By Riley Manning
TUPELO – For Tupelo native Jerry Bristow, St. James Catholic Church is the place he has called home his whole life. By his account, he’s the oldest living member of the church, and one of the few older Catholics born in the area.
“I’m content to live where life began,” he said.
Next week, the church will celebrate an entire century in Tupelo. For Bristow and other St. James members, the occasion commemorates not only history, but memory as well.
According to Bristow, the first Catholics to leave footprints in Northeast Mississippi did so in 1540, as Spanish and French forces explored the Mississippi River Valley. The first Catholic church wouldn’t be built in the area until 1861, with Annunciation Church in Columbus, pastored by French missionary Father John Bouton. He and his successors served Catholics between Meridian and the Tennessee line.
“Through these years when churches were scarce, traveling priests held Mass in folks’ houses,” Bristow said. “Most of the Catholics who settled in this area were from Irish descent.”
Dedicated in 1914, the original St. James was located at the corner of Magazine and Green streets. However, the church didn’t get its first resident pastor until 1919 with Father Robert Reitmeier. Reitmeier was charged with celebrating Mass in Aberdeen, Okolona, Corinth, Amory, and Pontotoc.
Reitmeier would stay for 33 years, in the meantime befriending Bristow in his high school years. The priest would celebrate Mass in Tupelo the first Sunday of the month, Saltillo the second Sunday, Aberdeen the third, and Okolona the fourth. A teenage Bristow was the one to chauffer him from place to place.
“He let me drive his ’35 model Studebaker coup, and I think he did his most devout praying when I was behind the wheel of that car,” Bristow said. “He was an interesting fellow, born in Munich in 1914. He had a a good ear for music.”
Reitmeier was a Benedictine, and after his retirement, the Benedictines based in Cullman, Alabama, continued to minister around Northeast Mississippi. They established parishes in Aberdeen and Corinth, each with satellite missions, so the pastor of St. James didn’t have as much ground to cover.
By the end of World War II, the St. James community had grown by more than 40 percent, and had outgrown the wooden church originally built to house about 100 congregants. The current church was dedicated in 1960, under the Rev. Clarence Meyer, the last Benedictine to serve St. James.
“The old church was torn down. That was the custom. A building that once served as a church couldn’t be used for anything else after,” Bristow said. “That church was about the only one on the block that wasn’t touched by the 1936 tornado, which I remember blew through on Palm Sunday.”
Since Reitmeier, St. James has been home to priests from Ireland, Lithuania, Chicago, and right here in Mississippi. Current priest, the Rev. Lincoln Dall, is the church’s 11th pastor.
“Every priest has their own style and way of doing things,” Bristow said. “But at St. James, I’ve always felt welcome and at home. It seems like through the years, no matter who the priest, everything has had a way of falling into place.”
Christi Houin is one of the many St. James members who migrated to the area from somewhere else, in her case, New Orleans. Moving from such a Catholic-centric locale to a diocese with one of the lowest percentages of Catholics in the country has actually encouraged her to learn more about her faith.
“One thing about coming from a majority Catholic place to a minority is that people will ask you a lot more questions about their faith because it isn’t common knowledge,” she said. “So you have to know what you’re talking about.”
Houin said she and her family immediately found St. James to be warm and active, with plenty of opportunities to act out their faith.
“Being Catholic is a huge part of our identity, and St. James always has different events to get involved with,” she said. “When people move here from other places, they do a great job of integrating new people with old ones.”
Dall agreed, and said one of his favorite things about St. James is its international flavor. Not only are his pews occupied by migrants from the north, brought to Tupelo by industry, but also by Vietnamese, Phillipino, and Spanish worshipers of various nationalities. Looking to the present, and to the next hundred years, Dall said the church planned on putting a lot of effort into its youth program.
“Young people like to really get out and do things, and that’s great for us as a church to be visible in the community,” he said. “And that’s what the pope wants us to do as priests as well. He wants us to ‘smell like the sheep,’ and by doing so, the church can remain relevant.”
St. James’ official 100th anniversary is July 29, but the church will celebrate on July 26 and 27. On the 26th, St. James will bus attendees to the Chickasaw Village to embark on a small hike, a miniature version of the Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James.” On the 27th, Jackson Diocese Bishop Joseph Kopacz will celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass, followed by a luncheon, and the 4:30 p.m. Mass.