‘Working for God’: Tradition drives effort to keep St. Mary’s Episcopal Church going

Published 4:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2022

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is supported by a key element that is stronger than the red brick protecting it from the elements and the frame that keeps it standing.

The element is tradition — duties and responsibilities passed down through the years since the church was organized in 1885, 137 years ago.

“What we are doing is what our parents did and our godparents did,” said Rita Wyatt, a lifelong member of St. Mary’s and the church clerk. “We are a church of tradition.”

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St. Mary’s is a mission church — a church that does not have a rector and is under the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. Unlike many mission churches, St. Mary’s is self-supporting.

Wyatt and Linda Tolliver, another lifelong member and the church’s first female acolyte, grew up in the church and work to make sure the church and the Sunday services run smoothly.

“Rita Wyatt and Linda Tolliver are two of the saints at St. Mary’s,” said the Rev. Beth Palmer, a retired Episcopal priest who holds services at St. Mary’s. “They are both strong, independent women who are devoted to their church and their community.

“They grew up at St. Mary’s and so they are very devoted to keeping the traditions going and doing all the work that needs to be done,” Palmer added.

Tolliver’s responsibility is to ensure preparations are made for Sunday service.

“I’m responsible for getting the priest; I do the schedule,” she said. “I do the readings (for the service) each week. We use the bulletin and the Book of Common Prayer.”

She said services are made possible through the church’s altar guild — a group of women working together to prepare the church — and one woman who washes the linen to help prepare the church for services.

Tolliver said Episcopal Church rules set guidelines for the church linen; it needs to be washed by hand and there should be no crease in the linen; it must lay smooth on the altar.

As church clerk, Wyatt prepares the reports to the diocese and keeps up with financial reports — the pledges from the church members to the church. She also is responsible for the service’s music based on the Sunday lesson.

“Rita does a splendid job; she uses this synthesizer and it’s just fabulous. She can change the key on the hymns, she can change the tempo on the hymns she can tell it how many stanzas we’re going to sing,” Palmer said.

Growing up in the tradition of St. Mary’s, Tolliver said, brings a certain perspective when it comes to serving the church, adding her daughter who lives in Vicksburg is active in the church and is president of the Episcopal Church Women at St. Mary’s.

“You start working on something because you love it — it’s my church; you want to make sure your church runs smoothly and so you just take the initiative and get things started,” she said. “I contact the priests and do what needs to be done to keep the doors open. It keeps me busy but you want everything to work.”

Wyatt’s son served on the altar after his Confirmation and has remained active in the church in several capacities and still serves on the altar.

“It’s the tradition you learn growing up,” Wyatt said. “We grew up involved.”

“We are at our best when we’re working for God,” Tolliver said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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