Catholicism came to what is now Mississippi when the area was being explored and settled by Europeans in the 1600s and 1700s. Natchez became the center of Mississippi’s small but growing Catholic population, and in 1837 Pope Gregory XVI established the Diocese of Natchez. It retained that name until 1957, when it became the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson. In 1977, a new Diocese of Biloxi was created, encompassing seventeen counties in the southern part of the state. The original diocese was renamed the Diocese of Jackson, and it now encompasses the largest area of any US diocese east of the Mississippi River.
The first bishop of Natchez, John Mary Joseph Chanche (1840–52), sought to build his rather small congregation as well as a cathedral. His successor, James Oliver Van de Velde (1853–55), continued construction of the cathedral while seeking to resolve property issues and problems. Bishop William Henry Elder (1857–80) was an effective and strong-willed leader whom Union forces accused of being a traitor and forced to leave the diocese for a short time. He went on to bring religious orders to the diocese. Francis August Jannsens (1881–88) was responsible for paying off the cathedral’s debts, helping African Americans, and setting up an association of priests. Thomas Heslin (1889–1911) continued his predecessors’ policies of building up the diocese. During the tenure of his successor, John Edward Gunn (1911–24), the number of churches in the diocese grew from 75 to 149, reflecting the growth in the number of Catholics in the state from 17,000 to 34,000. Bishop Richard Gerow (1924–67), who served the longest as bishop of the diocese, brought the sacraments to every parish, helped establish St. Augustine’s Seminary in Bay St. Louis to train African American priests, and worked to improve the diocese’s financial condition. Gerow’s successor, Joseph B. Brunini (1968–84), the only native Mississippian to serve as bishop in the state, was a courageous advocate of integration. He oversaw the Natchez diocese’s division into the Jackson and Biloxi dioceses and subsequently remained the bishop of Jackson. William Russell Houck (1984–2003) succeeded Brunini and focused on lay ministry and lay leadership. Joseph Nunzio Latino (2003–14) devoted his time in office to social justice initiatives, lay leadership, and vocations. Since 2014, Joseph R. Kopacz has served as bishop of Jackson.
The first bishop of the Diocese of Biloxi was Joseph Lawson Howze (1977–2001), who was also the first African American bishop to head a US diocese in the twentieth century. He was followed by Thomas J. Rodi (2001–8) and Roger Morin (2009– ).
In 1842 the Diocese of Natchez laid the cornerstone for St. Mary’s Basilica, which is now recognized as an architectural masterpiece among the South’s Catholic churches and is a Natchez landmark. It was consecrated on 19 September 1886 and remained the cathedral of the diocese until 1977, when it was replaced by Jackson’s Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, which was dedicated in 1900. The Diocese of Biloxi’s cathedral is the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was built in 1902.
Throughout the twentieth century, immigrant Irish priests (often comprising around 20 percent of diocesan priests) were most responsible and most visible in demonstrating the Catholic presence in a highly Protestant and not always friendly state. While Mississippi today has fewer Irish clergy, their imprint remains.
Still considered a missionary area and thus receiving financial support from the church outside the state, Mississippi has relied on laity to sustain the church. Laypersons have filled the gaps left by the modern-day priest shortages, serving as apostolic administrators and at times receiving religious training through programs offered by Catholic universities and colleges such as Spring Hill and Notre Dame. Lay organizations and events such as the Knights of Columbus, the Mississippi Lay Conventions, and a host of other traditional Catholic sodalities and societies have assumed growing responsibility for the Catholic Church in the state. Nearly two hundred different religious orders have devoted time, money, and personnel to the missionary diocese of Mississippi. The Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of St. Joseph have been particularly active, as have the Sacred Heart Brothers.
Catholic Mississippi is, in many ways, in the mainstream of the Catholic Church in the American South, and like the church elsewhere, Mississippi’s dioceses have confronted numerous problems. Under the direction of Bishop Brunini, Mississippi’s Catholic schools integrated with very little violence in 1968–69, almost a year before the state’s public schools. Mississippi’s Catholics have also endeavored to become more financially independent of outside sources. Holy Family Catholic Church in Natchez, where William J. Morrissey was priest, was a center of that city’s civil rights activism. Other challenges have included abuse perpetrated by priests, a few cases of which have occurred in Mississippi, and the damage caused by Hurricanes Camille and Katrina.
Mississippi Catholics still work to reach out to African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics in parishes, schools, hospitals, and everyday life. Whether on the coast in the Diocese of Biloxi, where large Catholic centers are clearly visible, or in the Diocese of Jackson, where parishes are smaller and more distant from one another, Mississippi Catholicism is alive and continues to grow. As of 2013, the Diocese of Jackson had 101 parishes and missions serving 52,900 Catholics (2.4 percent of the area’s total population), while the Diocese of Biloxi had 53 parishes and missions and 70,630 Catholics (8.3 percent).
- Catholic Diocese of Biloxi website, www.biloxidiocese.org
- Catholic Diocese of Jackson website, jacksondiocese.org
- Michael V. Namorato, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911–1984: A History (1998)
- Charles E. Nolan, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1865–1911 (2002)
- James J. Pillar, The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837–1865 (1964)
- Randy J. Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)
- St. Mary Basilica Archives website, www.stmarybasilicaarchives.org