Father Jim Pillar, Book Two

By Fr. Harry Winter, O.M.I.

Fr. James J. Pillar, OMI

When Jim Pillar’s initial book The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837-65 was presented here (see Jan. 8, 2020 and Feb. 11, 2020 for two articles developed from the book), Jim had forgotten that he did much of the work on the next volume, 1865-1911. Recently, the chancellor and archivist of the Diocese of Natchez, Mary Woodward, sent me Charles E. Nolan’s successor volume The Catholic Church in Mississippi 1865-1911.

Dr. Nolan, famous for his work on the Catholic Church in New Orleans, is effusive about Jim’s contribution to Nolan’s volume. He wrote “In Another’s Footsteps. Although my name appears as the author of this volume, Father James Pillar, O.M.I., should be included as co-author, an offer he graciously and resolutely refused. In 1964, Pillar published The Catholic Church in Mississippi, 1837-1865. Pillar set his comprehensive ‘historical survey’ of the establishment, formative years, and war crisis of the Diocese of Natchez against a background of national and local secular events as well as Mississippi’s more general religious development.

Immediately after the book was published, Pillar began research on a second volume that would continue Mississippi’s Catholic history through 1911, the transition year between the death of Bishop Thomas Heslin and the arrival of Bishop John Gunn. For more than a quarter century while teaching at Loyola University, New Orleans and exercising an active priestly ministry, Pillar gathered voluminous research notes and drafted more than 300 pages of this projected study. In 1992, poor health forced him into early retirement.

Prior to the 1992 meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association in Oxford, Mississippi, Pillar had confided his uncertainly about the future to Bishop Joseph Brunini, the retired bishop of Jackson. Brunini had encouraged Pillar’s work for many years and was particularly anxious that this second volume be published. At the meeting, the bishop approached me about the possibility of completing this book if Pillar was unable to do so.

In 1993, Pillar recognized that his health was such that he could not complete this work to which he had devoted so much of his scholarly time and energy. He turned over his voluminous notes and the drafts of four chapters to the Diocese of Jackson. Bishop William Houck, Jackson’s current bishop, then asked me to complete this project. Pillar’s notes and drafted chapters are now interwoven throughout the present book. Much of the painstaking research that forms the foundation of this volume was done by James Pillar” (pp.3-4). In a footnote, Nolan explained “Pillar’s four chapters on parishes, education, blacks, and the Choctaw Indians alone totaled more than 300 pages in book format and included 1,307 footnotes” (p. 6, note 6).

When describing the sources of the book, Nolan stated: “The main sources of this history are the extensive collections housed in the archives of the Diocese of Jackson. ..complemented by archival collections at the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Mississippi State Archives, Catholic Church Extension

Society, and the archives of several religious communities. Much of the research in these archives was done by Father James pillar” (p.4).

Nolan began his “Acknowledgments: I am greatly indebted to Father James Pillar. His scholarly research and detailed notes provided the source material for much of this volume. His generous handing over of a half a lifetime of historical work is itself a remarkable page in Southern Catholic historiography; it was also to me an unusual challenge–to craft according to my background, knowledge, and skills a volume that was planned, largely researched, and partially drafted by a respected colleague” (p. 5).

Jim turned 92 on April 26, 2020. His eyesight is almost gone. I wish you could have seen the look on his face as he listened to Nolan’s praise. He had completely forgotten about his work on Nolan’s volume. He exclaimed that Nolan’s praise made his year.

Please remember him in your prayers