By The President Of The Society
Chapel building is the greatest work of the Extension Society. Every now and then some piece of literature from here or there comes along, telling about the lack of chapels in certain States or certain dioceses. On September 1, 1941, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the founding of St. Stephen’s Cathedral parish in Owensboro, Kentucky, the writer had the privilege of preaching a sermon in which he stated that Extension was willing and ready to build a chapel in each of the seven churchless counties of the new diocese of Owensboro, whenever the bishop was ready for them.
After the sermon the Bishop of Nashville, Tennessee, remarked: “I was glad to hear you make that offer to build a chapel in each churchless county of Owensboro. In Tennessee we have at least twenty-five such counties and we will be looking for Extension to help us build chapels there.”
Neither the Bishop of Owensboro not the Bishop of Nashville has since asked the Extension to build a chapel in any of these churchless counties, for the simple and sane reason that there are no Catholics in these counties! Notwithstanding the propaganda that is being stressed just now in certain circles about “churchless counties,” the bald fact is that it would be foolish to put a Catholic chapel in any Catholicless county, where such a chapel would be subject not only to the destroying elements, but to the desecrating tendencies of misunderstanding people.
We have seen the battered doors, the broken windows, and the desecrated altars of mission chapels in not a few places in the Home Missions throughout the last thiry-five years, in counties where some missionary bishops thought it would be a good idea to put up a little church, crowned with a cross; but the cross meant nothing to the destroying elements or the desecrating inhabitants when there was nobody around to look after the little church.
Extension is prepared today, and with the help of God and your help, will be prepared tomorrow, to help build a little church in each churchless county in the United States of America, where the bishop of the diocese wants such a chapel built, even though there are but ten poor people to worship therein at least once a month.
And to prove our promise made above, consider the following letter from the Most Rev. Richard O. Gerow, D.D., Bishop of Natchez, Miss.:
I write to you for the purpose of asking a donation of $1,000 toward the erection of a small church at a place in this diocese known as ‘Gilbert’s Place.’ This is a mission attended from the Cathedral here in Natchez. It is some forty-five miles from Natchez and is way out in the country, quite some miles from the nearest highway and many miles from the nearest railroad station. Here is a little group of some forty Catholics who, despite their distance from the church and from a priest, have a faith and a devotion that are admirable. For a long time a priest has been visiting them on a Sunday once a month and has been saying Mass for them in one of the private homes.
This little group of Catholics has a most interesting history. On February 15, 1868, there was admitted to D’Evereaux Hall, our orphanage for boys here in Natchez, a boy named James Monroe Gilbert, a non-Catholic, whose parents were dead. Monroe as he was called, soon asked for Baptism, and this sacrament he received some six months after his admission to the orphanage. He remained at D’Evereaux Hall about four years, then left, settling in Jefferson County, Mississippi, near what we now call Gilbert’s Place; and there in the course of time he married and had a large family. Despite the fact that there were no Catholics besides himself and his family living anywhere near where he lived— despite the fact that he saw the priest very, very seldom and had very little opportunity of coming to Natchez to receive the Sacraments— he saw to it, nevertheless, that his children were baptized and instructed in the Faith; and in his own patriarchal way he raised them as good, staunch, faithful, and devout Catholics. Years ago a priest visited this neighborhood probably once or twice a year. Access to Natchez by Monroe was very difficult, and it was most remarkable that under these circumstances he was able to preserve the Faith and bring up his family as Catholics.
Monroe died a few years ago; however, prior to hsi death, each year— on Christmas and on Easter— he brought into Natchez his whole family— children, grandchildren, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, the whole colony, even some few non-Catholics who had married into his family. He would arrive in time for the early Mass; all the adult Catholics would make their confession and receive Communion, and they would remain all day, attending each one of the Masses and the afternoon devotions. It is interesting to not that, even in this far distant place, due to the piety and zeal of Monroe, even the non-Catholic wives and husbands of his children in the course of time became Catholics. In all, there are between fifty and sixty Catholic souls who owe their Faith to this same James Monroe Gilbert. Today, some forty of those still live in and around the patriarchal home.
I have visited their homes and have been deeply impressed by the simple and sincere piety of these people, and especially by their knowledge of the Faith. They have an alertness, a cheerfulness and an intelligence above the average of the country people of this section of the State, and , as far as their Faith is concerned, it is admirable.
The descendants of the old patriarch have large families. They own their own land in this section, and as the families grow they buy more land, and they live buy farming and timbering. The time has now come when it is almost impossible to accommodate the group in a private home for Mass and devotions, and a little chapel that will seat about sixty is really imperative fro them. It is planned that if we can get a donation of $1,000 from the Extension the Gilbert family will furnish much of the material in the way of lumber and much of the labor for the building of a chapel; they will donate the ground on which it is to be built— as much ground as we will want. I feel that the donation of $1,000 plus the material and labor and small funds that will be given by the Gilbert family will enable us to put up a neat and substantial little chapel there.
