SALTILLO – Virginia Barrett Bishop let her blue heeler, Emma, sniff right up to the yellow tape circling the burned remains of her church, St. Thomas Aquinas.
“This church is just the center of life for this whole community,” said Bishop, referring to the 1,200-square-foot structure that was destroyed in an early morning fire Sunday.
State Deputy Fire Marshal Jonathan Owens said that although his office is still gathering information for the report, it has determined the fire was the result of an accident.
“Due to the amount of destruction – wiring, appliances, all completely gone – it’s practically impossible to determine the exact cause,” said Owens, who believes the case could be closed this week.
Bishop’s neighbors, who like her are descendants of the Irish Catholics that settled the area in 19th century, gathered Monday in front of the burned church.
Bishop’s ancestors donated the land on which the church sits, and she spoke about old days, when nuns came from Cincinnati to teach month-long vacation Bible school.
“There are Civil War dead – both Union and Confederacy – buried in that cemetery out back,” she said, referring to the plots behind the church.
Workers from Tombigbee Electric Power Association arrived to reroute power to the church’s fellowship hall. “We’ll have Mass in there, Saturday night, like always,” said Bishop.
The Rev. Tom Lalor, St. Thomas’ pastor, stood with the others on the lawn.
“It’s premature to try and decide what we’re going to do about the building,” he said. “Right now my job is to be with these people in their grief.”
Those who attend St. Thomas are members of St. James in Tupelo since they are sister parishes and counted as one.
In the coming weeks members of St. James’ parish council, along with representatives from St. Thomas, will discuss plans for the future with Bishop Joseph Latino of the Diocese of Jackson.
“One of the real hallmarks of the Catholic Church in rural Mississippi has been the strength and character of local communities,” said Lalor. “This building was a house for the church, but, really, the people, called to holiness, are the church.”
Contact Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal