Catholics gathered for 26 years before building a church

Agnes Ball (right) shows B.J.Breckenridge (left) a photo of a priest in a mule-drawn wagon on his way to celebrate Mass at the home of Elizabeth Coley (center) in the 1920s.
Agnes Ball (right) shows B.J.Breckenridge (left) a photo of a priest in a mule-drawn wagon on his way to celebrate Mass at the home of Elizabeth Coley (center) in the 1920s.

McCRORY — B.J. Breckenridge, 81, like many of his fellow parishioners, has been a lifelong member of St. Mary Church. His grandparents, Ben and Mary Starman, moved to the McCrory area in 1914.
Though another family made the journey with them, they returned to Illinois shortly thereafter, making the Starmans the only known Catholics in Woodruff County.
“My grandpa and grandma used to go down here at Patterson and catch a train and go to Brinkley once a month to go to church,” Breckenridge explained.
According to the 1980 winter edition of the Woodruff County Historical Society: Rivers and Roads and Points in Between, priests from Brinkley began traveling to McCrory to celebrate Mass once a month in 1916.
Brinkley is 38 miles south of McCrory, so when the priests came, they stayed overnight offering Mass on Saturdays.
In 1918, the Lawrence Stuckey family from Illinois arrived as well as John and Agnes Ancel from Missouri, who moved to nearby Morton.
“They’d have Mass one month at Ancel’s and then they’d have Mass at my Grandpa Starman’s house out north of McCrory the next month,” Breckenridge said. “That’s where it first started.”

St. Mary Church
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Fellow parishioner Elizabeth Coley, 84, is the daughter of John and Agnes Ancel. She brought her family photo album to the church where she, Breckenridge, and other parishioners Agnes Ball (her niece), Arland Coley (her husband) and Roger Smith joined pastor Father Edwin Graves to talk about the parish with Arkansas Catholic on Dec. 15.
Coley showed a photo of a Brinkley priest traveling by mule-drawn wagon to celebrate Mass at her family’s home. Another photo revealed her mother’s wooden dresser, which was used as the altar for Mass.
“My daughter still has that dresser,” Arland Coley said.
“They went in the bedrooms and said their confession,” Elizabeth Coley said. “(I was) not old enough to go to confession then, but I remember my sisters and brothers going to the bedroom.”
Though these families were strangers, they bonded quickly over their common faith.
“Back in them days, a Catholic, they was trouble,” Breckenridge said.
His family were originally from Germany. Elizabeth Coley said her parents emigrated from Yugoslavia and Smith said his family came from Czechoslovakia.
“Mama couldn’t speak a word of English,” Smith said. Coley said the same of her mother.
“They didn’t know anything about Cath olics here,” the 74-year-old Smith explained. His grandfather, Carl Smith, moved his family from Stuttgart to McCrory in 1924.
Mass continued to be celebrated in area homes until 1930 when the Catholic community grew to the point that the regular Mass was moved to Wherry Hall, a two-story brick building located by the railroad track in McCrory.
Breckenridge said Wherry Hall had a grocery store on the first floor and the Mass was held upstairs.
Coley had a photo of the small congregation in 1930. During this time most weddings and baptisms still took place in family homes.
“My daddy was the only one who had an automobile,” Coley said.
People walked for miles to the Ancel home to catch a ride to Mass in the back of his pickup truck.
“We had picnics at different homes. Roger’s mother and daddy used to come to my mother and daddy’s to play cards on Sunday evenings,” Coley said. “We stayed like close family, not just at church.”
“When Grandpa Ancel was living, on the fourth of July he’d have a goat,” Ball, 82, said excitedly.
“He fixed goat; I never did eat any,” Coley added, grimacing at the thought.
Around 1939 the regular Mass was moved to the Fraser building, across from the town bank, Breckenridge said.
By this time, area residents began to accept Catholics among them.
“People didn’t think as much about a Catholic then as they did back in the 20s,” Breckenridge said.
In 1941 the Bank of McCrory president donated land for the town’s first Catholic church.
The Catholic community got donations from other McCrory businesses and a grant from the Catholic Church Extension Society to purchase building materials. Parishioners themselves built the church for $1,500.
“I know I mashed many a finger on it myself; I was about 15 years old,” Brecken ridge said.
The new church was named after the Virgin Mary honoring the request of the grant’s primary donor. The first St. Mary Church in McCrory was dedicated in 1942. At the time, the new mission had 13 families.
By the 1970s the parish had 30 families and had outgrown its 30-by-50-foot church.
In 1973 the parish bought land along Highway 64 East of McCrory. Arland Coley, 82, was on the parish council at the time. He said the parish sold the old church and land to help pay for the new church. That, along with donations from parishioners and a loan from the Diocese of Little Rock, paid for the new 3,870-square-foot, $100,000 church.
On June 12, 1977, Bishop Andrew J. McDonald dedicated St. Mary Church as it stands today. It remains the only Catholic church in Woodruff County. Aside from the sanctuary, the building includes a kitchen, bathrooms, cry room and parish hall.
Parishioners donated the stations of the cross and altar and the stained glass windows came from an old church about to be torn down in Fort Smith.
“A man in St. Louis made three sets of those windows and we got one set of them, and they were 125 years old,” Coley said.
Coley said the parish was at its largest in the 1980s, but never exceeded 30 to 40 families.
Father Graves has been St. Mary’s pastor for the past eight years. The church is a mission of St. Peter Church in Wynne, where he is also pastor and where he resides. He said St. Mary has about 20 families these days.
According to the 2000 census 1,850 people live in McCrory, which is primarily a farming community.
“There’s not many Catholics here now. What few we have is leaving,” Elizabeth Coley said. “A lot of the young folks had to leave to go to work somewhere else.”
The parishioners also acknowledge that people attend Mass in different parishes to fit their travel plans.
Some go to Wynne, Searcy and even West Memphis to go to Mass, Arland Coley said. “I go to church in West Memphis a lot.”
Wynne is only 25 miles from McCrory. Father Graves said those who want to go to Mass on Saturday evenings may come to McCrory and others may go to Wynne at 9 a.m. on Sundays.
Father Graves said anywhere from 30 to 70 people attend Mass in McCrory.
Until 2007, St. Mary offered parish religious education classes but now the children attend the program at St. Peter Church.
“It’s wonderful,” Father Graves said of St. Mary Parish. “It’s got a real family spirit still. It’s a very warm parish. And even when people come in from Wynne, some are family members.”
“We’re just a big family!” Ball said.

St. Mary Church
Location: On Highway 64 East in McCrory
Established: 1942
Overseen by: St. Peter Church, Wynne
Mass: Saturdays and Tuesdays, 5 p.m.
Sacramental life: Parishioners assist at Mass; confessions are offered before Mass.
Parish life: The church hosts Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts and meals after funerals.
Ministries: Parish council and Altar Society
Parishioner’s perspective: “We’re just a big family!” — Agnes Ball

Click here to return to the index of stories in Arkansas Catholic’s small parish series.

Tara Little

Tara Little joined Arkansas Catholic in 2000 and has served in various capacities, including production manager and associate editor. Since 2006 she has managed the website for the Diocese of Little Rock.

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