Empty Churches

St. Mary’s Cathedral in Natchez. Library of Congress

A reporter once asked Eudora Welty on a Sunday morning why the streets were so empty. She simply looked at him, and said, matter-of-factly, that it was Sunday.

It is eerie to drive by the churches of the most religious state in the nation on a Sunday morning, and see empty parking lots. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, it will be a hundredfold more eerie. Empty churches? In Mississippi?

It won’t be the first time Mississippi’s citizens have had to worship from home. It will not be the first Easter a church has no congregation. Disease, epidemics, and wars have periodically forced Mississippians to worship distantly.

Americans, and specifically Mississippians, have grown spoiled over the past three generations in terms of variety of and opportunities for worship. We take for granted that we can go to church any Sunday (or Wednesday) we wish. Just half a mile from my house stand six different churches—all of which have full parking lots Sunday mornings. And yet, the ability to worship, hear a sermon, and break bread together with a church family has not always been so accessible.

One particularly powerful example for Mississippi was the Civil War. For instance, at the onset of war, Catholic Bishop William Henry Elder had twelve priests to serve the entire state. During the course of the war, he lost five of those priests. Of the remaining seven, the Bishop was forced to perform a spiritual triage. He sacrificed Sunday services to send many of his priests to the battlefield where he believed his priests would be of more value and comfort to a dying soldier. Inevitably, his decision left Sunday worshippers without the comfort of a service.

And then there were the times of panic and chaos and social disruption in which Elder would have to say a Sunday Mass with a limited or no congregation at all. On such Sundays, the Bishop would set up a makeshift altar and celebrate the Mass alone, sometimes in a church, sometimes, at home, sometimes in prison.

Finally, there were the slaves themselves who all too often lived spiritually isolated when their masters denied them the comforts of Sunday services. Bishop Elder met one such black man in a Federal concentration camp. The recently freed black man explained to Elder that he had been a devout Catholic in Kentucky and attended Mass and received the sacraments. But then he was sold down south, and his new master refused to allow him to attend Catholic church. Nor would he allow a priest on his land. The black man was relieved that Elder had visited his camp. The Bishop explained to him that he was still a Catholic and that he would be welcomed at Elder’s home anytime he felt he needed the sacraments or instruction.

Elder also believed that the third commandment was always being honored, whether there is a crowded church or a solitary pastor saying the Mass. Furthermore, that service was being celebrated on behalf of the slave denied the opportunity to attend. Or the wounded on the battlefield. Or, today, the homebound, forced to miss the service. He believed that the Church was much, much larger than the slave could imagine, full of good men on earth, those climbing toward heaven in purgatory, and the saints themselves in heaven. And they all celebrated each Mass on behalf of the universal Church, those physically present and those unable to attend.

Mural at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Jackson. Josh Foreman

In Elder’s worldview, because the Mass was universal in nature, no Church service was ever ill-attended. It was being celebrated by countless hosts of angels and saints.

And so, tomorrow, 155 years—eight bishops and six generations—removed from the war that devastated Elder’s adopted state, priests all over Mississippi will be celebrating Mass in Elder’s Natchez Basilica, at the twice-burned St. Peter’s in Jackson, and in churches all over the state.

The pews will be empty. But the service will be well attended.

And the next Easter.

And the next.

And the next.

Altar at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans. Josh Foreman