St. Gabriel Mercy Center was established in 1999 to serve communities in Bolivar County, deep in the Mississippi Delta region, where Catholics comprise less than one percent of the population. Four Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity direct activities and lead ministries at the center.
The area has a fascinating history. Situated in the northwest quadrant of Mississippi, it is the poorest region in the poorest state in the country. The town of Mound Bayou, where St. Gabriel is located, is in the heart of the Delta and is the oldest all-black community in the United States.
Founded in 1887 by former slaves, Mound Bayou was once a prospering community and home to several businesses, cotton gins, a sawmill and bank — all owned by African-Americans. It had a library, schools, hospital and train station. The town was known as “the jewel of the Delta.”
But Mound Bayou, in the Diocese of Jackson, fell on hard times. Today it is a shell of its former self with only 1,500 residents, shuttered businesses and rundown homes. More than half of its children live below the poverty line.
St. Gabriel lends a hand. It plays a vital role in helping residents thrive amidst the hardships. The Franciscan sisters have managed the center for two years, following the footsteps of the Mercy sisters.
Sister Monica Mary DeQuardo is executive director, with assistance from Sisters Emy Beth Furrer, Mary Beth Kornely and Judanne Stratman. They are joined by a dedicated staff of 11 and are in the process of turning the leadership over to them.
The center hosts many programs as well as partners with local organizations and schools to address a range of needs. It has a computer lab where young adults study for their GED. Many students drop out of high school because of problems at home or economic pressures to support the family. This support toward their education is crucial.
A “parents as teachers” program empowers parents to become better advocates and caregivers for their children. As part of this effort, the sisters and staff visit homes and assess child safety, wellbeing and readiness for preschool. They provide donated toys, strollers, car seats and books.
For the past decade, one staff member has run “Delta boutique” to sew and sell garments to generate funds for the center. She hires local women, teaches them to sew and compensates them for their work.
The center also offers emergency assistance to families in crisis, provides outreach to seniors and operates a thrift shop, food pantry and a summer youth program. Over the years, Catholic Extension has supported several of its programs.
All of the center’s activities foster Christian values, social bonds and a deep investment in the community. “In Mound Bayou, despite the beauty of the people and the magnanimous history of the town, there are many who stand on the margins of life, whether by choice or by chance,” said Sister DeQuardo. “That is who we help.”
The sisters bring a calming and prayerful presence to Mound Bayou. “Our life is rooted in prayer – and our prayer is rooted in life,” Sister DeQuardo explained.