St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church
301 S. Necaise Ave. | Bay St. Louis, MS
Begun in 1868 as the first school for African American children in Bay St. Louis, St. Rose Parish and School welcomed its first twenty four students to a two-story white building located on Second Street. In 1921, over-burdened with the requirements of running two schools, the Sisters of St. Joseph Academy for Girls asked for someone else to take the lead. The priest of the Society of the Divine Word stepped forward. The group, originally formed to educate African American men to the Priesthood and Religious Life (the only one in America at the time), now evolved to teach children as well. In 1923, Fr. Baltes was appointed as head of the school and immediately recognized that a separate parish and school were needed for the community. He decided to move to property he had purchased on Necaise Avenue.
St. Rose de Lima became independent on August 28, 1925 and the present church structure was begun. One year later the church was completed and dedicated to Bishop Richard Gerow and eleven priests. The service included the first communion of 42 people and, thus, began its fruitful life of spreading its faith.
The lovely white stucco church was built under the guidance of the Society of the Divine Word and devoted to the African American population of Bay St. Louis. In 1991, after 65 years of service, the building was in need of repair so Fr. Kenneth Hamilton developed a concept, “Re-Rooting and Re Routing in Christ,” enrolling the parishioners not only in the process of physical renovation of the church, but also in an ongoing discipline of oral history. During mass parishioners would recount their family histories and develop artwork that reflected the ethnic variety of the congregation.
On the church’s 65th anniversary, a grand celebration was held to rededicate the church and pay tribute to the many enhancements that had taken place during the “Re-Rooting.” Two German-style stained glass windows (maker unknown) depict the story of Mary receiving word of her role as Jesus’ mother and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque showing devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The River of Life is depicted above the baptismal font. The altar, ambo, tabernacle stand and table are all handcrafted from wood. The altar base is made from driftwood found near St. Stanislaus College, its roots reaching towards heaven. The most striking feature, however, is the mural covering the walls surrounding the altar. Crafted by New Orleans artist, Auseklis Ozols, the painting depicts both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, with Jesus’ flesh as mixed heritage. Realistic live oaks draped with Spanish moss and century plants seem to hang in an early morning fog and Christ levitates radiantly, draped in a Kente-trimmed cloth, free of bonds and burdens on this earth. The names of the parishioners’ families are painted at the sides, reinforcing its value for tradition and heritage.
In 2005, the priest at St. Rose, Father Sebastian, prayed the sacrament “To Avert the Storm” as Hurricane Katrina approached and then decided to wait out the storm at a nearby building on the highest ground in Bay St. Louis. It had received 4 feet of flooding so he feared the worst for St. Rose. When he arrived the next morning, the windows were all blown in and there was roof damage but amazingly, no water had damaged the half of the church containing the mural. He had left the prayer book opened to the sacrament and it miraculously lay open there still. He thanked God for his mercy. In spite of being in the eye of our country’s worst ever recorded storm and with destruction all around, St. Rose stood.
St. Rose became a distribution center for supplies for people in need, providing provisions and food. Covered in mud-splattered clothes, having lost most of their homes, the parishioners reconvened, opening the doors of St. Rose to its neighbors and catering to a host of volunteers, participating in hundreds of rebuilding efforts, including their own. They began the long journey to rebuild as a fortified team, each step leaning into a faith rooted in this place.
Additional renovations were completed in 2011 followed by a rededication ceremony led by Bishop Roger Morin. Rising in joyful song and joining together to celebrate progress, St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church lives its faith in encouragement to others: “You are never too bad to come in… and never too good to stay out.”
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Building Blocks, a production of Mississippi Department of Archives and History, in association with Mississippi Public Broadcasting and funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service through the Preserve America Program.
St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church website
- 1868: St. Rose Parish and School opens to educate African American children.
- 1921: The school is transitioned to leadership by the Society of the Divine Word.
- 1926: The school is moved to property purchased by Fr. Baltes on Necaise Ave. and the current structure is built.
- 1991: A major renovation effort is undertaken and affectionately titled “Re-Rooting and Re-Routing in Christ.”
- 2005: Hurricane Katrina’s eye destroyed most of Hancock County but spared St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, inflicting only minor damage. It became a hub for volunteer and restoration efforts in the community.
- 2011: Additional restorations were made.
St. Rose de Lima welcomes guests looking for a place to worship. Its business hours are Monday – Friday 9am – noon and 1-4pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church website
“The Buildings of Biloxi: An Architectural Survey,” by the City of Biloxi