About the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Catholic tradition in the historic multi-ethnic City of Biloxi finds its strongest roots in the development and growth of Nativity Church. When the French Monarch, Louis XIV established the colony of Louisiana, Catholic priests accompanied every ship. But a scarcity of priests prevented them from establishing churches in the towns along the Coast for more than a hundred years.
During that time, the people were depended on occasional visists of overworked missionary priests from New Orleans and Mobile.
Prior to early 1900, Nativity was the parent church, continuing missions dating back to the French Colonial era. It served the entire area, first as a modest structure in 1843, which was severely damaged by an 1869 hurricane; then as a larger frame church from 1870 until obliterated by fire in 1900.
This was the year when half of downtown Biloxi fell prey to the fiery conflagration. The tragedy was perhaps unparallel in the history of the diocese; one from which Nativity rose to become larger and stronger.
Under the leadership of Pastor Alphonse Ketels, the congregation initiated a rebuilding program. In February, 1901, Father Ketels traveled to his native Europe to seek further assistance in the rebuilding of his beloved parish.
When the rebuilding program, November, 1901, The Most Reverend Thomas Helsin, Bishop of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, employed the services of Theodore Brune, a noted German architect residing in New Orleans, and responsible for some of the best buildings constructed in Biloxi at the turn of the century, to design a new and much more substantial church for the people of the growing parish.
The third church of The Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary built on the northwest corner of West Howard Avenue and Fayard Street was constructed in 1902, by J.F. Barnes and Company. A fine example of late Gothic Revival, it was dedicated to The Blessed Virgin Mary, the most perfect image of how humankind should respond to God's love, September 14, 1902.
The adversity was not over. More damage would occur in the 1906, 1969 and 1985 hurricanes. Other improvements necessarily followed and are continual, revealing impressions of the strong faith and character of Nativity's continuous generations of benevolent parishioners and friends, here and abroad.
In 1929, the entire interior of the Church was repainted using a donation from Alfred E. Smith, Governor of New York, and the first unsuccessful Catholic candidate for President of the United States, who visited Nativity that year.
During 1942, personnel assigned to Keesler Field -- as Keesler Air Force Base was known at that time -- laid a new floor in the Church overnight. The task involved 30 men.
Three Italian pearl beige marble altars were donated by parishioners and installed in 1943 -- the main altar with its symbolic carving of The Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and the marble wainscoting; the Saint Joseph's east side altar and the Sacred Heart west side altar with a picture of our Mother of Perpetual Help.
The present cherished Miriam west side altar is a perpetual symbol of Mary's spiritual message that "...all generations shall call her blessed..." (Luke 1,48) Gothic detail is legion in Nativity B.V.M.'s splendid House of God.
On the exterior of the church are numerous lancet windows of all sizes and on all sides. Sturdy buttresses are on every corner and others separate the bays of the side facades. The vaulted interior has groin vaults in both nave and aisles, the two being separated by an arcade of pointed arches. The vaults in the nave are higher and wider than those in the aisles. The piers of the arcade are made up of grouped colonettes with elaborate gilded capitals.
Another unique feature of of the Church is the square tower on the southeast corner of the building that was originally meant to hold the steeple. It houses the huge four-faced clock with its powerful bell and the stairs to the choir loft where the pipe organ, piano and chimes are installed.
The clock came from the Seth Thomas Company of New York, while the bell came from Baltimore, the Maryland City that also furnished Biloxi with its pre-fab lighthouse in 1848, and its thousands of Polish immigrant workers for the seafood industry during the first 28 years of its existence.
The great clock was electrified in 1959. Its thunderous bell continues to toll in clear tones heard all over downtown Biloxi.
The awe-inspiring 22-rank Wicks pipe organ was first used in 1980 at the intonation of the Easter Vigil Gloria. Three years later, a piano was placed in the choir loft to enhance Nativity Cathedral Choir's professional growth.
Appreciation for the talent and leadership of the Minister of Music and expressions of joy in being a member of Nativity Cathedral's Choir is commonplace in Biloxi. Chimes, donated by a parishioner, were dedicated and used for the first time during the 1984, Easter Vigil Service.
Fourteen ceiling frescos in the nave depict two symbolic paintings and twelve saints. The first symbolic fresco located on the northwest nave depicts Our Lord's Flaming Sacred Heart, symbolizing His burning love for us, and The Crown of Thorns around His Heart, symbolizing sacrifices to make up for sin.
An angel symbolizing immortal spirits, who are messengers of God is depicted in the second (northwest nave) fresco. The word angel is Greek in origin and means messenger.
The two saints depicted in the choir loft are Saint Cecilia, Patroness of Music and Musicians, and Pope Gregory I, (540-604), Doctor of the Church, known as Gregory the Great, Patron of Music and Singers, who introduced Gregorian chant to humankind. (His mother was Saint Silvia and his father, a Roman senator.)
The ten remaining frescos are saints in heaven who are now enjoying their triumph with God. They are members of the Church Triumphant, and the Church honors all of them on the Feast of All Saints, November 1.
Down through the decades lovingly provident God has blessed Nativity B.V.M Parish with many priests, brothers, nuns and laity who spent themselves for the temporal and spiritual welfare of Biloxi and their parish.
In 1989, a renovation and restoration project began and a chapel was added. The marble altars and some statuary were moved to the new Marian chapel where daily Mass, small liturgical celebrations, weddings and funerals are held.
The Bishop's Coat of Arms, the Bishop's Chair - an antique carved Cathedra - and the hand-carved wood altar were installed in the Cathedral's sanctuary. New pews were installed and the original pews were used as wainscoting for the Cathedral walls and sanctuary.
In May, 1990, re-dedication ceremonies were held along with the dedication of the Marian Chapel.
Information courtesy www.nativitybvmcathedral.org