Bolivar County GenWeb
Bolivar County, Mississippi
Photo courtesy of Linda Gatewood Bassie via Facebook
From "Mississippi Today" October 17, 1986
Delta Town Attracted Catholic Settlers
During the 1880s, David Bremner, a Catholic layman and a Chicago millionaire, bought up huge tracts of land in and around Merigold. He organized the Marquette Colonization Society in order to farm it.
Many of the colonists were Catholics, immigrants from northern Europe who had joined the society in Illinois and had come South to sharecrop. The 1891 records indicate Father Louis Dutto, pastor of the Delta missions, resided in Merigold for a month before moving to Clarksdale.
On April 15, 1896, Bishop Thomas Heslin traveled to Merigold to dedicate the small church Bremner had built there for the workers.
The following year Father Andrew Gmelch, a German, was appointed to the Delta missions. He built a little rectory in Merigold and lived in it long enough to be considered Merigold's first real resident pastor.
This little rectory in the 1920s would figure in a legendary battle between Father Peter Keenan and Father Victor Rotondo, Cleveland's first resident pastor, over the matter of rent, but more about that later.
The Marquette Colonization Society did not flourish. In fact, according to one account, before the colonists' first crop was in, the levee broke, spreading the muddy waters of the Mississippi over the fields and sending many discouraged settlers back to Illinois.
For those who remained, Old Testament-type plagues followed the flood in the form of yellow fever and Malaria, both carried by the omnipresent mosquito.
A handful of Catholic families of Irish and German descent were joined by a few Italian families, but the Marquette Colonization Society had folded.
Among the black community at Merigold were a few Catholic families, chief among them the prominent Montgomerys, founders of Mound Bayou.
In 1905 when Father Gmelch was transferred and Father Peter Keenan was appointed pastor of Clarksdale and the surrounding missions, David Bremner requested that the Divine Word Fathers (SVD) send a priest to Merigold to open a mission and a manual training school for blacks in the community. Thus, the work of the Society of the Divine Word among the black people in Mississippi had its humble beginning in Merigold when another German priest, Father Aloysius Heick, SVDE, arrived in 1905. Sadly, the proposed mission never got off the ground.
Bad feelings on the part of whites toward blacks was so extreme that Father Heick was forced to leave town. He went to Vicksburg to open St. Mary's, the first permanent mission for black people in the state.
Catholic population in Merigold declined. For years, Jim Michie, David Bremner's brother-in-law and manager, and the Michie family were the lone Catholics in town. And according to Michie's daughter, Claire Michie McHardy, Our Lady of Victories parishioner, there are no Catholics in Merigold today.
However, Jim Michie will re-emerge in our story as one of the stalwart pioneers in the founding days of Our Lady of Victories Parish, while his daughter continues the family tradition in the parish of today. Jim Michie is mentioned in several accounts for his generous work in raising money to pay off the indebtedness on the first church and for building the next one.
In Merigold, the little chapel David Bremner had built in the 90s was sold, moved off the property and converted to a barn, but the rectory remained. What happened about the rectory may be folklore. However, veteran parishioners suspect the following tale is true.
It seems Father Peer Keenan, pastor of Clarksdale and the missions from 1905 through 1921, was renting out the rectory, even after he was transferred to Biloxi. Apparently, neither Father Clerico nor Father Gabrielli uncovered Father Keenan's little Merigold windfall, but Father Rotondo did.
"The little Italian was furious," says one account of the story. "And only the distance and the cost of the trip prevented him from paying the Irishman a visit, not of a social nature." When Father Kennan made his next trip to Merigold, Father Rotondo confronted him. "It looked,' the account goes on to say, "as though only a miracle of grace could prevent the first Italian-Hiberian war." Onlookers intervened before blows were exchanged and peace was established as long as Father Keenan agreed never to set foot in the Delta again.
Excerpts from feature article.