History of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish
In 1952 Msgr. Gregory Johnson of Hattiesburg’s Sacred Heart Parish began serving the students and faculty of Mississippi Southern College (in 1962 it became the University of Southern Mississippi). Father Paul Gillis (at Sacred Heart in 1954) and Father John Izral (1961) also ministered to the students and faculty of USM.
On his way to OMI Seminary for the Clergy Retreat in June 1962, Bishop R.O. Gerow stopped off in Hattiesburg to inspect some properties available for sale for a new Catholic Center to serve college students at the university. An old home, which was subsequently identified by parishioners as The Brown Building, and a prefabricated building on a 3-acre lot were purchased at a total cost, including renovation of $25,000. The location was across from the USM campus at 3117 West Fourth Street. Bishop Gerow dedicated the chapel, rectory and Newman Center as a mission on December 9, 1963. Father Joseph Mercier (later designated monsignor) became the first full-time chaplain for the Newman Program in 1963.
Bishop Joseph B. Brunini of the Natchez-Jackson Diocese officially established St. Thomas Aquinas on September 24, 1968 as a “personal parish,” to differentiate it from the “territorial” parishes in the diocese. It was designated as the University Oratory of St. Thomas Aquinas. Its purpose was to provide more effectively for the spiritual welfare of the students at the University of Southern Mississippi.
USM’s continued growth with over 800 Catholic students prompted chaplain Father John Rietti to launch a new building program. The Brown Building chapel seated only 110. Masses were often held outdoors beneath the pines on the grounds.
Construction on a new two-story brick Newman Center and worship space began in 1969. The facility was dedicated by Cardinal Cody, chancellor of the Catholic Church Extension Society and Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Chicago on October 1, 1970. The multipurpose building covered 7,000 square feet and cost $142,000. Pastor at the time of the dedication was Father Lorenzo Diamond. He was succeeded by Father Bernard Farrell in 1972.
When the Diocese of Biloxi was established in 1977, churches in Hattiesburg and surrounding areas were moved into the Northern Deanery of the Diocese of Biloxi.
Father Patrick O’Shaughnessy served as both pastor of St. Thomas and Newman program chaplain from February 8, 1978 until 1988. During this period St. Thomas served the spiritual needs of 100 campus-related families in addition to the Catholic students of USM.
In 1988 Father Michael Tracey began his 12-year service to the parishioners of St. Thomas. He wrote, “The Center is a welcome haven for both students and faculty who wish to be nourished in their faith. It is a blend of the seeker and the server; the student and the professor. Each comes together in an atmosphere of friendship and support.”
During Father Tracey’s tenure, a new 500-seat, $670,000 church was built in one year (groundbreaking April 17, 1991) and dedicated by Bishop Joseph L. Howze of Biloxi on April 22, 1992. Father Tracey also wrote the Parish Prayer, which is on a plaque outside the entrance. By this time the parish had grown to approximately 300 families plus students. Sister Annette Seymour served as Campus Minister. To further address the needs of the parish community, a two-story Student Center was built in 1997.
Father Tommy Conway became pastor in September, 2000 and currently serves the 700+ families and Catholic students of USM.
On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina created catastrophic damage on the Gulf Coast and serious damage in the Hattiesburg area. A tree fell on the corner of the church, and the roofs of all St. Thomas structures were compromised. Within a week of the storm St. Thomas became a Katrina Relief Center. In the first month of operation over 40 trucks, many 18 wheelers, delivered supplies to St. Thomas. Volunteers from as far away as California arrived to help in the sorting and distribution of items ranging from diapers and baby food, to wheel barrows and cleaning items. St. Thomas focused on serving smaller communities, which were initially overlooked by other relief agencies. As basic needs of food, water and clothing were met, St. Thomas relief efforts were redirected to help Gulf Coast churches and individuals who had lost everything. Students from the University of Richmond, Notre Dame, and the University of Charleston camped at the St. Thomas Student Center while donating their time to help others.
Interior church renovation was completed in 2006. A two-story St. Joseph storage garage to replace the one damaged by Katrina was completed in 2008. In 2010 the Boy Scouts built the rear property deck.
In 2011 Fr. Godfrey Andoh was appointed Assistant Pastor. Construction of a new multi-purpose center was begun in 2011. A party February, 2012 celebrated its completion. The Parish Disaster Relief Fund and teams helped those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the first tornado to hit Hattiesburg in February, 2013.
In March 2014, Fr. Mark Ropel became Pastor of St.Thomas, serving with Assistant Pastor Fr. David Milton.
1 Brochure written by Father Michael Tracey
2 Hattiesburg, A Pictorial History by Kenneth McCarthy
3 List of pastors and dates from Sacred Heart pictorial directory, circa 1985
4 Diary of Bishop Gerow, Biloxi Diocese archives
5 Clipping from St. Thomas files
6 Documents from archives of Biloxi Diocese
7 Personal experience Carolyn Nation
8 Sr. Rebecca Rutkowski, archives Biloxi Diocese
9 St. Thomas pictorial directory 1992