After one hundred and fifty years the memory and significance of the two beautiful holy water fonts on the left and right entrance, have been lost in time along with a name on the memorials above them. Research revealed a logical explanation for these artifacts as they came into being in the early stages of the neo-gothic cathedral. (The term used for the fonts in the 19th century was “vases”.) What appears to be a set--one meant to relate to the other--is actually two different items placed one year apart.
First, the marble plaque was imbedded in the plaster wall. The Roman Numerals MDCCCLIX at the bottom reads 1859. This memorial records the year long construction of completing the interior by Peter Warner under Bishop Elder. (After Bishop Chanche died in 1852 the cathedral remained unfinished “like a barn”.) The latin translation reads: “ Dedicated to the Lord, the Best and Greatest, (Domino Optimo Maximo) and to the Sorrowful Mother of God, Patroness of the Cathedral Church of Natchez, while William Henry Elder was Bishop. James Grillo with his own funds 1859.”
In his history of St. Mary, Bishop R. O. Gerow estimated that the costs were $21,000.
Mr. Grillo possibly contributed $5,000 to $6,000. Amazingly, his donation has not been discovered to date!
Secondly, the holy water fonts: we read in the church announcements from November 1860, written by Fr. Mathurin Grignon: “I have lately been informed that our common friend and citizen John Botto, now in Italy has forwarded a religious article for this Cathedral...Apropos of donation, I must say that I was glad to see at my return (from France) those handsome Holy Water vases. They speak for themselves and claim our grateful acknowledgement.”
The fonts are shaped like a scallop sea shell of Carrara marble. They are supported by a graceful marble pedestal that ends in a lion’s paw. The design is Greco-Roman, not gothic.
Bishop Elder (1857-1880) kept daily account books, and St. Mary Basilica preserves several of these journals in the archives. The day book dated May 1860 has the listing for the setting of the “holy water vases” and the charge of $5.00 by Polkinghorne and Rawes. The bishop paid the bill in January 1861. The research for this expose’ has involved many persons and sources:
Fr. David O’Connor and Fr. Alfred Camp, pastor and past pastor of StMB
Mary Woodward of Diocesan Archives, Jackson, Mississippi
Clinton Bagley of MDAH, Jackson, Mississippi
George Armstrong Library, Natchez, Mississippi
StMBA Members and Mr. Edward Eidt