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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 385-386

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Book Review

The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911-1984:
A History

The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911-1984: A History. By Michael V. Namorato. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1998. Pp. xxiii, 313. $59.95 cloth.)

The Catholic Church in Mississippi seems like an anomaly in what some might think of as the heart of the Southern Bible Belt. We owe a debt to Michael Namorato for a well documented and well written study that tells us otherwise. This work, however, does more than simply chronicle the institutional development of the Catholic Church in inhospitable territory. Instead it is a narrative that allows the reader to see the development of the institution against the background of social and political developments in a predominantly Protestant Southern state. It is also a compelling story of the leadership, compassion, and dedication of those who guided the Church during her formative years, and who in spite of local conventions held steadfast to the ethos of the Church.

Professor Namorato's study, which ought to be considered a standard for church history, is presented in two parts. The first, "The Hierarchy," tells the story of John Gunn, Richard Gerow, and Joseph Brunini, the bishops who provided the leadership and inspiration for the Mississippi Catholic Church from 1911 through 1984. It is a detailed examination of the issues each confronted, from education to racial relations. Indeed, one salutary aspect of this work is Namorato's discussion of the racial issues confronting the Mississippi Church. Gunn, a graduate of the Gregorian University of Rome, walked a fine line between the culture of the South and the needs of his black adherents. He supported the establishment of a black seminary to train blacks for the priesthood and hoped in this way to help deal with the shortage of priests in his diocese. Gerow was committed to his black members as well. Brunini, a native of Mississippi [End Page 385] and the son of an Italian father and Jewish mother, was committed to bring about an end to racism, sought the betterment of conditions for native Americans in the South, and participated in programs designed to help the elderly in his diocese. He was, as Professor Namorato points out, "a visionary, a shepherd of his flock within the changing church of Vatican II, and a bishop... active in addressing the issues affecting Mississippi, the South, the United States, and the Catholic Church" (p. 107), though it was in the area of race relations, as the author so clearly demonstrates, that he made his most lasting contribution.

The second part of this work, "Clergy, Religious, and Laity," describes the work of the Church in education and healthcare and especially its work with minority populations in Mississippi. Important to the survival and the growth of the Church, which had to deal with shortages of parish priests, was the role of religious orders and the laity, though, it should be pointed out that the laity was not always in agreement with the policies of the Church as was evidenced by the struggle to achieve integration within its schools and parishes. In the final analysis Professor Namorato has developed a cogent analysis of the Catholic Church in Mississippi that has much to offer to students of social, political, and religious history.


Silvano A. Wueschner
University of Iowa



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