Editor: Reaching back in time, we produce the original article about the beginning of our ministry in Bassfield, Mississippi in 1936. The remarks of Fr. Bernard Reilly were startlingly poignant. In fact, in the true missionary spirit, the La Salette Missionaries did not take a stipend from this impoverished parish and its missions during our years of service in Bassfield.
On September 1, 1935, the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette took charge of St. Peter's Church, Bassfield, Mississippi, in the Diocese of Natchez, at the kind invitation of the Most Reverend Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow, D.D. Reverend Bernard Reilly, M. S., a native of Waterbury, Connecticut, and formerly pastor of St. Patrick's Church, Lufkin, Texas, has been appointed pastor and director of the new foundation, with Reverend Francis Lundgren, M. S., of Bristol, Connecticut, as Assistant.
Bassfield, Missisippi, September 15, 1936.
In your last issue, you mentioned that the La Salette Fathers were taking charge of a new foundation at Bassfield, Mississippi. Lest you have any false impressions of this place, I would like to tell you a few experiences of our first days in Mississippi.
To begin with, I was rather skeptical of the sort of welcome we might receive when the people should find out that both Father Lundgren and I are Connecticut Yankees. The parish, you know, is in the heart of the old South – in Jefferson Davis County, suh (that is, “sir” in southern dialect)! I had half resolved to forget the land of my birth and simply tell the people I came from Texas.
A Warm Welcome
My fears were groundless, for to my surprise, I found that Bassfield is composed mostly of Irish families. Why they settled here is more than I could discover, but I was certainly relieved when I heard them speak without the Southern drawl.
The parents of the present generation landed in America and trekked across the country to this fertile territory in ox carts and on horseback. They built their houses and here they remained while the rest of the world rolled on. They had little or no money but they managed to build a good church and rectory, a small convent and a school house. They built well, but the climate here is not like that of Ireland, and the passing years have taken their toll of the buildings. Just this past year, the church was rebuilt but the other buildings are in a sad shape.
The people raise cotton almost exclusively and the prices they received in recent years kept them from making even the most necessary repairs. Besides, our predecessor has been sick and was unable to do much work.
So when Father Lundgren and I came to Bassfield, we understood for the first time what the word pioneer really meant. As we drove into "town" we saw three cotton gins, a general store, a gas station, and of course, a hamburger stand. All the buildings are composed of corrugated sheet iron and are lined up on both sides of the gravel road. Two or three unpainted houses stand beneath a row of giant oaks.
Over on the other side of the railroad tracks, we could see the Church and Rectory and the little rambling school house. A passing cyclone had recently taken the roof off one end of the porch and the eaves of the building didn't seem any too straight to our critical eye.
A Kind of Rectory
Such small details were forgotten, however, when we dropped our bags in the rectory. Five spacious rooms innocent of paint or wall paper echoed to our footsteps as we examined our new home. Two beds, a few chairs, a table and a desk made up the furnishings.
There was no stove, but that didn't matter for there was nothing to cook and no pots or pans to put on the stove. A fireplace in the parlor would provide heat on cold days anyway. We were a little surprised to see such a bare house but the next day it rained and we understood. The rain ignored the roof and came right through. Really it was quite a thrill to watch the water come through the ceiling and know that for once in our lives, we didn't have to worry about falling plaster or damaged furniture.
For a few days, the good Sisters kindly shared their food with us but when school opened, we could no longer impose on their hospitality; and so now we hiked down to the hamburg stand for our meals. The good old lady who owns the stand gets us some eggs and an occasional slice of minced ham, and these we eat with relish.
Getting Some Food from Time to Time
Occasionally our meal is rudely interrupted by a large grey-faced rat which insists on watching us from the security of a crack in the floor. This morning our host triumphantly showed us a captured rodent but it wasn't our annoying peeping-tom.
We hope to find some neighbor soon who will provide our meals until we can have a kitchen of our own. That will not be very soon, for the rectory basement has been eaten by termites and damp-rot and any weight such as a stove might bring the roof toppling around our ears.
Our Three Mission Churches
If Bassfield is more or less a source of worry, the missions offer adequate recompense. In the town of Columbia we have a neat church, well-built and in a fine location. With a coat of paint, it will compare favorably with any village church in the state. Besides that, we have a church in Sumrall, a saw-mill town, and one in Silvest, a farming district. At Silvest the church has no belfry, so some ingenious person hung the bell high in an oak tree in front of the door.
Prejudice Against Catholics
There are plenty of non-Catholics in our parish who look on us as some sort of pariahs. They have heard all sorts of stories about Catholics and I think they are afraid of us. We will have to break down their prejudice and gradually teach them that the Catholic priest is not a devil nor are the members of our Church in any way possessed. Until we do this we cannot hope to make much progress towards spreading the knowledge of our religion.
So, while we do not enjoy the conveniences of life, we are willing to carry on. But we do need God's blessing on our work. Please pray for us and ask the readers of Our Lady’s Missionary to pray also that our work be not in vain.
(Reprinted from Our Lady’s Missionary, “La Salette in Mississippi”, October, 1936, pgs. 151-152)