Schools of Pass Christian
St. Philomena Catholic
The Sister’s School
In June, 1909, prior to Josephite Father Kelly constructing the church at Pass Christian, it was determined that the Pass would become part of a chain of missions along the Gulf Coast to establish a Catholic mission for Negroes. However, for more than forty years, there was already established a little school for colored children that was being taught by two Sisters of Mercy. With their continued coaxing through the years, a school congregation had slowly been formed.
St. Joseph's Colored School
The original school was called St. Joseph's Colored School which had been built as a two-room schoolhouse by the Sisters of Mercy who were housed in St. Paul's Convent. This school was started some time during the mid-1880s primarily to teach the White children and was also used to teach English and music to the older Negro students and prepare classes for First Communion and Confirmation. At that time, most of the Pass Christian born residents spoke primarily French.
In January 21, 1890, a program billing announced a concert performed by students named H. Benoit, J. Charlot, O. Charlot, W.P. Dale, B. Dedeaux, M. Dedeaux, R. Dedeaux, H.M. King, J. Morgan, T. Oliver, J. Romain, E. Saucier, W. Saucier, and remaining students making the chorus with Miss C. Thompson as piano accompanist.
The Sister’s School continued to function until the third year of Father Plunkett's pastorate. The devoted Sisters did splendid work during all those years. The last of whom were Sister Mary Euphrasia and Sister Mary Catherine. Their names were held in benediction among the colored people for many years after.
In 1914, Father Plunkett made the first appeal for funds to build a school. After negotiations with J.H. Knost, a purchase option was placed on the lot adjoining the church for $750.00. For this purpose, Mother Catherine Drexel, Foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, pledged $750.00.
In taking note of Father Plunkett's continuing need for a school, Bishop John Gunn, in October, 1918, urged its construction by offering a $500 contribution providing that $2000 was raised locally toward that purpose.
Two lay teachers who had been taught by the Sisters were engaged to administer to the educational needs of the Parish. From September 1915 to June 1921, these lay teachers were in charge of the school, which averaged 70 students in attendance.
Following a number of months of scouting the city, in March, 1920, Father Sweeney discovered a vacant building and negotiated its purchase for $400 with a view toward dismantling it for use of its lumber for the new school. However, when he approached the Knost family to honor the agreed upon option, it was refused. Appealing to their good will was of no avail. Following repeated overtures, concession was made to pay $1000 instead of the agreed upon $750 that was donated by Sister Catherine Drexel, which amount was stipulated in the option purchase agreement. At the sale, when the owners continued to deny giving a clear title, Father Sweeney then took the Knost family to court and won not only a clear title but had the purchase price reverted to the original $750.00. The pious Father proved that even a mountain could be moved with the gracious force of human energy.
The Parishioners then proceeded to build a four-classroom facility with a meeting hall on the second level. Formal classes started on January 5, 1921 with the lay teachers from the old school included on the staff.
The Sisters of the Holy Ghost of San Antonio, Texas were invited to provide permanent staffing of the new school. This resulted in the need to build a Convent. The Sisters arrived on August 25, 1921, to prepare for school opening on September 5th, with an enrollment of 165 students. The Sisters were temporarily placed in the Rectory until the Convent was completed on November 5th. In the meantime, Father Sweeney was given a room with one of the Parish families.
The need for a Church school was reflected in a January 1920 letter by Father Stephen Sweeney who had been placed in charge of St. Philomena as successor to Father Luke Plunkett on October 1, 1919. At that time, school construction funds that had been raised, amounted to $1800. Its construction continued as a vital part of the Mission's need.
In October, 1935, Father Sweeney reported that the Negro schools in Pass Christian and DeLisle had an attendance of 250 students.
In St. Philomena’s school there were 151 students enrolled, none of whom were paying tuition — with only a few able to pay for their school books.
In May of 1938, Father Sweeney continued to make appeals for financial support for the poor in his congregation who were still hapless and in continued destitute condition.
Even in 1939, he was reporting his gratitude for the small checks received with which to pay the Sisters’ salaries.
Father Sweeney was a loyal, devoted pastor to the church, the school, the Sisters, and his congregation. In a September, 1944 letter of appreciation to the Bishop, he stated, “Our schools! Who can truly estimate their importance, and especially when conducted by our self-sacrificing Sisters? There the seed is sown, the seed of God’s grace, in the minds and hearts of our dear little ones who are so dear to our Blessed Lord, by our devoted Sisters, who leave no stone unturned in their quest, that it will ripen into life Eternal.” Father Stephen Sweeney, Pastor, passed through life in October, 1947, after serving his Pass Christian congregation for 27 years.
Reverend George J. Strype took over as pastor during the early months of 1947. It was soon afterwards when he was called before the U.S. Senate Investigating Committee on Voter Registration. In Washington DC, Father Strype stated that he knew of attempts to deny Negroes their voting rights in Pass Christian. He disclosed that a group of his parishioners were not allowed to vote in the "run-off election" for city officials, even though they had voted in the primaries. He emphatically characterized the act as “the most damnable demonstration of demagoguery in the history of our Southland!”
In May, 1950, he announced that groundbreaking ceremonies would be held in September 1950 for “The Father Sweeney Memorial School.” in commemorating Father Sweeney's 27 years of devotion to the Catholic congregation of St. Philomena. The former wooden structure was dismantled and replaced with a sturdy brick and tile building which exists today as a Parish Hall.
Father Strype announced in February, 1951, that the school was able to serve hot lunches to the children.
In 1954, Father John Rottmann became pastor to St. Philomena and St. Stephen's churches.
Father John J. Murphy succeeded as pastor in 1958. In the annual appreciation letter of assistance to New York, as had been mailed by all prior pastors, he stated that the teaching Sisters belonged to the Order of the Servants of the Holy Ghost. He mentioned that the parents continued to make many sacrifices for their children and that the Sisters untiringly worked with the little funds they had. “Suffer little children to come unto me!” In spite of the conditions, he praised the glory of the wonderful accomplishments being made.
In July, 1960, he reported that the school was the life of the Parish -- the boys on the basketball court; -- the girls with jump ropes and playing hop-scotch and jacks; -- and, the younger ones playing tag and running about with great joy.
Father Murphy reported that St. Philomena celebrated its Golden Jubilee in June 1961. The Parishioners were filled with pride in reviewing the fifty years of progress and the several generations of members who had attended the school and the church.
The Head Start Program allowed pre-school aged enrolled children to look forward to daily creative activity periods consisting of music appreciation, show-and-tell, story time, and indoor and outdoor free play time. Children are also provided nutritious hot lunches and snacks during each day and each is examined for health and social services requirements by trained professionals. The program targets the culturally deprived in giving them successful learning experiences and grade school preparedness.
However, the regular school that had started in 1921, closed in 1967, due to the lack of religious instructors.. The 1966 school year reported 130 students in 8 elementary grades, with four classrooms and four teachers.
Hurricane Camille slammed into the Gulf Coast of Mississippi about 11 o'clock on the night of August 17, 1969, causing great destruction to life and property.
The devastation to the Negro school buildings made it a necessity for the Pass Christian community to move ahead with immediate and complete integration of the public school system.