Bishop Taylor celebrates closing Mass in Grady June 22

GRADY — Arkansas’ smallest Catholic church is closing its doors.

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor celebrated the final Mass at Blessed Sacrament Mission in Grady June 22, before a standing-room-only congregation of about 100. Before concluding Mass, Bishop Taylor announced the church would be closing.

“Blessed Sacrament in Grady was a ‘chapel,’ not canonically a parish or even really a mission in the usual sense of the term,” Bishop Taylor told Arkansas Catholic. “The Church is the people, not the building, and the people have moved away — due largely to the larger demographic shifts that are depopulating many parts of the Arkansas Delta — and therefore the time has come for this chapel to be closed.”

As of Dec. 31, Blessed Sacrament Church reported only two registered families. Most of those attending the Mass ­— which, except for the homily restated in English, was celebrated entirely in Spanish — usually attend elsewhere, such as nearby Star City, which is expected to absorb Grady’s Catholics. 

“Blessed Sacrament had not had a weekend Mass for at least the five years I have been in Arkansas,” Bishop Taylor said. “In fact, it’s probably much longer; no one seems to remember when Mass was last celebrated there. They have had one Communion service per month in Spanish and attendance averaged six persons.” 

Bishop Taylor was scheduled to meet with the Presbyteral Council June 27 to formalize the action, although it was largely symbolic; as a chapel, Blessed Sacrament is not subject to the usual canon law process of closing an established parish. He said a decision has not yet been made regarding the church building, but the diocese will continue to maintain the cemetery on the grounds.

Among those in attendance at the final Mass was Sister Kathleen Miles, DC, who has served as parish administrator since 1993. She said the closing of the church was no surprise; in fact, she advocated the move.

“Before Bishop Taylor even set the day he would come to Blessed Sacrament, we talked together about its needs. My suggestion then was that it should close due to the few numbers there,” she said. “It just worked out beautifully that Bishop Taylor could come and celebrate Mass and make the announcement all in the same visit.”

Blessed Sacrament Church was founded along with the tiny town of Grady, which began as a Catholic settlement. The current structure is the third church; the first one was a wooden building flattened by a tornado in 1897. Its replacement was dedicated in 1905 and the current brick building was dedicated in 1965.

Settled into a spot of land in the middle of a cemetery outside of town, Blessed Sacrament’s departure mirrors the wider community, located about 30 miles south of Pine Bluff. Much of Grady is crumbling across its less than two square miles.

It is known for little more than produce stands and incarceration: German prisoners of war were housed in a camp there in 1944 and 1945, and both the Cummins Unit prison farm and the high-security Varner Unit are located in the nearby rural wilds of Lincoln County.

“When I got here, the congregation was all Anglos and mostly elderly,” Sister Kathleen recalled. “A lot of people died or moved over the years, and the congregation became mainly Hispanic people who were working locally in agriculture. When (Grady’s) school closed, many of them moved to Star City for better jobs, to provide their children an education and for affordable housing.”

Blessed Sacrament was first attended from McGehee, then Pine Bluff and last had regular Mass in the 1980s when Father Louis Frantz, CM, celebrated Mass twice monthly in Grady and St. Justin Church in Star City. With his departure, Sister Kathleen became administrator for both parishes.

On and off, priests administered sacraments in the church — among them Msgr. Scott Friend and the late Father Jim Brockman, SJ — but for the most part, liturgy has been limited to Sister Kathleen’s Word and Communion service once a month in Spanish for the few Hispanic Catholics in the area.

It’s one of the roles the 79-year-old Louisiana native has fulfilled throughout her vocational life. She entered the Daughter of Charity’s provincial house in St. Louis in 1960 and first professed her vows in 1965. Over the years, she served parishes and Hispanic ministries in Missouri, California, Nebraska and Texas. Her time administering Star City and Grady has been by far her longest assignment.

“God leads me to where he wants me to be,” she said, “I have spent my vocation responding to the needs of the Church and those in poverty.”

Sister Kathleen said she plans to stay with her community based in Gould until July 15, at which time she plans to relocate to the Daughters of Charity community in Little Rock. There, she will transition to volunteer work, most likely in some capacity serving the poor and homeless, something she said has helped her enrich her own faith even as she works to help others.

“Serving the Diocese of Little Rock, I have done what I can to be the official presence of the Church,” she said. “My prayer life, my community of the Daughters of Charity and God’s presence have kept me hopeful and hope-filled.”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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