Sisters of desegregation

Published 11:26 pm Wednesday, November 2, 2011

submitted photo Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate have taught at Holy Family Catholic School for 90 years. Pictured are nuns who taught grades kindergarten through 12th at the school. Seven nuns will travel back to Natchez for the annual fall festival Saturday, and a special Mass Sunday.

NATCHEZ — At a time when segregation laws were beginning to unravel and the socio-economic landscape was changing in Natchez, Sister Marguerite Connors was just a young teacher at Holy Family Catholic School.

Connors taught sixth grade from 1959 to 1962 — turbulent times in the Civil Rights Movement. Connors said it was her first experience teaching black children.

“I loved every bit of it,” Connors said. “That’s why I wanted to become a sister, to teach the poor and neglected.”

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Connors said her class was at capacity as the first black private school in Natchez.

“The children were darling and the parents were wonderful,” Connors said.

Connors, and six other former teachers, will return to the school this weekend to attend the 90th anniversary celebration of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate serving the school.

She said standing up for an unheard generation in Natchez was an experience she will never forget.

“It was a time of unrest with desegregation happening,” Connors said. “As a sister I was happy to be a support, to be a witness, stand with and be one of them.”

At the time, what was referred to as Cathedral Parish was for Natchez’s white families.

“We would go uptown, and people would say, ‘There are the black sisters,’” Connors said.

Connors said the style of African-American worship was also an inspiration to her.

“I always enjoyed the singing of the black people — their enthusiasm,” Connors said. “It’s different from worshipping with all-white community. The rhythm, the music and the children were delightful — a wonderful contribution to culture and society.”

Connors, who is in retirement now, said she hopes to run into some of the students she taught 50 years ago. She will be road-tripping from the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate base in San Antonio, Texas.

The weekend corresponds with the annual fall festival — one of four annual major fundraisers at Holy Family Early Learning Center.

Faye Barnes, festival chairman, said the school depends on the parents and community to help the school meet its fiscal needs. Holy Family students attend on tuition, but the school, which has gone from a kindergarten through 12th grade school to just preschool and kindergarten, needs extra help.

Barnes said the fall festival is usually very well attended by former school members and the general public.

“It’s like a big family coming together and enjoying themselves,” Barnes said.

Sister Bernadette McNamara, who handles finances at the Holy Family Early Learning Center, said the school was built in 1890, and in 1921 the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate began serving as educators and administrators.

“Social justice has been our mission from the beginning,” McNamara said. “This is the root of Holy Family. We ministered to people who were marginated, oppressed and economically poor. That has been our mission all along.”

McNamara said the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate now focus on social work, helping economically destitute people find housing. But McNamara believes education is the basis for success.

“Yes, education is expensive,” she said. “But ignorance is a lot more expensive. Those (negative) cycles must be broken, and education is the key.”

Barnes was a student at the school herself. Her experience was so positive that she came back to teach.

“You always had that warm welcome,” Barnes said. “As a student I had never felt so wanted, and I wanted more of that Catholic education. The sisters made you feel like you could accomplish more than your own standards.”

After the school’s attendance changed so drastically, and with the downturn of the economy, financing continues to drop.

“We have struggling days at Holy Family,” Barnes said. “But thanks to the Miss-Lou for donating their help in making the school a success.”

The fall festival will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the school campus on Orange Avenue in Natchez.

Traditional Irish and American folk music will be presented at the Hampton Inn as Danny O’Flaherty, with special guest, Noel Nash, direct from Ireland, present an evening of Irish folk music — From the Heart — at 7 p.m. Saturday.

A special Mass will follow at 8 a.m. Sunday, where the Rev. James Fallon will focus on the sisters, show photos and talk about their experiences at the school.

Festival games will include a milk toss, horseshoe throw, duck pond, ring-a-bottle, cake walk and more.

Concession stands will be set up across campus, and a traditional chicken dinner with all the trimmings will be sold in the cafeteria for $5, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Meals can be eaten at the festival or taken home.

Prizes include cash give-aways of $200, $150 and $75. Other prizes include a large nonstick griddle, $100 JCPenney gift card, flat screen TV, $100 gas card, $100 savings bond and raffles.

Tickets for the Irish concert are $10 and available at the door or reserve them in advance by calling 601-442-1500 or 228-327-4302.

For more information, or to donate to the school, call Faye Barnes at 601-442-3947.