Under a new ruling of the War Production Board, construction of new church buildings will be halted for the duration of the war. Priorities may be granted for church construction under circumstances where it can be shown that a new church is a necessity. Such cases would be in communities where defense workers have swelled the normal populations to the point of seriously overtaxing existing community facilities, or in localities where an entire new town is being developed. Even in such cases, it is probable that large and elaborate churches will not be permitted and that churches will probably be required to limit their construction to wooden temporary buildings.The new construction limitation order will permit essential repairs of churches which do not cost more than $500. Modernization will not be considered as repairs.
“If it is possible, we should like to name the chapel St. James; however, this name is not essential. “I wonder if you have available some blueprints that you could send me, showing plans for a chapel to seat about sixty people. It would be a great help to us if you could do this.
“For quite some time in the past Father Joseph Brunini of the Cathedral here has been attending this mission, and, although now he has been appointed Chancellor and has turned over this mission to Father Daniel J. O’Hanlon, nevertheless, since Father Brunini is much more acquainted with it at present than is Father O’Hanlon, I asked Father Brunini to write up a little article on ‘Gilbert’s Place’ that I might send it to you. It is possible that you might use it, or use the material in it, for an article in Extension, if you so desire. I thought you might desire this because you are usually anxious to get articles of this kind.
“The thought of the large number of Catholics who owe their Faith to this James Monroe Gilbert convinces me of the wonderful work that we could do if we only could arouse our laity to a truly apostolic and missionary spirit. Sometimes, to, I think of the tremendous harm that one Catholic can do in marring out of the Church and dragging along with him outside of the Faith a numerous line of progeny.”
The baptistry of historic St. Mary’s Cathedral, Natchez, Miss.
The time: July 25, 1868.
The actors: 8 orphan boys from D’Evereux Orphanage— the Brother Director of D’Evereux Orphanage—the members of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart—Rose Grillo in the role of sponsor—and Right Rev. M.F. Grignon, Vicar-General of the diocese.
The action: Monsignor Grignon pouring waters of Baptism upon James Monroe Gilbert, a gangling orphan youth of twelve years from Franklin County,Miss. which even today numbers less than a dozen Catholics.
James Monroe Gilbert, now sixteen years of age, with four years of Catholic education at D’Evereux, returns to his kin, Matt Guice, in Franklin County.
Mary Cynthia McIntyre, now Mrs. James Monroe Gilbert, receives the saving waters of Baptism, the first fruit of Gilbert’s conversion.
Mr. and Mrs. James Monroe Gilbert—now of Jefferson County, Miss—bring their eighth and last child to St. Mary’s Cathedral to receive Baptism.
James Monroe Gilbert lies on his deathbed—1937. Gathered about him are his five living children. Near the head of the bed stands Joseph Eugene, the oldest son, the father of ten Catholic children. Kneeling near the foot is the next oldest living son James Monroe, Jr., the father of seven. Between them, on the right, is Julia Agnes with her three living children and with the same number of infant children in heaven. Over by the door stands Mary Lucy, the mother of two children, along with her convert husband and two convert stepdaughters. Out on the porch sits the youngest living son, John Lee Gilbert. He boasts of six Catholic children and a convert wife.
Oh, yes, there are others who have been attracted into the Church by this fine Catholic family. There is Mrs. Delaney, the mother of a convert son and daughter married into the Gilbert family, who has brought two of her other children into the True Faith and hopes to see her husband and her other sons baptized soon. In all, it is estimated that fifty-three souls have found their way into the Catholic Church as a result of the one conversion of james Monroe Gilbert, who had no mother or father on this earth at the age of twelve, but who realized that he always had a Mother and Father in heaven.
The nearest priest now lives over forty miles from the old Gilbert farm house, where Mass is said in a front room once a month; but not so many years ago it took a day’ journey, covering over seventy miles by train and wagon, to reach this oasis of Catholicity. The Gilbert’s saw a priest only two or three times a year, but faithfully once a year found their way to St. Mary’s Cathedral—there to see the babies baptized, the youngsters confirmed at the hands of the Bishop, and occasionally to witness the giving in marriage of one of the Gilbert children.
The Extension Society hopes to write another scene of faith on the hills near the Gilbert farm, to fulfill a dream perhaps of Grandfather Gilbert, to give these good people a church in which to worship their God. The grandchildren are beginning to crowd the room in the old home, and priests of the Cathedral now come once a month to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It will be a joyous day in the annals of this truly remarkable family when their Bishop can come to dedicate their longed-for House of God.
This article is from the June 1942 issue of The Extension Society magazine.