Biloxi Parish Thrives Despite Odds

White Cypress, MS, is a quiet rural community with no downtown and little traffic. Characterized by farms, forests, and family, this southern community is dotted with small Baptist churches surrounded by community pavilions and playgrounds. But down one dirt road behind a family farm is St. Matthew Catholic Parish – a rare sight in rural Mississippi. The only parish within miles, St. Matthew serves families from a wide region who are dedicated to their Catholic faith and are proud of their Catholic heritage and traditions.

“It’s not easy to be Catholic in Southern Mississippi,” said Tad Shaw, a long-time parishioner and father of six. “But we are proud of our faith and are committed to serving our surrounding community.”

During the spring of 2019, St. Matthew began their journey with CLI as a Next Generation Parish. “Initially, we were paired with another parish about an hour-and-a-half away,” said Lesley Havard, Director of Religious Education for the parish. “Our committed Next Generation Parish team faithfully traveled to those initial meetings as we began our planning process. Little did we know how important this process would become for our parish over the next year.”

St. Matthew’s Next Generation Parish team worked with a CLI leadership consultant over the next six months to craft a three-year plan for the parish. The plan highlighted faith formation for all ages, building stronger community as a parish and within the local area, and helping parishioners better understand the Mass. The 2019 holidays came and went and within a few months of 2020, White Cypress, MS, was caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic with the rest of the world. Under quarantine and diocesan instructions, the parish closed.

“At first, we were all just waiting to find out what was next,” remembered Havard. “But within a few weeks, it was clear this situation was not going away, and we had to pivot. Quickly. Thankfully, we had our Next Generation Parish team already in place. We are grateful to have a group of people already working with our pastor who were poised to assist him in setting up virtual Masses and increasing our presence on social media.”

Then, in July 2020, their parish priest was transferred to another parish as part of the normal diocesan reassignment process. During the middle of Covid, they welcomed a new priest and began looking for ways to move forward hoping for an end to the pandemic.

“Thankfully, we had a parish plan developed the previous year,” stated Havard. Though not able to be fully implemented, the roadmap was there. And so was our CLI consultant!”

As they regrouped, the St. Matthew Next Generation Parish team committed to making the transition to become the Next Generation Parish implementation team, now responsible for executing their plan in the most unusual circumstances. Their CLI leadership consultant initiated implementation meetings via Zoom – a new technology for people at that time – and encouraged them to move forward with their existing plan and make necessary accommodations due to the pandemic. Within weeks, the implementation team created a plan for at-home faith formation for the upcoming school year, began plans for outreach to parishioners now unable to attend Mass in person, and explored new ways to communicate with their parish family outside of traditional Sunday gatherings after Mass.

“It was really our Next Generation Parish plan and the guidance of our CLI leadership consultant that kept us going. Otherwise, we would have stalled and lost some great opportunities to connect with our parish family,” reported Havard.

Planning meetings with their CLI consultant continued virtually over the next nine months, and the parish successfully implemented their revised goals. As they moved into 2021, momentum was high and Covid restrictions began to ease in early spring for the state of Mississippi. New opportunities for the summer were on the horizon, and the parish community was eager to be back together again!

Then in June 2021, their parish priest took a leave of absence, and a new pastor was assigned.

“You’d think this would have shaken us,” laughs Havard. “But we had been through so much change over the past 18 months, we really just continued moving forward. We had our Next Generation Parish plan and the help of our CLI leadership consultant; we knew we’d be fine.”

Their new pastor arrived in mid-July, and on his second day he attended their monthly Next Generation Parish meeting led by their CLI consultant. The Next Generation Parish plan was a great way to acclimate him to the parish, help him understand the different roles the Next Generation Parish team played at the parish, and offered him an opportunity to better understand where they had come from over the past few years.

“We still have a lot to do, but we are up for the challenge!” said Havard.

Plans are already in place for in-person faith formation beginning in September and for the first time in years, they have plenty of catechists to serve the families who are enrolled. Initiatives are already percolating for Advent, and regular parish events are back on the schedule.

“It’s been a long year, but we are thankful for the leadership and guidance of CLI during this time. Our monthly meetings kept us on track and helped us see what could be done, even during unusual times.”

More than just a country parish, St. Matthew is a family, and families stick together. Regardless of what 2021-22 brings, St. Matthew is equipped to continue serving and growing.

Click here to learn more about Next Generation Parish.

by Mike School

July 28, 2021

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