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Mass resumes at oldest Catholic church after repairs

St. Mary at Plum Bayou sees renovations, new beginning

Published: September 8, 2023         
Chandler Bartel
Catholics around Jefferson County catch up following monthly Mass Aug. 31 outside St. Mary Church in Plum Bayou, the oldest Catholic church in Arkansas.

While the community of Plum Bayou is redefining its future, it is cherishing its past. 

St. Mary Church in Plum Bayou (Jefferson County) is the oldest Catholic church in Arkansas, first constructed on a barge near Arkansas Post by Catholic settlers in 1782. The church was moved on land in 1832. 

In 1838 when Sister Agnes Hart and several Sisters of Loretto came to the state from Kentucky, the first Catholic school in the state, St. Mary Academy, was built. St. Mary Church was moved to its current location in Plum Bayou, roughly 12 miles northeast of Pine Bluff, in 1869, and the wooden exterior was preserved by bricks in 1927.

Until recently, the church sat with nothing but a collection of headstones to keep it company. That is, until Father Joseph Marconi decided that it was time for a fresh start.

Father Marconi is assigned to St. Joseph in Pine Bluff, but his duties extend to the flock in the surrounding communities at Good Shepherd Church in Fordyce, Holy Cross Church in Sheridan and St. Mary Church in Plum Bayou. Mass officially resumed at St. Mary Church about two years ago, Father Marconi said, regularly on the last Thursday of the month. Before then, Mass was only celebrated occasionally at St. Mary. 

When Father Marconi went to see the church for himself, he knew his work would be cut out for him. Renovations began shortly after his arrival. 

“We began restoring it by repairing the ceiling, getting rid of the wasp problem and some of the other damages around the church,” Father Marconi said. “And I thought after it was restored, we needed to have something out there.”

When renovations were completed in fall 2019, Father Marconi assumed he would be the only one at Mass each week but was surprised when nearly a dozen Catholics from nearby parishes began attending Mass. 

One of those Catholics is Jim Rinchuso, who grew up in Pine Bluff and the surrounding area. As a maintenance man in charge of the building and grounds for St. Joseph, Rinchuso said part of his duties include caring for three other Catholic cemeteries in the area. 

One of them was the small cemetery resting behind St. Mary Church. 

“I’ve been working in the cemeteries ever since 2012 when I started,” Rinchuso said. “It’s very emotional when you see whole families buried in one plot, and within two or three years of each other. We take a lot for granted.” 

By extension, Rinchuso fell in love with the little old church and began to help Father Marconi with restoration efforts.

“I’ve got my heart in it because we’ve been working on it so much,” Rinchuso said. “We’ve been working to keep the roof on, and we remodeled the inside. We’ve also been working to fix the leaks in the bell tower.”

Since the structure is so old, there is no central heating and air. Rinchuso devised a way to keep it cool during monthly Mass.

“I’ve cut a few holes in a cooler that I fill up with ice and put a fan on top of it. It’s in a small church room, so it cools it halfway decently,” Rinchuso said. 

As Rinchuso and Father Marconi worked on repairs, Rinchuso noticed that two of the stations of the cross had gone missing. He took it upon himself to create two new ones similar in style to the others. 

“They’re crude, but at least they’re there now,” Rinchuso said humbly. 

The quest to restore the church began to draw the attention of others. Rinchuso said a local repair company, Failla’s Janitor Cleaning and Restoration, whose owners are Catholic, helped with the restoration. One of the owners mentioned the American Catholic History podcast to Rinchuso, who reached out to the podcasters about St. Mary Church. Intrigued, podcast hosts Tom and Noëlle Crowe featured the church in an episode July 31. Rinchuso said ever since, St. Joseph’s parish office began to receive several requests to visit St. Mary Church.

“Evidently, people had been listening,” Rinchuso said. “I would lead them over and show the church to them.”

For Father Marconi, caring for the little church is a way of honoring the origin of the Diocese of Little Rock, and how far the Church has come. In the process, Father Marconi made a discovery about his own family. 

“I realized that all of my immediate family could trace their origins back to this parish,” Father Marconi said. “My grandparents met here and married here. Some people want to preserve it for nostalgia’s sake, but I want to utilize it more. Out of love for my family, I started Mass where my family started and where our diocese started,” Father Marconi said. “I’m learning more about the history of our church and how they brought it up from the Arkansas Post, just by being here. I’m where the Holy Spirit wants me to be.”

Following Mass Aug. 31, parishioners said taking care of the church and working to restore it are symbolic of starting again. Mary Shannon Fikes and Susan Lambert are cradle Catholics born in Pine Bluff and parishioners of St. Joseph Church. Fikes said she was excited when monthly Mass resumed at St. Mary Church.

“I’ve wanted to come out here for the longest time because it’s so historical,” Fikes said.

Lambert added, “We were so happy when we heard (that Mass was resuming).” 

As parishioners pointed out relatives’ names among the tombstones, consensus grew about the importance of Sister Agnes Hart. Parishioners shared the stories of local Catholics who claim to have experienced miraculous healing after praying to the influential nun. Former pastor Father Warren Harvey had researched Sister Hart in the 2000s to build a case for her canonization. Fikes knew one such parishioner who claimed he was miraculously healed. 

“(One parishioner) was diagnosed with cancer, so I took Communion to him in the ICU and I thought he was dying,” Fikes said. “He was in really bad shape. Father Harvey suggested that he pray to Sister Agnes, and he did. Soon he was cured of his cancer.”

While the intrigue in Sister Agnes persists at Plum Bayou, one thing is for certain — St. Mary’s importance in the community and the diocese as a whole.

“This is an older community, and they’ve been here for a long time,” Father Marconi said. “They love Pine Bluff, they love St. Joseph’s and they love the history here. Not a lot of people are moving here, so maybe this is creating a spiritual newness and reawakening the origins of our diocese. If you’re going to start all over, why not do it where it all began?” 

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