St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St Louis, MS

I often head out on photo safaris along the Gulf Coast with no definite destination in mind. On one of my recent expeditions, I found myself in Bay St. Louis, MS, a place I’ve often heard about but have never had the opportunity to visit. The old part of town was filled with lovely old Creole homes and historic buildings. The place that I found the most fascinating that day, however, was the St. Augustine Seminary. This serene sanctuary is located a couple of blocks from the heart of downtown. The lovely brick chapel first caught my attention and when I spied a historic marker, I knew it was worth checking out.

History and Background:

As I entered the grounds, I also noticed a nearby grotto nestled at the base of a hill near the chapel. According to the marker, this seminary was established in Greenville, MS in 1920 before being moved to Bay St. Louis in 1923. The grounds include not only the chapel and grotto but also a complex of buildings that are used as dorms and meeting rooms. According to the plaque, “St. Augustine was the first seminary in the United States to train Black men for the priesthood. The Society of the Divine Word, an international order of Catholic missionaries, overcame racial, political, and financial barriers to establish the seminary.” You can find out more about the challenges faced by the founders of the seminary at the Society of the Divine Word Southern Province website. The seminary closed in 1968 as a place of higher education but remained a high school seminary until 1982. St. Augustine Seminary now serves as a retreat center for the SVD’s southern province. It also serves as the headquarters of In a Word, the province’s periodical on African-American Catholic news

Architectural and Aesthetic Features:

The Marian grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, a French apparition from the 19th century, is located near the chapel at the base of a small outdoor stairway. The grotto is open to the public by appointment, according to a tourism website for the state of Mississippi. I did not have an appointment and there were no other visitors present when I was there, but the grotto was open and interior lights and candles gave me the courage to walk through the small tunnels in order to view the various frescoes on display.

Cultural Significance:

During the post-civil war period of American history, the challenge of opening this seminary was daunting. The success of the seminary and the eventual ordination of African American priests trained in the United States was a significant victory for the fight for equal rights and a good step toward changing long-held beliefs and prejudices even among religious leaders of the nation.

Visitor Experience:

The chapel parking lot is easily accessible. The historic marker, a bronze statue of St. Augustine and a large church bell are all near the chapel in the church parking lot. A short flight of steps, probably about 8 to 10, would make it difficult for anyone with mobility issues to get to the grotto. The ramp and passages of the grotto are also narrow and rugged. There is a park bench near the grotto.

Local Impact:

The Divine Word Chapel of the former seminary is a contributing property in the Old Bay St Louis Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, along with two other buildings on the property, including an Agony Grotto and Sacred Heart Shrine.

Events and Activities:

St. Augustine Seminary celebrated its centennial Oct 29, 2023 with a special Mass on the seminary grounds. According to the seminary’s Facebook page, the chapel is open for Morning Prayer at 7am followed by Mass Monday through Saturday at 7:15am and Sunday at 9am.

I can certainly see why St. Augustine Seminary would be a lovely venue for spiritual retreats. There was a tangible sense of peace and tranquility about the place for the few minutes that I was there. I was drawn to the Lourdes Grotto, and despite the frigid winter temperatures the day of my visit, I felt such a sense of comfort taking a few minutes for prayer and meditation in this sacred place.  I was reminded of how often the scriptures tell us to set aside time for God. While churches, chapels, grottos and other sacred spaces offer peace and serenity for personal prayer and meditation, having a dedicated space in our home is important for daily devotions. Check out some ideas for creating your own personal sacred sanctuary.

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