LAKE VILLAGE — As parishioners walk to the doors of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Village, they are beckoned by the ringing of the church bells and the peaceful sounds of lapping water on the banks of Lake Chicot. It’s a tradition, breaking bread on this same stretch of land in the Delta of Arkansas, which dates back 150 years.
“It’s pretty amazing that a church is 150 years old,” Ann Marie Sabbatini, 8, stopped to tell Arkansas Catholic in between playing with her little sister Georgia, while their parents, Dino and Sarah Sabbatini, helped prepare for the sesquicentennial festivities Nov. 19.
“It means a lot especially for the older generation,” said parish council president Dino Sabbatini, who was born and raised in the church. “I want them to keep it going and more younger people to go to church.”
The Nov. 19-20 weekend celebration included tours of the church museum, Masses, opening of a time capsule at the grotto of the Virgin Mary that was buried in 2003 and an open dinner reception for members to celebrate what the past had accomplished for the present.
But the story of what is now Our Lady of the Lake Church is ultimately of a woman’s unwavering devotion to God, true love, $150 and six acres of land.
Mary Nell McMaster of Vicksburg, Miss., is in awe once again of Our Lady of the Lake Church. When the parish celebrated 100 years of existence, McMaster, her husband and three children visited what her great-grandmother Katherine Kiernan Johnson, the church’s founder, started so long ago. This time, she attended with her husband, children, grandchildren and one great-grand — four generations celebrating a legacy of faith.
“I feel so blessed to know my great-grandmother started a church … to be strong enough as a little Catholic lady,” McMaster said. “ … I feel very fortunate she gave my family the faith.”
Katherine Kiernan Johnson came to Lake Village in 1857, the 17-year-old bride of Joseph Bertram Johnson, who she met in New Orleans on one of his business trips trading with merchants for his general store in Lake Village. Johnson and his family had moved to the tributary of the Mississippi River that formed Lake Chicot as a child from Tennessee. Katherine, working as a governess, met Joseph while he was in business with her boss, said Our Lady of the Lake Church historian and parishioner Libby Borgognoni.
The couple married at the convent of St. Teresa of Avila in New Orleans, the same sanctuary Katherine roamed as a child with her sister after their parents died on the voyage to America from their native Ireland.
“Her faith meant everything to her, everything because she was so dedicated to the Catholic Church having been raised in the convent,” Borgognoni said.
But in Lake Village, on the west side of Lake Chicot, she had nowhere to practice the Catholic faith.
“She missed going to Mass and receiving the sacraments,” McMaster said.
Though her husband was Methodist, he encouraged her to reach out to bishops in Little Rock and Natchez, La., to establish a Catholic church in Lake Village.
The first Mass was celebrated in the Johnson home with about five or six other families in 1866.
“She just really loved (her faith) so much, but this Methodist to do everything he could to make her dreams a realization was just unbelievable,” Borgognoni said.
The Johnsons paid $150 for four acres of land to build a church, school and cemetery and the other two acres were donated by local businessman Charles J. Scott.
It became St. Mary of the Lake, dedicated by Bishop Edward Fitzgerald in 1869, and a mission of St. Joseph Church in Greenville, Miss. The same year, her husband converted to Catholicism. He died just three years later at 39 years old, leaving Katherine to raise their five children.
After 15 more years in Lake Village, she moved to Greenville and stayed there 21 years, Borgognoni said. She moved to Vicksburg in 1908 to live with her son William Walter and near her daughter, Josephine. She died at age 84 and was buried there in 1925. Her husband is still buried at Lake Village’s cemetery.
In 1896, it was renamed Our Lady of the Lake.
From photos and stories she’s heard throughout the years, McMaster said her great-grandmother, though seemingly small in stature, was a woman of great determination.
“She was still very Irish and curled her hair every night … even the night before she died,” McMaster said.
While the church may have been started by an Irish woman, Italian immigrants laid down roots, reflected in parishioners today.
In 1895, Italians from the regions of Marche, Emilia and Veneto, Italy, boarded the Chateau Iquem with contracts to buy and farm 12½ acres of land owned by Austin Corbin on the Sunnyside Plantation in Lake Village, on the east side of Lake Chicot.
According to the book, “Our Lady of the Lake 1866-2016, Desire Commitment Reality” by Borgognoni, 250 families boarded the ship for $21.60 each, 562 people packed in. Corbin bought an abandoned church and named it St. Anthony for the Italians to worship. Father Pietro Bandini arrived in 1896 to minister to the Sunnyside immigrants as well as Our Lady of the Lake parishioners. The life they were promised deteriorated fast when Corbin died in a carriage accident and his heirs did not honor the contracts. Malaria spread and caused many deaths.
Father Bandini took several Italian families to settle in Tontitown, where St. Joseph Church still has a strong Italian heritage.
With a wide smile, Lena Sampoalesi, 95, said she is proud of her Italian heritage at Our Lady of the Lake.
“All my life … I loved it,” she said of growing up in the parish. “All the folks here, they’re all good people … I don’t know how they can do any better.”
The church that stands today was built in 1939 nestled on the banks of Lake Chicot. The original church became the parish hall, but was torn down in the 1960s to build a new parish hall, Borgognoni said.
Throughout 150 years, the faith community has thrived in the ways of fellowship and evangelization from church picnics dating back to 1896 to St. Mary School which educated children from 1908 to 2015, but has also overcame many hardships.
“Your ancestors turned to Jesus amidst all their trials and we need to do the same thing today,” Bishop Anthony B. Taylor said in his homily Nov. 19. “Amid all this darkness and amid all these fears that we have, hopefully they’re unfounded fears, but they’re real, it’s important to remember in the end, the light is more powerful than the darkness.”
Ask most parishioners, young and old, about how long they’ve been attending Our Lady of the Lake and the answer is typically the same — since birth.
“I grew up with it, it’s just life. The Catholic church, school, friends” became a lifestyle, said Tootie Mazzanti Mencer. Despite hardships throughout the church’s existence, which include the closing of St. Mary School in 2015, Mencer said it all goes back to “perseverance.”
For Sandra Mazzanti, Tootie’s distant cousin, the church is still a mainstay in a city of about 2,500.
“You see people, parishioners in their 90s and they’re thriving — we can’t keep up with them,” Mazzanti said. “It’s a real meeting point and focal point of the town, what else is here?”
To preserve the history, Father Theophilus Okpara, pastor since 2005, asked Borgognoni to compile 150 years into a museum for generations to come. It opened in 2011.
“They are very, very caring and very willing to serve and sacrifice time for the growth of this parish,” Father Okpara said of the 250 families at the parish. “… We have a responsibility to hand it onto the next generation … for God’s work to continue.”
While the next 150 years is the focus, Borgognoni said looking back on what it took to get to this point is something to be celebrated.
“We are one of very few churches in the whole state that is actually celebrating 150 years. If it weren’t for that little woman, we wouldn’t have all the priests we’ve had nor the church … we would have had it later, maybe by a different somebody. But we wouldn’t have had what we had.”
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