Resurrection students experience different life
Visit to Mississippi mission introduces them to life in heavily non-Catholic area
By Sean Schultz
OKOLONA, Miss. - The eighth grade class from Resurrection School in Green Bay won't need postcards or souvenirs to remind them of their mission trip to tiny St. Teresa Church in this small town outside Tupelo.
Their souvenirs are etched in their souls, reminders not only of their physical toil for the four Bay Settlement Franciscan sisters at St. Theresa's but of the boundaries they crossed to show the people in Okolona what it means to be Catholic by tutoring, doing odd jobs and being with students from Okolona.
Coming from Catholic Green Bay, the students found it hard to believe that each sister has experienced being the first Catholic a person has ever met. When Sr. Liz Brown arrived 15 years ago, St. Theresa had just two Catholic families, who traveled to Tupelo for Mass because no priest served the church.
Today, a priest comes twice a month for Mass with the 15 Catholic families. The sisters hold Communion services in-between and minister to the community regardless of race or religion. Of the 25 churches in this town of 3,200, only St. Theresa is integrated.
Sr. Brown oversees the sisters' outreach efforts, aided by Sr. Nancy Schreck, who runs the GED program and other community programs held in the Excel Commons. Sr. Mary Kenneth Hemann, who will celebrate 60 years as a sister this summer, manages the One of a Kind thrift shop and a weekly bakery to raise funds for programs. She also plans and cooks meals for regular events at the Commons. Sr. Jean Meyer is in charge of the after-school program, Excel, for young people in grades 1-12 who need extra help with schoolwork.
Loyal volunteers and supporters, both black and white, in the town help them. Since 1997, their twin parish - Resurrection - has provided a regular stream of donated money and goods, and more recently time and talent. This spring was the second time Resurrection students traveled to the mission, said Fr. Paul DeMuth, pastor, who has made the trip six times.
"The benefit is obvious for what we can give to them in terms of material things and morale," he said. "But it's what they give to us.... They have so many less resources, but such humanity and spiritual resources to show us. I think the commitment our parish has made to Okolona has not reduced the commitment here in Green Bay, but it helps us to see with new eyes."
And, he added, "I think what we and other communities that help there do is provide for them a support system to say 'We can keep going. We are supported morally, spiritually and financially by the people of Resurrection.' "
"God's love cuts through whether you're poor or have some means, you're black or Spanish, young or old," said Sr. Schreck. "We often say to volunteers who come here that a lot of things in Okolona aren't so different. There are needs wherever you go.... The kinds of problems we talk about here you can find back home."
She told the students that "in Green Bay, you don't have to think about making the Catholic Church present and growing. We have to struggle with how can we have enough people in our church. That's why we try to do all kinds of outreach."
That outreach brings the community closer together in small ways every day. Townspeople Arthur and Virginia Minard have volunteered for seven years at One of a Kind. During their stay, Resurrection children helped them organize, price and sell items donated by Resurrection and other parishes. Proceeds from the thrift shop help sustain the sisters' programs and the values found at the shop help clothe and supplement the people who shop there.
"We're not Catholic but we have been to the services and we go to all their doings," Virginia Minard said. "And when Arthur is in the hospital, the sisters go to see him."
Verdine Judd serves on the Excel board of directors and has worked with the sisters since 1991. "They're the one thing that seems to help ease the racial tensions," she said. "They don't pick and choose. They're willing to help anybody."
The gap between black and white, between prejudice and equality, is wide in Okolona. The sisters opened Excel to the town's Boy Scout troop after it was integrated and forced to quit meeting at another church.
Mississippians voted in April to keep the Confederate symbol on the state flag. Residents tell of restaurants where blacks know they won't be served, and of a members-only country club's glistening pool - a sharp contrast to the rundown public pool available to blacks.
Upstairs, over the thrift shop, the children helped the sisters ready a room for an art center. They found a door in what had once been the welfare office - its glass still carrying the legend "Colored Waiting Room."
"We have a long ways to go in this town, but Excel is my hope," Judd said. "It's even changed me. When I see white people, I no longer look at their color. I look at them as friends and family."
The 8th graders missed a week of school to do their mission work, but Brian Jones, principal, said, "What they've gained in relationships and spiritual development exceeds the educational classes they missed."
When the children weren't cutting away cactus plants, mowing lawns or clearing attic rooms, they were sharing, through smiles, basketballs and schoolwork, the common bonds of youth with their new friends both black and white. They helped Sr. Meyer tutor their peers and younger students.
"It's not a fix-all kind of thing, it's inch by inch," Sr. Meyer said. She tells her students' parents that "we're just glad to be part of helping you educate your children." Whether her efforts are helping the students she won't say, but she does say "It's making a difference in me."
Jones called Sr. Brown "a good saleswoman" after she gave a moving talk to his group in the little church on their last day in Mississippi. "It was very simple but very touching, emotionally charged in a simplistic setting. There were no frills, and yet the spirit of God was certainly there."
Mick Augustyn, athletic director/physical education instructor at Resurrection and a chaperone on the Mississippi journey, saw his students grow on the trip. "I'm always proud of them.... They're not in high school yet and doing this is quite an accomplishment. I hope that when they go on to college and meet other people who are different, they give them a chance."
Resurrection parent Ingrid Merkatoris, who has chaperoned many outreach efforts for her 8th grade son Brett's class, said, "This is just a great finale. It just sets them up to want to do more.... There wasn't one student on the bus who doesn't want to go back."
Sr. Schreck had a parting message for the Green Bay students: "The success of your mission trip here will not be that you feel sorry for us in Mississippi, but that you go home with hearts more ready to love."
(Schultz is a member of Resurrection Parish and a staff writer for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.)