Ongoing restoration projects at the Natchez Historic Monument

By SABRINA SIMMS ROBERTSON, Democrat Natchez

Many St. Mary’s Basilica parishioners are unaware of the dire condition of the church’s third floor rectory, Reverend Aaron Williams said.

Above the rectory’s carefully maintained rooms and offices sits an abandoned story that seems to have decayed over the decades. Parts of the ceiling are crumbling and deep cracks are creeping up the walls. A space that previously offered three bedrooms is now unsuitable for human habitation, Williams said.

The presbytery has three floors and a basement that are as old as the church itself, he said. St. Mary’s Basilica was built between 1842 and 1886, which took over 40 years to complete.

“The top floor (of the parsonage) historically had three bedrooms,” Williams said. “A lot of priests lived there and there was no office whereas now the first floor has my office. I live on the second floor and third floor above me – can’t estimate how long it’s been since any work has been done. I imagine it’s been at least 50 years.

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Williams said the floor was neither heated nor cooled and was exposed to moisture from outside. The building was designed in such a way that the heat could escape through the open windows on the top floor.

“If you close them, the whole house gets damp, so we have to leave them open, but the moisture gets in so easily,” he said. “There’s a lot of moisture damage up there and a lot of plaster damage.”

Demolition work has started on this floor recently so that it can be restored to use.

Williams said the third story was “reduced to the posts” to resolve any issues.

“Instead of restoring all three rooms, we would like to restore two and leave the third room as an attic for storage and put windows in there,” he said. “Even though there are no priests in the house these days, Natchez being a tourist town, it is not uncommon for priests to come to Natchez and ask if they can stay. …I joke that I run a hotel from my home. There is always someone there. Having these rooms available would be great. We would like to have this service for priests who cross the city to have accommodation for them.

At the same time, Williams said the church was restoring two stained glass windows that were beginning to bulge and carrying out restoration work in the church steeple.

Williams said it was a coincidence that just as these projects were underway, lightning struck the church and caused extensive damage to electrical equipment, including the church bell, the organ and sound system, resulting in an immediate need to repair or replace older equipment.

Another plan for St. Mary is to build secure museum exhibits in the basement of the church for some of the artifacts hidden inside the church vault, such as books and artifacts from the years 1800 and gifts given to the basilica by popes over several generations.

The museum project has been under discussion for several years, long before Williams became rector, he said.

“We are finally moving forward,” he said. “We have emptied the room that will become the museum and we are now at a point where we are receiving proposals from contractors to do the work. My dream is within a year of at least starting this project.

The church is visible to anyone who visits Natchez, Williams said, adding that he wants those who visit to leave with a good impression of what is there.

“Especially with the two new boats arriving in Natchez in addition to the ones we already have, the basilica is a visible building and people come there. We print 500 self-tour guide brochures every month and not everyone who visits takes one. We know people spend all the time. Anything we can do to expose people to what’s out there would be great.

Those who want to learn more about St. Mary’s Basilica or make contributions can visit www.stmarybasilica.org.

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