Margaret’s Grocery artist ‘Preacher’ Dennis dies

Published 11:29 am Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Rev. Herman D. “Preacher” Dennis, the man who helped craft the world-renowned Margaret’s Grocery, Vicksburg’s folk-art “Bible castle” on North Washington Street, died Tuesday at Covenant Health and Rehab of Vicksburg. He was 96.

Preacher Dennis and his wife, Margaret, built the colorful castle in the 1980s and 1990s by using a kaleidoscope of red-, white-, pink- and yellow-painted concrete blocks, Styrofoam balls and blocks, cardboard tubes, hand-lettered signs, bottle caps and other common items. The site also features a former school bus that Preacher Dennis turned into a chapel.

In its heyday, Margaret’s Grocery drew visitors from around the world, but since Margaret’s death in 2009, the castle has been crumbling.

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“It’s a cultural heritage icon from the state of Mississippi that needs to be protected,” said Jackson photographer Suzi Altman, who helped found a nonprofit group dedicated to saving the iconic castle.

Altman met Preacher and Margaret Dennis when she moved to Jackson from New York in 2000. She visited the couple at least once a month and made more frequent trips once Preacher Dennis fell ill.

“They had a huge influence on my life, and they taught me a lot of important life lessons,” Altman said.

The nonprofit group hopes to establish a folk art and literacy center in Vicksburg in honor of the couple, Altman said.

Margaret Rogers Dennis had owned the grocery for nearly 40 years when she married Preacher in 1984. When they married, he told her he would build a monument to her and to their faith in God.

Inside the store, Preacher replaced items on the shelves with candelabras and Menorahs, trinkets, religious articles and a replica of the Ark of the Covenant and 10 Commandments tablets. Outside, he affixed hand-lettered signs with Biblical quotes welcoming all Jews and Gentiles.

“God don’t have no white church, and he don’t have no black church,” one sign read.

A native of Rolling Fork whose mother died in childbirth and who left an abusive father at 14, Preacher Dennis was believed to have learned masonry from German prisoners of war in Alabama. Some of the signs reflect his apparent membership in the Freemasons including the eye-catching main entrance welcoming visitors to the home of the double-headed eagle.

The couple signed a deed giving Cool Spring M.B. Church, which sits just behind Margaret’s Grocery, ownership of the store and property upon their death. Calls to the church were not answered this morning.

“The property and his life works are protected, and that’s who the nonprofit has been working with since Margaret’s death,” Altman said.

Preacher was one of Mississippi’s most prominent visionary artists, said Mississippi Arts Commission Heritage Director Mary Margaret Miller.

“There will never be another artist like Reverend Dennis, nor an art environment like Margaret’s Grocery,” Miller said.

The arts commission still receives calls about Margaret’s Grocery from across the country and the world, Miller said.

“Margaret’s Grocery has been the cornerstone of folk art environments in our state and many have traveled far and wide to experience the vernacular architecture created by the Reverand Dennis and Miss Margaret, as well their one-of-a-kind personalities,” Miller said.

Funeral services for Preacher Dennis are pending with W.H. Jefferson Funeral Home in charge.