Biloxi Catholics recall past, dedicate new building


Prior to the establishment of Sacred Heart Parish in 1962, Catholics living in the area of Jackson County, Mississippi worshiped in the home of John B. and Gertrude Delmas.

Since few people during that time owned automobiles and public transportation was lacking, a number of priests, including Msgr. P.J. Carey, Father Charles Hunter and Fr. Patrick Quinn, Sacred Heart’s founding pastor, would come to the Delmas home to celebrate Mass. In fact, Gertrude Delmas would ride around town with Fr. Patrick Hanley to show him where the Catholics lived and Fr. Hanley would pick them up in his car and carry them to the Delmas home for Mass.

After Mass, the Delmas family, who operated a dairy farm, would feed the visitors before returning them to their respective homes. The Delmas family later donated land to accommodate the growth of the parish.

As a sign of gratitude to the Delmas family for opening their home and, in essence, laying the foundation for Sacred Heart Parish, a new multipurpose center dedicated May 8, was named the John B. and Gertrude Delmas Activity Center.

“My grandparents were the kind of people who wouldn’t necessarily care about the recognition for the building, but they were the kind of folks who, like (Sacred Heart pastor Fr. Mike Kelleher) would take in people who had been put out by the hurricane or some other hardship,” said John and Gertrude’s grandson, Joe Blackwell, who lives in his late grandparents’ home.

“It is certainly an honor to have this building named after our family.”

Bishop Roger P. Morin of Biloxi, Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, and Fr. Kelleher presided over the blessing, which also was attended by several priests who formerly served the parish, including former pastors Msgr. Joseph Mercier and Msgr. Michael Thornton, as well as Fr. Pete Mockler, who served as an associate pastor.

The new building includes office space and a much needed parish hall for Sacred Heart and will provide a state of the art media center, computer lab, music and visual arts classrooms, a full gym with locker rooms, concession space and a performance stage for Resurrection Elementary School, which is located on the campus of Sacred Heart. The church and the school will share the parish hall and an enormous commercial kitchen.

“I know that this building means so much to this community. I’ve had an opportunity to watch this project from the day of the groundbreaking up to this day of dedication,” Bishop Morin said.

“I think it is always good for us to be mindful of the many blessings that are ours and this is certainly a marvelous blessing.”

A dream realized

Archbishop Rodi, who was bishop of Biloxi from 2001 to 2008, launched a $14 million capital campaign for Catholic education prior to Hurricane Katrina.

The pilot phase of the campaign, “Catholic Faith for Tomorrow ... A Future With Promise,” ran from April through June 2005. Parish campaigns were scheduled to continue to take place from September through December of that year, but were set aside after Hurricane Katrina hit the coastal counties of south Mississippi that August and pushed diocesan efforts to focus on recovery and rebuilding.

As a result of Katrina, RCS Elementary received 48-52 inches of flood water and neighboring St. Peter the Apostle Church and School, which primarily served African-American Catholics, were both destroyed. This prompted Bishop Rodi to consolidate the two schools at the RCS Elementary site.

The campaign for Catholic education resumed a year after Katrina and raised $16.2 million in pledges and a portion of that money went towards expansion of the RCS elementary campus. FEMA funding and donations from parishioners and other benefactors made up the balance.

Archbishop Rodi attended the groundbreaking to offer congratulations on a job well done.

“You took a dream, you turned it into a plan and, then, you made it happen. And, for those of you who have prayed for the success of endeavor and for those of you who generously supported it, making it a reality, I hope that you feel a justifiable sense of pride in what you have done. We pray together that this building will be for God’s honor and glory,” he said.

“When Bishop Morin blessed the building, he used water. Water is a sign of life. The waters from the sky give life to the earth. The waters of baptism give us eternal life. You all have given life to this building and we pray that the life of God will be here for all the parish functions and all the school functions and that this will truly be a place where faith is taught and celebrated and lived. This is truly a blessing to this parish and the entire Pascagoula community.”

We are connected

Speaking on behalf of the St. Peter the Apostle Parish community, which worshiped at Sacred Heart for two-and-a-half years following Katrina, Billy Knight, who serves as president of St. Peter’s parish council, thanked Father Kelleher and (RCS Elementary principal) Elizabeth Benefield, for opening their church, school and hearts to the people of St. Peter the Apostle Parish.

Knight said the two faith communities are inextricably connected and, as a show of gratitude, presented a monetary donation of an unspecified amount to Father Kelleher.

“You’ll never know how much (your generosity) means to us. You’ll never know how much we appreciate getting to know you, building friendships and relationships that will carry on forever,” said Knight, who was joined by St. Peter the Apostle pastor Father Charles McMahon, SSJ for the check presentation.

“It was only because of Hurricane Katrina and (Father Kelleher) who made the choice and had the courage to ask us to come (to Sacred Heart),” said Knight.

New Life

As with any special occasion, there were many people to thank, including members of the RCS School Advisory Council and the parish building committee, but the dynamic duo regarded as the driving forces behind the project was Benefield and Father Kelleher.

Benefield thanked Father Kelleher for his visionary leadership and his support of the school.

“He’s always with the children,” she said.

“He shares himself so freely.”

Sacred Heart parishioner Jerry St. Pe, who emceed the dedication program, called Benefield “the mother of our children and our grandchildren for most of their young lives and, for Benefield, the new building was quite a Mother’s Day gift.

“It means that our children have a place to be when the weather is not good. They have a way to go to church without having to deal with the elements. They have a place to grow as God intends them to,” she said.

“It’s just such a blessing to have this festivity and share it with Sacred Heart. It’s a very nice Mother’s Day present, very sweet. I feel honored.”

Father Kelleher said that, for the past few years, the Sacred Heart community, which includes a large and vibrant Hispanic population, “has stood poised at a decisive crossroads for our parish between a proud past and a challenging new future.”

“Today, I think, is an exciting day because there is new life in the air,” he said.

“With the completion of this new, fine building, all kinds of hopeful signs of renewed life and vigor are beginning to emerge here at Sacred Heart.”

Longtime parishioner Cecile Toups said the new building was definitely worth the wait.

“Oh gosh, we needed it so bad,” she said. “Before, we had to do everything in the cafeteria. Now we have a basketball court, We have offices. Just name it. I think we have everything here that we need. I think it’s awesome. It’s beautiful.

Barbara Colville has taught at RCS Elementary School for almost 19 years and said the school is already reaping the benefits of the new facility.

“The children are very excited. They are proud to go in there,” she said.

“They just needed a place like this with big spaces for classes and a beautiful gym.”

Colville said the students used the gym for the first time during the week leading up to the dedication for field day activities.

“We had a basketball game in there with the teachers versus the students,” she said.

“That was fun. Just sitting in that gym and knowing that it was ours and that we didn’t have to go someplace else to do something like that was just a wonderful feeling.”

Printed with permission from Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss.

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