Glenmary's Newest Missioner in Its Newest Mission By Jean Bach

Main Street in Ackerman, Miss., on a Sunday afternoon is small-town quiet. Lawn mowers hum and a few cars pass through as Sister Alies Therése takes visitors on a walking tour of the two-block downtown. She waves and greets passersby as she walks. With a slight British accent, she describes the various businesses. She's become a familiar sight as she “walks about town,” getting to know the folks of the town she has lived in for only three months.

She ends the tour at a storefront where the front window announces “The Catholic Community of Choctaw County.”

“Here we are,” she says. “This is home.”

Sister Alies is the new pastoral coordinator of Glenmary missions in Ackerman and Eupora, Miss. Eupora, located 20 miles north of Ackerman in Webster County, is the more established of the two communities. Ackerman, the county seat of Choctaw County, is the site of Glenmary's newest mission community.

Although the Catholic church has a history in Choctaw County, it has struggled to grow. Several years ago, Gene and Mary Helen Grabbe, the now retired pastoral coordinators for the two missions, began sowing the seeds for the Choctaw mission by knocking on doors and inviting folks to the Catholic church.

The Choctaw County Catholic Community stands out in Ackerman because it's the only integrated church in the county. And with only six to 12 people at services, it is probably the smallest.

Sister Alies spent the past 20 years ministering in rural areas of the Diocese of East Anglia in England. She has worked in parish ministry, especially with black and ethnic communities. She has a special concern about racism in local communities as well as in the church. Before England, she worked in South Central Los Angeles and San Antonio.

In her short time in northeastern Mississippi, Sister Alies realizes that the situation in Choctaw County is difficult on many levels. For Catholics, there is no sense of connection to the larger church. Until several years ago, attending Mass meant driving at least 25 miles one way to Starkville. The southernmost county in the deanery, Choctaw County is less than one percent Catholic with Cumberland Presbyterians, Methodists and Southern Baptists in the majority.

African Americans, Anglos and Hispanics make up the Catholic Church of Choctaw County, a fact that doesn't go unnoticed in the larger community. During Holy Week, Sister Alies was invited to the Seder Meal at the local Methodist church. It was sponsored by the Pastors' Association, of which she is a member.

“We arrived at the meal and our members were the only blacks there,” she says. “It seems to me that just doing it (taking part in the events) is a way forward…both for our community to be seen as what we are—multiethnic and universal—and for the wider community to see that it is possible for people to work and play and pray together without sanctions.”

Everyone at the meal was very gracious and hands were shaken that would have never been shaken outside the church service, she says. “There's grace working through that.”

“If our Catholic church weren't here, the model (of racial inclusion) wouldn't be present for others to see. It's critical that we're here.”

And she is “here.” She has taken up residence in Ackerman rather than Eupora, countering the Glenmary tradition of living near the more established mission. “It's essential that a Catholic minister live here,” she says. “A permanent Catholic presence heightens the profile of the Catholic community.”

“It also has raised issues in the Catholic community about what needs doing to grow and flourish and what their responsibilities might be if they want a viable and healthy community.”

People of the area remember a fledgling church community that began in the 1960s and then just died out. They don't want to see that happen again. They see Sister Alies's physical presence as a sign that there is a permanence for a Catholic community.

There are other areas of concern in the county. The unemployment rate is twice that of the national average, with 65 percent of the 9,500 people in the county having only a high school education or less. Wages are usually just above minimum and the job outlook for the county is bleak. Many from both Webster and Choctaw counties are traveling 60 miles one way to a factory to chop fish because it's the only thing available.

People in Choctaw County are on the margins, both politically, socially and “in our case religiously,” Sister Alies says. Yet, as with all Glenmary missions, outreach is given to the greater community. While there isn't a lot the church community can do for the unemployment situation, they offer support and help in whatever way they can.

Perhaps the most tangible matter that Sister Alies is giving attention to is the Catholic community's storefront. While it's in an ideal location in downtown, the building itself is unsafe and inadequate. One large room leaks terribly, and there are no lights in 85 percent of the building.

She is looking into alternatives, but the choices are slim. One building is available, although the community can't afford the rent.

The mission has lost some members because of the inadequacy of the building. It's very difficult to be a Catholic in an area where you are the minority, Sister Alies says. On top of that, while all the other major denominations are attending services in a building with a steeple and pews, we're “mopping up water and trying to get the musty smell out of the building.”

t's very important that the community have a place to call “our church” which is not embarrassing, Sister Alies says. But it is also important to balance this against the need for the Catholics to be and form community. “Then the warmth and celebration of Jesus will make the difficulties wane,” she says.

Glenmary's mission in Ripley, Miss., is an example of what a better church space can mean. That Catholic community recently moved from a weary storefront into a more adequate space. Before the move, 35 people were attending weekend services. Today, about 90-100 people attend.

For now, Sister Alies is looking for other building solutions and working with the Jackson Diocese to remedy the community's present situation.

She is also becoming more and more immersed into the local community. As a result, she says, she feels more comfortable looking ahead to form a plan which will guide where the community wants to go spiritually as well as physically.

At present, Mass is celebrated twice a month. Sister Alies presides over a Word and Communion Service on the other Sundays. Six candidates are preparing for Confirmation and several summer events are being planned both for the Catholic community and as outreach into the county.

“It's an exciting time for this Catholic community,” Sister Alies says. “We are a growing community—one where the hopes of the many children we have will be strengthened and realized.” This article appeared originally in the Summer 2002 Glenmary Challenge, published by Glenmary Home Missioners, PO Box 465618, Cincinnati, OH 45246.

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