The restoration of St. Mary Basilica after the damage of the ice storm in February 2021 is underway. This is the latest challenge for the church in Natchez.
The first challenge occurred when Winthrop Sargeant, governor the Natchez Territory, raised the ques- tion of seizing the Catholic Church (San Salvador del Mundo) and converting it into a courthouse based on puritanical ideas about amusements on Sunday. He restrained because he realized it might hurt the feelings of Catholics and offend the king of Spain.
The next big challenge was monetary— funding the new Cathedral begun by Bishop John Joseph Chanche in 1842. Although Bishop Chanche solicited donations far and wide—locally and internationally— for both the building and the furnishings, he was always in debt as he could not pay the bills. The building was actually on the auction block twice by 1849.
Monetary problems continued through the administrations of the succeeding bishops—Bishop Oliver Van de Velde, Bishop William Henry Elder, and Bishop Francis Janssens.
In 1854 Bishop Van de Velde, who succeeded Bishop Chanche, wrote a letter to the Propagation of the Faith in Paris: “When my venerable predecessor was nominated to the new Diocese of Natchez in 1841 he had not a Catholic Church in this city. The Catholics were poor and few in numbers, as they still are. He used all the money he could obtain by gifts, subscriptions, contributions, collections, allotments, etc. There are walls, furniture and roof which already need to be renewed. The windows have been boarded up, leaving an opening in each one in which panes of glass have been placed. It has absolutely the appearance of a great barn, and it has been in this state since 1843.”
In 1855 he again wrote to the Propagation of the Faith in Paris: “During last May I paid the notes of 1854, which amounted to $1313.41. I had the church roofed over with slate, renewed a great part of the paint- ing of the exterior, and I had it insured against fire (it had never been insured before). On the 7th of next May the notes falling due amount to $1394.97. Then it will be necessary to renew the insurance, repair the bell, etc. In order to complete the Cathedral it will be necessary that I have $14,000.00.”
After the sudden death of Bishop Van de Velde, Bishop William Henry Elder, was appointed. He con- tinued the work on the Cathedral, writing “Though the Cathedral looks indeed sadly desolate—with its un- plastered walls—yet I like the building very much—and the people express their willingness to do all they can towards finishing it.”
Bishop Elder hired Mr. Peter Warner as architect and superintendent. Nevertheless, he was forthright in expressing the tenuous state of church finances.
Bishop Elder wrote: “The work on the Cathedral, begun in September 1858, continued until August of the following year. During that time the present floor was laid, the entire interior plastering was done, the beautiful, carved woodwork throughout the church was finished, pews were erected, and new windows of neat colored glass were put in.
After Bishop Elder was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Cincinnati, Bishop Francis Janssens took over the Diocese of Natchez. Like his predecessors, he worked to improve the Cathedral, and it was under his leadership that the Cathedral was consecrated in 1886, having been freed of debt. During his administration Bishop Janssens erected the sacristy, frescoed the sanctuary, painted the Crucifixion on the back wall of the sanctuary, installed the organ, and began the installation of the stained glass windows. In partnership with the city of Natchez, he approved the installation of the clock in the church tower,
The Basilica (built as a Cathedral) has faced many challenges over the years but has survived as a beautiful place of worship and an architectural gem of Natchez.
Source: Cradle Days of St Mary’s at Natchez 1798-1888