My first visit to the St. Mary’s in Natchez was in early October of 1975. As part of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ gift to the nation in honor of the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial, I was commissioned to prepare and publish “an inventory of the oldest Catholic documents in the province.” At the time, Alabama and Mississippi were still part of the ecclesiastical province of New Orleans.
The massive project was soon broken down into two sections. One covered all the documents through 1813, the fall of Mobile. The second carried the project through 1860. And so I set out on a quest that eventually took more than two years and covered several thousand miles as I crisscrossed the three states.
At each parish I began with the parish safe and the early sacramental records. After the obvious records were reviewed, I customarily asked if there was “anything else in the closet, storeroom, basement, etc.” As can be imagined, more than one historical treasure was tucked away in these out-of-the way places, and sometimes forgotten. But nothing compared to what I discovered in St. Mary’s “basement.”
Monsignor Paul Hession had graciously received me and made available the early sacramental records. Unaware that the diocesan archives had once been stored here. I asked Monsignor if there were any other “old records” in the rectory. “Just those things in the basement,” he replied and pointed me to the stairs. And there, “in a dust-covered basement vault” (as I then described it), I discovered the historical treasure trove of St. Mary’s.
I was totally overwhelmed by Bishop Gerow’s thousands of indexed cards, the old books, etc. But what took my breath away initially were the weekly pulpit announcements from the Civil War years, the King Solomon’s Mines of this project. I doubt that any similar set of books is still extant in any Catholic parish in the south and probably in the nation.
A Southern Catholic Heritage, Volume 1, Colonial Period, 1704–1813, was published in 1976. The second volume, 1814–1860, suffered the fate of several major projects as my growing young family and added responsibilities as associate archivist and then archivist for the Archdiocese of New Orleans took precedence. It remains “in preparation” thirty years later. The research notes of both phases of the project are now housed in the Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Over the next three decades, I returned often to St. Mary’s where I spent many hours in the parish archives, particularly for four books dealing with St. Mary’s Basilica: “Modest and Humble Crosses: a History of Catholic Parishes in the South Central Region (1850–1984)” in The American Catholic Parish, A history from 1850 to the Present, Jay Dolan, ed. (1987); St. Mary’s of Natchez, the History of a Southern Catholic Congregation, 1716–1988 (1992); The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1865–1911 (2002); and St. Mary Basilica, Natchez, Mississippi (2005). But that’s another story. In fact, that’s four other stories.