THE FOUNDATION OF THE MISSION
On September 10, 1910, the Congregation of the Mission took its first steps in the work of “reclaiming the South to the Catholic faith. They purchased the property that is now St. Mary’s Mission House. The pioneer missionaries were Fr. Thomas McDonald, C.M. and Fr. Joseph McKey, C.M. The territory entrusted to them was larger than the state of Connecticut. There were 152 Catholics, plus 20 Catholic students at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University).
The correspondence and negotiations that established the Alabama Mission and St. Mary’s began early in 1910 between Bishop Edward Allen and the Provincial, Fr. Patrick McHale, C.M.. Fr McHale, in a letter to the bishop said that he had heard “from at least two sources that you would be pleased to have us work in your diocese...I am eager to contribute my priests to Mission work in the south.”
In a subsequent letter, Fr. McHale wrote, “I have called my Provincial Council and placed before them the question of taking up the work of the missions in your diocese. After giving them some idea of the situation and the difficulties, they decided that it would probably be better to fix upon Opelika as a center for missionary activity....I have written to him (Superior General) for the requisite permission. As he is constantly urging mission work, I have little misgiving about his answer.
On May 5, 1910 Fr. McHale once again wrote to the Bishop. “I have obtained the Superior General’s approval for the establishment of a house of the Congregation in your diocese. The General highly commends the project of working among the people and thus more fully carrying out the end of our Community.
On July 1, 1910, Fr. McHale sent to the bishop the names of the two Vincentians who would be coming to Alabama. “The priests whom I have chosen for the work are Fr. McDonald, a well-seasoned Missioner and Fr. McKey, a younger man, both enjoy excellent health, and both have faith and a spirit of self-sacrifice.” Later on July 17, 1910 Fr. McHale agin wrote the bishop Fr McKey was going to Eufaula for a short period while “Fr. Lennon and McDonald are now in Alabama to make arrangements for a residence in Opelika.” The men were coming in hope, But Fr. McHale knew and the two Vincentians knew as well that things would not necessarily go easy. In another letter he allowed that Fr. McDonald knew the conditions down there pretty well and so he was prepared for disappointments. He would not be wrong.
Initially the Mission was to be dedicated to St. Vincent. In one of the earliest issues of the “Marian”. A quarterly magazine that was published in and distributed out of Opelika, there is a benefactors’ Certificate for money to be donated to St. Vincent Mission House, Alabama. Sometime in the fall of 1910, according to entries in the House Diary, Fr. McDonald thoughtfully reflected on the place that the Blessed Virgin Mary had in the establishment of the Mission. On September 8, the Birthday of Mary, the deeds of the property were received. On September 15, the Octave of that feast, the property was delivered. On September 18. The Feast of the Seven Dolors, the first Mass in the “Opelika Territory” was said in Tallassee. On October 9, the Maternity of Mary, the first Mass was said in the chapel of the house in Opelika. As he put all of these things together, Fr. McDonald changed the name of the Mission and incorporated the foundation as St. Mary’s Mission House.
But coming up with the name was an easier step than actually getting the property for the Mission. From the beginning of the discussions with the Bishop, it was clear that a town near the railway was highly preferable. Opelika was always a strong first choice, but it was not the only one. Some consideration was given to the Lanett/West Point area, but realizing that it was too close to the state border and would involve discussions with another diocese, Opelika was soon chosen as the place for the Mission House. But just where exactly would that house be? The adventure of finding the residence would take several twists and turns through the summer months of 1910.
The House Diary reports that in the middle of June 1910, the Reverends Lennon and McDonald traveled to Opelika clad in “white neck ties and smiles”. They went through the town looking for a suitable place to liver. With a deal for one place seemingly in place, the two priests returned to the north. This almost proved to be a fatal error to the beginning of the Mission. On September 1, 1910, Fr. McDonald returned to Montgomery where he expected to close the deal. But what he found instead was that the owners had changed their minds and the whole deal was off. He now began a second search and once again just as it appeared that things were to come to a close, that deal also rapidly and surprisingly fell apart. He now had a fear that the townspeople had suspected that the Catholic Church was trying to move into Opelika. One of the residents of Opelika, Mr. John Earle, read a clipping in a Philadelphia newspaper that Vincentian priests were going to reside in Opelika. Mr Earle communicated with Bishop Allen, who in turn, referred him to Fr. McKey in Eufaula, who by that time was already there.
While Mr. Earle was communicating with Fr. McKey in Eufaula, Fr. McDonald was visiting Opelika looking for a place to live. He came upon a homestead known as “The Pines”, which was the home of a family named Dean. This time the Vincentians had an agent from the Diocese of Mobile do the negotiating. This transaction was successfully completed and the deeds were transferred. The Opelika newspaper reported that a “Mr. McDonald”, a millionaire financier from New York had secured “The Pines” because of the benefit the climate would afford to his ailing wife.
The property cost $12,000. It was only after all this that Fr. McDonald and soon after from Eufaula Fr. McKey traveled to Opelika, openly wearing Roman collars. Then, for the first time, the townspeople really knew for certain that the Catholic Church had indeed gained a foothold in East Central Alabama. Fr. McKey wrote, perhaps somewhat cynically, “They were very genial, not the least bigoted. Why should bigotry frown, when a dollar smiles.” The next day the newspaper had to report the now known truth of who was entering into Opelika.
This strange and twisted beginning is how life began for the Vincentians in Alabama, particularly in Opelika. It is a journey that has now seen more than 95 years go by. The one thing for certain is that it has continued to know many twists and turns and will continue to know them through the future.