Reed lets them know its hidden dangers.

“If I see them open that door, I tell them, ‘No,” he said.

While curious children may find an odd storage room or a forgotten closet that leads into the church steeple, there are sacred doors many adults don’t know about or don’t have access to pass through.

Forgotten spaces

In the case of St. Mary Chapel, that rarely used door is the front door.

Located on Laurel Hill Plantation, many locals don’t know about St. Mary Chapel, which is ringed by trees, down a dirt road off of an almost unmarked private drive on the more rural end of Lower Woodville Road.

It stands tall, its pitched gothic roof work and stained glass window speaking of another time and another continent, but St. Mary Chapel doesn’t really seem out of place in southwestern Mississippi, either.

Built in 1850 to minister to plantation slaves, St. Mary Chapel hasn’t had regular religious rites performed there routinely since the 1850s.

The old church isn’t just a museum or a monument to the past, though, Laurel Hill manager Kathy Moody said.

“What people don’t realize is that it was never deconsecrated, so it’s still a church,” she said.

So once or twice a year, someone uses the chapel for a wedding, and because the plantation has a conservation easement on it, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History requires that the chapel be open to the public four days a year.

Time is beginning to take its toll on the chapel.

Inside the building, plaster falls off the bricks occasionally, and one of the large windowpanes had to be replaced when Moody discovered it leaning into the chapel one day.

But she had an expert come in to test the building’s stability, and it is structurally sound, Moody said.

Through the years, odd things have happened to change the church.

In one instance, inmate workmen replaced the marble floor tiles in the wrong pattern; in another, the same workmen vandalized the church’s crypt, which has been since sealed and still contains the remains of former plantation owners.

The roof has collapsed and been replaced, but since the conservation easement was put on the property, the overall goal is to maintain the church, not modify it.

“It’s not a beautification project,” Moody said.

Pipe dreams

In the stairwells off the choir loft and balcony at First Presbyterian Church in Natchez, there are three locked bead board doors, two on one side and one on the other.

And behind those doors are pipes — small medium and large, some thin and some wide, others short and some reaching up and wrapping around the ceiling.

They’re not bad plumbing, though — they’re organ pipes.

And that’s exactly why the rooms — in this case, the organ chambers — are kept locked.

“There are 2,400 pipes back there, so we don’t want people just messing around,” organist Jeannie Lanneau said.

The pipes are sensitive to a number of environmental factors, and even tapping on them in the wrong way could throw the pitch off for the instrument.

But there’s another reason to keep on the other side of the locked doors.

Even though the organ chambers have slotted shutters that can be opened and closed to affect the volume of the organ, being inside the chambers when someone was at the keyboard would be an experience you would not likely forget.

“If someone was in there when I was playing, it would be deafening,” Lanneau said. “If there is someone in the steeple working on the clockwork (above the organ chambers), I play very quietly.”

Door to another world

But some sacred doors aren’t big and obvious, and while they might not resemble a normal door, they can hide a great treasure.

At Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Vidalia, there is a tiny door almost hidden except for the small outline in the marble in the church’s altar.

Underneath that one-and-a-half inch by one-and-a-half inch door is a relic — the almost miniscule slivers of bones of a saint.

But who those bone slivers belonged to is a mystery.

“I didn’t even know about it until I started teaching Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and started cleaning the altar and saw the outline of it,” Our Lady of Lourdes member Corinne Randazzo said.

The altar was installed in the church in the mid-1950s, and in the years that have passed the information about the relic has been lost.

“We looked in the church history, and we couldn’t find anything there,” Randazzo said.

The relic may have been in the altar before it was installed in the church, and at one time there was a piece of parchment that accompanied it, but no one at the church knows where it is now.

Randazzo even contacted two of the church’s former priests in an attempt to find out whose bones are in the altar.

“Nobody seems to know,” she said.