By MARY BELLAN EIDT
Thomas Heslin, the fifth bishop of Natchez and the first native Irish bishop, served the diocese from 1889 until his death in 1911. His grave is marked by an impressive cross in the Natchez City Cemetery.
Born in County Longford, Ireland in 1847, he learned the habits of industry and integrity from his parents, small tenant farmers. Regarded as unusually studious and precocious, he began school at age five. At age sixteen he met Archbishop Odin who was visiting Ireland to seek candidates for the priesthood for his archdiocese in New Orleans. Accepting the invitation, Thomas Heslin entered the seminary and completed his studies at an age too early for ordination. He taught school for two years prior to his ordination in 1869. He spent twenty productive years in parishes in New Orleans before his move to Natchez.
Like his predecessors, Bishop labored tirelessly to advance Catholicism in the Diocese of Natchez. He continued work on St. Mary Cathedral. In 1890 he paid the remaining debt on the building; in 1893 he blessed twelve more stained glass windows and placed a new cross on the building; in 1902 he installed 486 electric lights; in 1903 he blessed two marble side altars.
During his twenty-two years he doubled the number of priests in the diocese and actively recruited priests especially from his native country. He successfully recruited Josephite and Divine Word Fathers to minister to black Catholics in eight diocesan parishes, including Holy Family in Natchez.
In accordance with the tradition of the times, he explored the possibility of establishing a separate parish for black Catholics. After reviewing the decrees of the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore and the plans of Bishop Janssens, he convened a meeting of black Catholics to determine the need for a separate parish. Since the group was divided, he appointed Messrs. Winston and David to poll the community. The poll revealed a unanimous effort to support a separate parish. Subsequently, in 1890 Bishop Heslin purchased property on Beaumont Street where he built a church-school facility. Later, Father Peters, the first pastor of Holy Family, purchased the present property on St. Catherine Street for a new church which was dedicated in 1894.
A scholarly man who followed a rigid schedule, Bishop Heslin arose at 4:30 A.M. and prayed until he celebrated Mass at 6:00 A.M. Described as a man of splendid physique, direct and frank address, and a great organizer and administrator of unlimited charity, Bishop Heslin contributed substantially to the growth and expansion of the Diocese of Natchez.
Sources: St. Mary's of Natchez: The History of a Southern Catholic Congregation1716-1988 by Charles E. Nolan; Bishop Thomas Heslin, Fifth Bishop of Natchez 1889-1911, unpublished material in archives of St. Mary Basilica.
Valencia Hall presents a Natchez History Minute about the dedication of Holy Family Catholic Church which took place on this day, July 1 in 1894. The oldest Black Catholic Church in the Mississippi Valley, Holy Family is under the tutelage of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, known as the Josephites. Published on Jun 30, 2016… View video