LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Holy Ghost Milestone: 100 years later, Catholic church still on a mission

LaReeca Rucker:
The Clarion-Ledger

Father Aloysius Heick, a 41-year-old German missionary, put his life on the line in 1905 when he attempted to establish a mission school in the Delta town of Merigold for poor African Americans. To avoid being lynched, he was placed in a piano box coffin and rolled out of town by a horse-drawn wagon.

The experience did not detour Heick's mission. Vicksburg, a city with a larger Catholic population, was more welcoming, and in 1906, he founded St. Mary's Catholic Church, the Divine Word Missionaries' first foundation in the South. In the next decade, the group would open African-American parishes in Jackson, Meridian, Little Rock, Ark., and Greenville.

St. Mary's celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2006, and Jackson's Holy Ghost Catholic Church will host a centennial event today through Sunday commemorating the church and school that in 1918 was the first high school for African Americans in Jackson. The theme is "One Hundred Years: Teaching and Living the Love of God."

Today is family day. A centennial banquet will be held tonight, and Mass will be held Sunday morning.

Merigold, where Heick was carried out in a coffin, "was two miles from my hometown, Mount Bayou," said Father Darrell C. Kelly, who came to Holy Ghost last July. "I greatly admire him. His life shows true zeal for mission work. That's what all of us as missionaries try to do - be a living testimony of faith and love for all."

When Heick came to Jackson in 1907, he faced opposition from residents who didn't want a black mission near a white neighborhood. But in 1909, Mother Catherine Drexel, founder of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters of Philadelphia, Pa., gave Heick $16,000 to buy two acres of pasture land in midtown Jackson.

The mission school broke ground on June 25, 1909, and the following September, three Servants of the Holy Spirit nuns - Sisters Syrilla, Severlina and Marcellina - from Techny, Ill., arrived to serve at the two-story brick mission school dedicated Oct. 3, 1909. Holy Ghost Mission School opened the following day with an enrollment of 111.

A convent was built and dedicated in 1911. And two years later, old St. Peter's Church was dismantled and the material used to build Holy Ghost Catholic Church on what today is Cloister Street. A new church was built across the street in 1970.

Holy Ghost began as a grammar school. A high school program was added in
1918, making it the first high school in the city for black students.

Annie Belle Calhoun, chairwoman of the centennial event, is a second-generation Holy Ghost alum who graduated in 1961. Her mother also attended Holy Ghost, and her grandmother was Heick's housekeeper.

"The impact of Holy Ghost school is great," she said. "From my class of 1961, there were three physicians, several teachers, a couple of entrepreneurs and a former White House administrator."

Calhoun worked at the White House during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

"The impact is tremendous not only to Jackson, but to the nation," she said. "These students wouldn't have had the opportunity to receive a first-rate education if not for Holy Ghost. It was something special to send kids to the Catholic school. And Catholicism would not have been as significant as it is in Jackson. There would not be as many black Catholics in Jackson today."

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops site, an estimated 3
percent of all U.S. Catholics are African American.

Mary G. Udoh, 64, a student at Holy Ghost from 1953-1963, received a scholarship to Tougaloo College and became a teacher. She taught in New York and Chicago and had three children before returning to Jackson in 1979 to serve as principal at Holy Ghost.

"It's saying that God truly is present here among us for Holy Ghost to sustain this many years," she said.

Juanita Amos Butler, 63, graduated from Holy Ghost in 1958. Her mother also attended the school and was one of Heike's students.

Heick worked 21 years at Holy Ghost. He retired in 1929 and died the following September. In 1969, the high school merged with St. Joseph Catholic High School.

In 1997, the last of the nuns departed. Sister Marie Angela Risi, who was assigned to Rome, was quoted as saying, "Those schools once closed to black children are available to educate them now. We have fulfilled our mission."

Today, Holy Ghost Catholic Church is still an educational site. The former school building has been leased to the Hinds County Head Start program.

"We have brought India to Mississippi."


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