New Mississippi parish

New parish brings together two faith communities… and their “cousins”

In the literal sense, a building is just a material object. It is brick and mortar, electrical lines and pipes. It is a place to keep people and their things dry and warm (or pleasantly cool, depending on the time of year).

Yet these inanimate objects soon take on personality and can be as important to us as our closest family members or friends. Buildings dearest to our heart often include our childhood homes, our schools and our churches.

“We all have a special place in our hearts for our own places,” said Bishop Joseph Latino, bishop of the Diocese of Jackson. “It can be hard to accept change in these special places.”

The members of Good Shepherd Parish in Robinsonville, Miss., have experienced a lot of change in the past year. Not only do they have a new church building, but they also have a new parish. It was a celebration of both that brought people together on January 10.

Bishop Latino joined the parishioners of Good Shepherd to dedicate and bless their new church. The church is the place of worship for the newly created parish of Good Shepherd, a bringing together of the faith communities of St. Anthony’s in Tunica and Sacred Heart in Walls.

By merging, both communities gain a great deal –– including a beautiful new church and gathering facilities. However, in coming together members of each community also mourn the loss of what they left behind.

“I think that I speak for many when I say that we weren’t necessarily against the merger of the churches,” said parishioner Lynn Sturgill. “But we had worked very hard –– over 20 years –– to acquire a church presence of our own in Tunica. We worshipped in an old house. Then we were in a former liquor store that we converted into a very, very small church. At last we –– the parishioners with our own money –– bought a lovely home in a grove on the outskirts of town. It is hard to say good-bye to that.”

Sr. Margaret Sue Broker, a parishioner at Sacred Heart in Walls for almost 50 years, echoed Lynn Sturgill when she said that “I think that there is almost always a certain sense of grieving when something loved, honored and respected, something which is an integral part of one’s life, is drastically changed.” Sr. Margaret Sue, who has worked in Mississippi for much of her adult life as a part of Sacred Heart Southern Missions, has come to know four and five generations of families at the parish. “I have taught as many as three generations; I have rejoiced, suffered and grieved with many. There have been many changes during this time.”

But the creation of a new, combined parish at a new church is certainly the biggest change the community of Sacred Heart has experienced in Sr. Margaret Sue’s 49 years in Walls. “But we realize that it is just the community that has moved,” she said. “Brick and mortar has nothing to do with community.”

Many people at the dedication spoke of what had been and the history of the two faith communities. But while there was much reflection on the past, the dedication was anything but a memorial service. Members of both communities spoke well of their past, but also with much excitement about their future as the new parish community of Good Shepherd.

“We are still getting organized and finding out each other’s talents,” said Lynn, noting that the new parish is sorting out its committees and responsibilities. “But more people offer more possibilities. I feel very strong in my faith here, in the future of the Church and of our church.”

Camille Leatherman, a member of the family that donated land for the new church, also noted that more people allow for more possibilities. She shared the story of a woman who was at Mass the day before. After Mass the woman came to talk to a few parishioners who were in the kitchen preparing for the next day’s dedication. Loretta Hussey was icing the multi-layer cake she had made for the celebration. “I heard this lady go back and talk to Loretta, asking for her prayers because she needed a job. Loretta and I prayed for her right on the spot.” The three women talked for a while and learned that the woman who was in need of a job had previously worked in a bank. From Colombia, she was also bilingual. “Loretta works at a bank and said that they were often in need of bilingual tellers; she would talk to her supervisors.”

“This is what I hope for in our new parish,” continued Camille. “More numbers allow us to have more groups of people who can really get to know each other and help each other. We can become a stronger family, and as people move in and join us I hope that they too will find the Good Shepherd present in us as we come together and help each other.

Fr. Dermot Twomey, SCJ, is credited by many for bringing the two communities together. “Without his vision and desire we wouldn’t have had a church in Robinsonville,” said Camille.

Now deceased, Fr. Dermot was pastor of Sacred Heart in Walls and the mission of St. Anthony in Tunica. With fewer priests available to serve the area he encouraged members of both faith communities to consider combining into one parish. Br. Ray Kozuch, SCJ, later helped facilitate the merging of the two communities.

“I regret that Fr. Dermot could not be here with us at the dedication,” said Lynn Sturgill. “In the years that he was with us, from the converted liquor store to our home church in the country, he taught us to be church and to work toward being a strong faith community.”

Fr. Dermot may not have been there but several members of his family flew in from the East Coast to join in the dedication. “It was wonderful to have them with us,” said Camille Leatherman.

A third community

While there was much talk about the coming together of Walls Sacred Heart and Tunica St. Anthony, a third community is also a part of the new family at Good Shepherd. At some Masses, this third group outnumbers the rest. It is the tourists who visit the nearby casinos in Tunica.

Developed less than 20 years ago (the first casino –– “Splash” –– opened in 1992), the Tunica casinos now have over 14,000 slots and electronic games, 400 table games and well over 6,000 hotel suites and rooms. Tourists come by the busload not only from Memphis and other neighboring cities but from across the country. And many of them are Catholic.

“The first time we had a tour bus of 50 pile in for Mass we knew that we had to do something,” said Camille Leatherman.

Some of the tourists pass through and are never seen again. But many make frequent visits –– to the casinos and to Good Shepherd. “We sometimes think of them as our cousins,” said one parishioner. “They ask about our families and we ask about theirs. We know each other and care for one another. But we also know that they have their own parishes back home to support.” The cousins do have their own homes to maintain, but parishioners at Good Shepherd hope that they can encourage the “visiting cousins” to help a bit with the upkeep of their “vacation home.”

“They are always welcome and we love to have them with us,” said a parishioner. “But it is nice when they offer to help out with expenses, just like picking up a dinner bill when visiting friends.”

Good Shepherd is one of four parishes ministered to by a pastoral team that includes Fr. Tim Gray, SCJ, Fr. Bob Tucker, SCJ (team moderator) and Fr. Ed Zemlik, SCJ. The other three parishes served by the team: Holy Spirit in Hernando, St. Gregory the Great in Senatobia and Christ the King in Southaven. Also on the pastoral team are Sr. Emily Morgan, Sr. Bonnie Bachle and Sr. Susan Newland.