Founding Father|Genealogy search brings Germans to St. Mary’s

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 3, 2009

When Richard Heindl saw the old photograph of a Catholic priest in his grandmother’s picture album, he asked a question that would be more than 10 years in the answering: Who is that?

The simple answer was Heindl’s great-great uncle, the Rev. Aloysius Heick, S.V.D., a German priest who traveled to America as a missionary more than 100 years ago.

Researching Heick’s work was a decade-long quest, which culminated this week with Heindl, his wife, Irmgard, and son Bernard making a pilgrimage from their home in Alteglofsheim, Germany, to the Mississippi churches his distant uncle established for blacks a century ago.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

“I want to know more about this man,” Heindl said Monday, as he and his family visited St. Mary’s Catholic Church, founded by Heick in 1906. “My first priority is to make his work known in his home parish in Germany. Very little is known about the work he did here. We want the people back home to know what a great man he was.”

St. Mary’s hosted a special pilgrimage service for Heindl and his family, with fellowship and refreshments afterward.

During the first two decades of the 1900s, Heick worked to form Roman Catholic churches and schools for blacks in Vicksburg, Jackson, Meridian and Greenville, as well as the first seminary in Mississippi to train blacks for the priesthood. The work was controversial, sometimes dangerous for Heick, who persisted despite threats to his life and attempted intimidation, because of his belief that black children should have access to good schools.

“That was the way he was raised in his Catholic faith,” Heindl said. “It ran deep in his family. His sister had a son who also became a priest in Germany.”

“I really think he should be canonized,” said the Rev. Malcolm O’Leary, pastor of St. Mary’s, which continues to serve a predominantly black congregation and includes parishioners who attended St. Mary’s Catholic School, closed in 1964 when the city’s Catholic schools were integrated. “He had to be a saint to do what he did.”

Heick was raised in Alteglofsheim, a city in east-central Bavaria. He was baptized in the church where Heindl and his family still worship, and his descendants live in the farmhouse where Heick and his six sisters grew up. Heick’s father planned for him to take over the farm, and was dismayed when he announced his plan to become a priest, Heindl said.

After his ordination, Heick celebrated the first Mass and offered the first Holy Communion of his priesthood in the small Alteglofsheim church, but his vocation led him to Chicago in November 1900. His religious order, the Society of the Divine Word, sent him to Merigold, in the Mississippi Delta, in July 1905.

Mississippi was considered a mission area for the church, its diocese centered in Natchez, writes church historian Michael V. Namorato in “The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1911-1984.” Natchez had the sole black Catholic church in the state at the time. Building schools — for both blacks and whites — was a form of spiritual outreach, but also helped the state’s many Protestants “gain a more personal and firsthand look at who and what Catholics were and did and what they believed in and did,” Namorato writes.

Heick’s work in Merigold was cut short, however, when he tried to settle a dispute that had already caused one man to be severely beaten. Heick’s life was threatened. Friends concealed him in an ambulance, took him to Greenville and put him on a steamship to Vicksburg.

Within six months, Heick had founded St. Mary’s, celebrating the first Mass there on Feb. 2, 1906. The school opened that September.

“The main thing was that he wanted a higher level of education for blacks in Mississippi,” O’Leary said. “His work also served as a challenge to local school authorities. They had to raise the level of education for the blacks.”

Parishioner Evelyn Floyd, St. Mary’s class of 1940, is believed to be the oldest living graduate of the school. Students were not taught about Heick’s role in its founding, she said, but should have been. “If it hadn’t been for him we wouldn’t have all of this,” she said.

From Vicksburg, Heick went on to found Holy Ghost Catholic Church and school in Jackson in 1908, St. Joseph church and school in Meridian in 1910, and Sacred Heart church and school in Greenville in 1913, all serving blacks.

He also helped establish the first seminary to train blacks for the priesthood in Greenville in 1920. The school was moved to Bay St. Louis in 1923 when Delta residents objected to white nuns helping in a school with young black men, O’Leary said.

The 10-day pilgrimage has taken Heindl and his family first to Techny, Ill., where Heick is buried and to Vicksburg.

 This weekend they are in Jackson, helping Holy Ghost celebrate its centennial. Then they will visit the Meridian and Greenville churches and perhaps get to Bay St. Louis before heading back home, Heindl said.

“It was a very great moment for all of us,” Heindl said of his visit to St. Mary’s. He presented O’Leary and the parishioners of St. Mary’s with a white candle featuring a color image of the Alteglofsheim church, along with a number of photographs of Heick, his German home, grave site and other scenes.

“Father Heick certainly left his spirit in this church,” O’Leary told the Heindls. “As you visit the places he started, I hope you return home with a sense of the great love and spirit of Father Heick.”


Contact Pamela Hitchins at