Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Catholicism in the South: A rare gem in Natchez

If the Deep South is the Bible Belt and Mississippi is it's buckle, then we have a pretty good vantage point for observances of Southern Catholicism. In this region, we're seeped in the evangelical persuasion of Christianity (something with which I'm very personally familiar), so it's often easy to forget that the very first European settlers and Christian missionaries in the Deep South were Catholics (gasp!). In fact, Catholicism has the longest continuous history of any organized religious tradition in the South (we've been here since 1513!). In this series of posts, we will highlight Catholicism in the South.

Image of Our Lady of Sorrows above the
main altar of St. Mary's Basilica in Natchez.

Okay. Maybe I shouldn't say "rare" because everyone knows that Natchez is full of architectural gems. The town is absolutely bursting at the seams with beautiful antebellum homes and buildings. But in the midst of them is one building of particular significance to Mississippi Catholics: St. Mary's Basilica.

Today, on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, we honor Mary as the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the cross (why the timing? remember, just yesterday we celebrated the Exaltation of the Cross). St. Mary's in Natchez was built as the original cathedral for what was once known as the Diocese of Natchez (Mississippi was later split into two dioceses: Biloxi and Jackson). The cathedral is dedicated to Mary under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows.

If you've never had the pleasure of visiting St. Mary's, you are missing what many call Mississippi's most beautiful church. The first Catholic parish in Natchez was founded in 1722 and the Diocese of Natchez (which included the entire state of Mississippi) was established in 1837. Work on the cathedral began a few years later (1843) and the building, though in use since the 1850s, was not officially completed until 1886.

The old adage "they just don't build 'em like they used to" is certainly applicable with St. Mary's. From the outside, there is no mistaking the fact that this spire-capped building is a church built to glorify God (thankfully, the concept of churches being built to look absolutely no different than any other cold, iconoclastic/utilitarian building was many years away when they designed this church). Walking inside, you know that you are in a sacred space and your eyes are immediately drawn upwards, through a maze of gothic arches. In the apse, the main altar is (as it should be) prominent and its focus is, again, verticle, emphasizing a large oil painting of Mary at the foot of the cross. There is no shying away from the concept of praying with the saints, either, as statues are prominently displayed on most of the interior columns of the nave.

The essence of the building is not utility but beauty. It is clearly built to honor God and anyone who has the opportunity to pray within its walls cannot help but be drawn into contemplation about the Lord's good, his truth and his beauty. Suffice to say, I highly recommend making an effort to visit St. Mary's. It truly stands out among the church buildings of our diocese because it never suffered the "wreckovation" that was mercilessly visited on many, many parish churches in Mississippi during the 1970s and '80s, when the teachings of Vatican II were twisted and weaponized in a remarkably successful campaign to gut the timeless beauty and treasures of our churches. Indeed, St. Mary's in Natchez stands to this day as a testament to the long history of Catholicism in our state and as a fitting offering to our Savior.