By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations will see people of all backgrounds paying tribute to Irish traditions, but Mississippi’s Catholics have reason to be grateful to the Emerald Isle all year around.
About half of the 36 priests currently serving churches in the Diocese of Jackson, which includes Northeast Mississippi, are native-born Irishmen.
Irish priests began arriving in the late 18th century to serve a sparse Catholic population, and their presence is still crucial to the life of the church.
“When I decided to come here, I believe there was as much need for priests here as anywhere in the world,” said the Rev. Gerard Hurley, who came to Mississippi from Ireland in 1976 and whose parishes included Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus.
Since the 19th century, Mississippi has been settled mostly by Protestants, and today Catholics make up less than 2 percent of the population.
Hurley was the last in the most recent line of Irish clergymen who began arriving in the late 1940s. A decade earlier, Hurley’s countryman, the Rev. Tom Lalor, came over from County Westmeath.
“I wanted to give my life to a diocese that didn’t have enough native-born priests,” said Lalor, now pastor at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo.
According to the Diocese of Jackson, the first Irish priest to arrive in Mississippi might well have been the Rev. Frances Lennon, who served the Natchez area in the late 18th century, but the real influx of Irish clergy started a century later.
In what eventually became Lee County, most Catholics lived along Barrett Ridge in Saltillo. It was primitive, sparsely populated farmland and priests didn’t visit very often.
In 1868, Irish immigrants Ned Barrett and Tom Cassidy established the first Catholic Church in the area, named St. Patrick’s, but even then the small community had to rely on traveling missionary priests to celebrate the Mass and sacraments.
The names of two of those missionaries, McNamara and O’Riley, attest to what an important role Irish priests played in nurturing fledgling Catholic communities.
Until Hurley’s departure in 2005, Annunciation Catholic Church in Columbus had been continually under the leadership of Irish priests since the early 1960s.
“The little ones began to think that every priest was Irish, that priest and Irish were interchangeable realities,” said Hurley, who is now pastor at St. Paul Catholic Church in Flowood.
Many in Tupelo have fond memories of one of Lalor’s predecessors, the Rev. Liam Pentony, who was pastor at St. James from 1983 until 1992 and has now returned home to Ireland. Another Irishman, the Rev. Mike O’Brien, was pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Starkville from 1989 until 2001.
Most of the priests who came over about the same time as Lalor and Hurley studied theology at St. Patrick’s College in Carlow, Ireland, and every January they have a reunion on the Gulf Coast.
The crowd at the reunion is getting gray, Lalor said, and there probably won’t be any more Irish priests coming to Mississippi because, despite what once seemed impossible, Ireland today has a shortage, too.
In the Diocese of Jackson, Irish priests who are old enough to retire continue serving because there aren’t many men waiting to take their place.
As the decades click by, Lalor sees his life’s work in Mississippi as honoring the tradition established by Ireland’s patron saint.
“Since St. Patrick, Irish missionaries have gone out all over the world,” he said. “At this point, I want to give the rest of my life to our diocese.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.