A glimpse at rural America

Forty-two Mississippi counties lost population during the period 2000-2003.  In other words, just over half the counties lost population. Nationally, 13 states had at least 50% of their counties lose population. The highest percentage was found in North Dakota, where 92% of the state’s counties lost population. The second highest percentage was in Nebraska, at 71%. Looking at the states that touch Mississippi, Arkansas had 49% of its counties lose population, Alabama had 64%, Tennessee had 16% and Louisiana had 56%. Please keep in mind that Mississippi and each of its border states had overall population increases. It’s just that the population shifted around inside the states.

John Mayo of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and a frequent blogger, recently provided an interesting perspective on how changing dempgraphics affect one bastion of rural communities – the church.  With his permission, his comments appear below.

Twenty-four years have passed since I last attended Mass at St. Mary’s in Shelby, Mississippi. My first wife Dianne (nee’ Belenchia) and I were the first couple or at least among the first to be married in what was then the new Church in 1970.

St. Mary’s, along with St. George’s Episcopal in Clarksdale, are two of the most beautiful churches I have been to.  They are small and simply designed for worship.

In the 70’s, perhaps 300-350 people or more on occasion attended St. Mary’s.   Dianne’s  family with seven children would often split up if we arrived late. Most Sundays after our daughters were born we attended Mass with them, Dianne’s parents, and her brothers and sisters.   Then it was over to the house two blocks away for some rigatoni

I did not know her then, but at the time, Agnes, my future wife and her growing family, also attended St. Mary’s.

Attending Mass was an affair in many ways.  A close knit Italian community made the Mass both a celebration of worship and family.

Today, surrounding the altar in a semi-circle of six pews deep, each capable of holding 50 or more, there were 45 persons at Mass.  Once having its own priest, Shelby now shares Fr. John Vallor with Clarksdale and Mound Bayou and has Mass every other Sunday.

St. Mary’s in Shelby is a microcosm of small town America.  I counted seven children under 10, four were my grandchildren.  There was another boy under 15, a couple men in their early 20’s and the rest were, well, far older than 20.

I know it’s an understatement to say we’re losing our close knit, small town characteristics, but I was a bit saddened and taken aback to see what was once a bustling family church of active young adults, their families, grandparents, and even great grandparents come to a dwindling congregation attending Mass in their home church every other week.

The upside is an industry has grown through this phenomena of disappearing small towns.  At least in the African-American families, in Clarksdale we see hundreds of people coming to town every summer to attend dozens of family reunions.  Every year the same family has a reunion.  And, while we are no doubt grateful for the economic impact they have, I am heartened that the young ones come back to see their ancestral homes and attend their “home” churches.

You could tell when Agnes and I attended Mass this morning that many were glad to see us again.  Well, ok, at least they were glad to see Agnes.  Seemed like half of  those at Mass hugged Agnes and caught up on old times.

Shelby, itself, appears to be a very clean town.  I noticed a couple of houses being torn down and vacant lots were well kept.  Old highway 61 through town looked good.

If we are not careful, one day the last person will either turn the lights out as they leave “Small Town, USA”; or, a couple of the last people will organize annual homecomings and at least once a year, bring people back to “see where you’re grandparents once lived.”

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