Friday, July 29, 2011

Catholicism in the South: Choctaw Catholics

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!). This is the latest in a series of posts which highlight Catholicism in the South.

Since the subject of this post (Mississippi Choctaws) are largely home in Neshoba County, I have to begin with an aire of regret. Because it ends today. Well, tonight, really - midnight to be exact. I'm happy to say that I've attended at least once in my life. But another year has passed without my return. The week is unique. It's really, really hot (as all Mississippi summer events tend to be) but the fact that everyone is sweating and fanning themselves tends to add to the sense of camaraderie. There is the "fair" aspect for sure - replete with a midway, games,  rides (the safety of which I never can completely trust - thanks Mom), and lots of fried food. But that is not why people go to the Neshoba County Fair. Instead, the fair is just a unique experience - one more piece of the patchwork quilt that is Mississippi.

Reagan speaks at the Fair in 1980.
Many families have cabins on the fairgrounds and they'll happily invite you onto their porch for a glass of sweet tea and conversation (they don't call it Mississippi's Giant House Party for nothing). But in an election year like this, the main focus at the Neshoba County Fair is politics. Heck, the Fair is as legendary for its stump speeches as it is for its harness racing and the fairgrounds' Founders Square buzzes with as many politicians as mosquitos (and that's saying alot). Ronald Reagan gave his first speech as the Republican nominee for president in 1980 at the Fair.

So, I missed the Neshoba County Fair again. Oh well. It wasn't for a wont of being there. One day (I've vowed to myself) I'll return and I'll take my kids to experience that event like no other. And, truth be known, I've never quite gotten over my love of politics, though I'm more of a watcher than a doer these days. And a love of Mississippi politics makes the Fair into something like a Mecca for political junkies like me. So, my desire to go back is not wholly a selfless one of sharing the experience with my kids... I sort of enjoy it myself. Lord willing, I will return some other year. And I'll shake hands and mingle and listen to stump speeches, sweat a lot and drink sweet tea. But I won't ride the rides.

That's all well and good, you might be thinking, but what, exactly, does the Neshoba County Fair have to do with Southern Fried Catholicism... or with religion at all? Well, the Fair itself does actually have religious roots. It started in 1889 as the Coldwater Fair - a camp revival. What was a camp revival? Essentially, it was a meeting of evangelical Christians for a number of days where families would stay in tents and attend worship services outdoors. These camp revivals were especially known for hymn-singing and were meant to draw the local population in to a religious experience and in to a relationship with Christ. This new fair was immensely popular and eventually grew into the Neshoba County Fair. Now, over 120 years later, it still draws families from far and wide though its purposes are certainly more social now, than religious. But there certainly are outreach and missionary foundations for the Fair.

Choctaw bead work.

But the Neshoba County Fair wasn't the first annual fair in the area. That honor belongs to the Choctaw Indian Fair - an annual tradition rooted in the Choctaws' "new corn ceremony" each summer. It, too, is still an annual event, taking place the week before the Neshoba County Fair. The local Choctaw Indians would certainly have been invited to attend the early camp revivals in Neshoba County but that was not the first efforts to woo them to the Christian cause. In fact, Choctaws were the target of many Christian missionary efforts throughout the years. Like many Mississippians, I have some Choctaw ancestry, so I have an affinity for Choctaw history.  Interestingly, the precursors to the Choctaws and their then-chief Toscalusa are recorded as leading an army against the earliest Spanish (not to mention Catholic) explorer in the region, Hernando De Soto, as he and his men moved through present-day Alabama in 1540.

Choctaw altar boys from Holy Rosary Mission, c. 1910.

A Catholic missionary priest with Mississippi Choctaws in front of Holy Rosary Mission, c. 1934. Notice that the children are holding a picture of Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be beatified by the Catholic Church.
Throughout the centuries, Catholic missionaries made efforts (with some small success) to convert the Choctaws to Catholicism. Under the leadership of French Jesuit missionaries from New Orleans, small groups of Mississippi Choctaws embraced Catholic Christianity during the 18th century. In 1818 the American Board of Foreign Missions sent the first Protestant missionaries to the Choctaws, with the Methodists sending missionaries in the 1820s and the Baptists in the 1830s.

In 1883, the Catholics restarted their missionary efforts to the Choctaws by founding Holy Rosary Mission in Tucker, Mississippi (just south of Philadelphia). The mission was founded by a Dutch priest named Bartholomew Bekkers. Over the years, the Catholic missionary efforts led to the establishment of two more missions (St. Catherine's at Conehatta, Miss. and St. Therese in Pearl River, Miss.). Today, all three missions are run by the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.

Holy Rosary Catholic Church today. Tucker, Mississippi.