Holy Family celebrates 125 years of history and heritage

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, November 18, 2015

SUBMITTED PHOTO — Holy Family Catholic Church, seen here in a historic photo, will celebrate 125 years this weekend.

SUBMITTED PHOTO — Holy Family Catholic Church, seen here in a historic photo, will celebrate 125 years this weekend.

By Megan Fink/The Natchez Democrat

For 125 years Holy Family Catholic Church has been a beacon in the black community, and as parishioners gather Sunday to celebrate their history, they’ll be equally as focused on the light they plan to be for the future.

The Rev. James Fallon, church pastor, said today’s church and its members are the culmination of decades of history, effort and love.

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“We are (heirs) of a wonderful heritage,” he said.

The church’s history parallels the story of Natchez, from the foundations of slavery to the Jim Crow era, through Civil Rights and into the modern community.

Duncan Morgan, 84, has become the church’s unofficial historian.

Morgan said the church’s beginnings were in the basement of what is now St. Mary Basilica. In the 1880s, there was a group of black residents whose children went to a small school in the basement of St. Mary.

“They would have been relegated to the back corner as Jim Crow got stronger,” Morgan said.

Fallon said the Rev. Anthony James Peters, a priest, like Fallon, of the Society of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, volunteered to serve this group by spearheading the formation their own parish, where Catholics of the black community would have full participation.

“He saw that the black Catholics were not treated as first-class citizens,” Fallon said. “He wanted to do something to recognize the dignity of black Catholics.”

In 1890, the community realized its goal in the original building on Beaumont Street, which had been serving a small convent for Franciscan Sisters. The church was originally called St. Francis.

From its inception, education was the focus of the community and served many non-Catholic families.

“Education was always the most important thing because public education was so lacking (for black children),” Morgan said.

Eventually, the church decided it could better serve the community by relocating closer to town.

Morgan said middle class people of color financed the current building, where there was previously a slave lot, with the help of the now-Saint Katharine Drexel in 1906.

At first Holy Family had a kindergarten through 12th-grade school, originally called St. Francis, which Morgan described as the premier education available. School attendance was 50 percent or more non-Catholic.

Fallon said Franciscan Sisters taught at the school until 1924, when the sisters who presently staff the school, Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, took over its operation.

“The name was then changed from Saint Francis to Holy Family,” Fallon said.

Morgan said the parish had been instrumental in the early days of the Civil Rights era.

“Long before Civil Rights became the focus in the 50s and 60s, the priests and the nuns had always conducted themselves to treat the families with respect,” Morgan said.

Morgan said in the Jim Crow South, blacks would be required to divert their eyes when passing whites on the street.

“But the sisters would say, ‘look me in the eyes.’ When the 50s and 60s came along, people who had benefitted from that were better prepared to take advantage,” Morgan said.

When schools were integrated in the 50s, Holy Family was dissolved, with the intention that its students would be integrated into Cathedral School nearby.

“Space and other factors didn’t make that completely practical,” Morgan said.

Fallon said in recent years, the elementary school was also dissolved due to financial constraints. All that remains today is preschool and kindergarten classes.

“Even today the preschool does a valuable service of giving children a good foundation to start off,” Morgan said.

The kindergarten class of the Early Learning Center will be demonstrating the historical roots of that foundation in a brief play on Sunday, after mass.

The 125th anniversary celebration will begin with a Mass at 3 p.m., followed by a reception and the children’s production that recounts important scenes from the church’s history.

The religious communities that helped the parish in its formative years will be there to celebrate its anniversary. Ten Josephite priests and more than a dozen sisters will travel from across the country to attend the event.

Valencia Hall, an active parishioner at Holy Family, said the event is free and open to the public, and people from all faiths are invited to share in the celebration of Natchez history and its future.

“The church has done so much through the years besides imparting the Catholic faith,” Morgan said. “It has been a beacon for 125 years and still is and will always be to me, and I hope to so many others who come along behind.”

For Fallon, the event is a call to action to continue the momentum of the church’s influence on the community.

“It’s a celebration of a church which, in the fullest sense of the word, served God and man in the (black) community,” Fallon said.

“You have a crossroads point here, reaching back into the past to inspire an even greater response in the future. If we don’t … we’ll become a very beautiful museum.”