February 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 7

Pulled From The River

By Rev. Ray Petrucci

Photo of a fast moving riverThe black community living in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s had plenty of needs. Few of those working to address those needs had white faces. The faces that were white belonged to a dedicated group of Catholic priests and nuns who staffed the mostly black Catholic Church in the community. Nearly two decades would pass before the nation's media would focus its attention on the terrors of the Jim Crow South. The figure of Jim Crow originated in the minstrel shows of the late 1800s. The character reflected every negative stereotype of the African-American. The evils of bigotry and racism had become deeply intertwined within American culture and the effort to mitigate its pervasive and violent effects would be long and sacrificial.

The impetus for this article and the book that I would recommend reading is Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South by Danny Duncan Collum. Through historical commentary and personal testimony, the reader is injected into the atmosphere of life during that time in our history. One is introduced to the remarkable contribution of the parishioners, priests, and nuns of Holy Family Catholic Church to the efforts of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Attending Holy Family School and being a member of the parish had been a source of pride to the black community for decades. The Church housed the N.A.A.C.P. and provided shelter, food, and transportation for student volunteers during the campaign for civil rights waged in the 1960s. Through raw courage, careful diplomacy, mutual perseverance, and God's truth, the people of Holy Family made their mark toward helping a nation reclaim its ideals. The story of this amazing faith community is chiseled upon the history of Natchez through statements such as this:

Our parents would say, "Watch what you say around the white people. Watch what you say around the white people. Watch what you say." Well, those of us who went to the Catholic school, even though we knew what to say, we did not have to watch our every word. We felt more on a comfortable level. It may have been surprising with some of them, the ease with which we would talk. And we'd look people in the eye where many black people had been told don't look the white person in the eye. If he says something just look down and go on, "cause he'll think you're an uppity nigger or something". Oh, I've been told that so many times, but I didn't feel it because I had looked the nuns in the eye. In fact, with Sister Norbert, you had to have eyeball contact. That's the first place I heard that. "Mister Frazier, eyeball contact. Look at me when you are talking to me." And you can't just turn that on like water. I think all of us dealt with our white brothers and sisters on a different level. We did not have that fear or that looking down.

- Joe Frazier, parishioner of Holy Family Church

Photo of the sign in front of the Holy Family Church in Natchez, MississippiLent and Black History Month coincide in an explicit way by the story of Holy Family Parish. Prejudice is a formidable sin within the human heart. Humanity never has been short of excuses for hating other members of the human family. Race, religion, wealth, social standing, political credo, and education are among the limitless factors which lend themselves to distortion and discord. Pondering over the communal and personal sins of mankind should give one pause and awaken the possibilities of learning from the success of people like those of Holy Family Church in Natchez, Mississippi. Linking Christ to an irrefutably just and noble cause may not lessen the hardships and dangers inherent in the struggle, but it does galvanize the mind, body, and soul to the necessity and to the rectitude of one's strivings. History is replete with humanity's victories over its own wickedness. These forty days beckon us to examine our own lives and to improve on the person we were before. With God's grace, this goal has been shown to be obtainable. God bless us on our journey.

There is a place in Natchez known as Forks in the Road. It was the site of the second largest slave market in the country. Often, slaves from the upper south were sold down the river (this is the origin of the saying) at Forks of the Road. The constant hope of the Lenten season is that men and women everywhere may grow in spiritual strength and wisdom, so that there may be an abundance of people of faith who will not allow suffering souls to be sold down the river but will cause them to be pulled from the river.