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Holy Family Catholic Church
W hen the Vincentian Fathers came to East Alabama at the request of Bishop Allen of Mobile in 1910, they selected Opelika as their headquarters because "no city of the South has better railroad facilities, is more convenient for transportation, and has better connection with the surrounding country." "From this little town", wrote Father Joseph McKey to his friends up North, "the priests will radiate through their assigned territory of ten counties covering six thousand square miles." . One of the towns visited from the beginning was Lanett where there was the third largest number of Catholics in the mission district -- 12 in the town and 2 in the outskirts, out of 114 in the vast overall territory.
In 1913, Mass was celebrated once a month in Lanett and in 1915 it had its own church. Catholics from West Point and LaGrange were part of the congregation; indeed, LaGrange was thus served until 1937 when it was assigned its own priest and Lanett's first pastor, Father Eugene Snyder, made occasional visits there.
The cornerstone laying of Holy Family Church was noted by an obviously local newspaper: "After services at Lanier Hall Sunday morning, the congregation marched to the site of the new Catholic Church on Croft Hill where the brick work of the edifice has been completed, and Father J. P. McKey, of Opelika, with impressive ceremony assisted by Mr. Decker, the contractor, and Jim Merna, laid the cornerstone of the first Catholic Church for the Twin Cities." Merna's father, William Merna, Sr., was the true pioneer of the Lanett Catholic community. When Mass was first offered once a month, the Merna parlor was the gathering place; on the other three Sundays he took his family by train to hear Mass in Montgomery, 90 miles away. It is therefore noted with justice that "the date of 1915 is not a correct timing of the beginning of the Holy Family Church, as long before the present church was built, members met in homes for Mass with priests coming by train from as far away as Montgomery to hold the Mass." This could not have been frequently, however, due to the scarcity of priests and the distance involved; indeed, such is evident from the Merna family's regularly scheduled trips to Montgomery.
Holy Family Church, built "on the highest elevation of the village" was formally dedicated by Bishop Allen on April 11, 1915. Celebrant of the Mass was Father J. P. Molyneaux, second superior of the Vincentians in Alabama, and the sermon was preached by Father William Kerrigan of the Mobile Diocese who was president of the McGill's Institute in Mobile. On the morning of the dedication 10 children made their First Communion at the 7 o'clock Mass. On that day also, two members of the parish, Sue Simmons and Ethel Mulherin, began their lifelong commitment to Holy Family. The new church was hailed as true to its name, "a monument of undying family love" because of the generosity of two other sisters, Susanna Heraty and Mary Rossiter of Germantown, Philadelphia, who built it "in memory of their dear departed brother, Mr. J. P. Hand." The good women also donated "altar candlesticks and candelabra, silver and gold chalice, ciborium and ostensorium." The sanctuary lamp was the gift of Father Shannon, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, Philadelphia.
Father Molyneaux died on November 8 that same year at the Hôtel Dieu, the Daughters of Charity's Hospital in New Orleans; he was mourned as a father to his people, a wise and loving superior, the builder of two churches, Holy Family, Lanett, and St. Vincent's, Salem. He also apparently built well, for when a tornado devastated West Point on May 28, 1920, the Lanett church was the least damaged in the area, repairs coming to a total of $2.50.
The parish's first official pastor and longest in point of service was Father Eugene Snyder who served from 1927 to 1945. He was succeeded by the first resident pastor, Father John King (1945-1952). They were followed by Father Paul Loeffler (1952-1956), Joseph Hill (1956-1960), James Salway (1960-1970), Francis McCormack (1970-1978), Joseph Symes (1978-1980), Gerard Conroy (1980-1982), William Casey (1982-1988), Walter Menig (1988-1994), Martin McGeough (1994-2005), Frank Maguire, (2005-2008), Steve Cantwell (2009- 2010), and Antoo G. Alappat, the present pastor since 2010.
The Opelika house diary records on March 13, 1947, that "Father King left our happy midst to take up residence at Lanett." Parish growth to 80 souls had dictated the move. The house and property adjoining the church had been purchased and renovated to "provide office and living quarters for the resident priest and a hall for the parish." Known for years as the Coffee house, home of the Coffee family, the new parish house was originally the Claude Melton house. Three days after Father King's arrival, the parishioners in true neighborly fashion gave him a linen shower. The following week, March 24, 1947, Bishop Toolen blessed Holy Family rectory, spoke to the parishioners assembled in the church and made them a gift of $500.
By 1951 the number of parishioners had risen to 150. The Vincentian Sisters of Charity came every Saturday from Mother Mary Mission in Phenix City to instruct the children in their faith and their efforts were supported by the Daughters of Charity who came every summer from New Orleans to conduct a four-week religious summer school. These latter were succeeded in future years by Daughters of Charity of the Emmitsburg Province. Two Daughters of Charity from the Evansville Province have served the parish as Directors of Religious Education. They were Sister Therese and Sister Arlene. Presently the parish is served in this capacity by Deacon Donald Canonica.
Father King's missionary efforts included a fifteen minute talk every Saturday for years over the local radio station, and the establishment of a permanent mission in Roanoke, where on January 28, 1950, he offered the first Mass attended by 13 people in the home of Top Sergeant Courtney, local recruiting officer for the Air Force. Father Paul Loeffler later procured a house which he renovated to serve as the present church of the Immaculate Conception.
Father Salway furnished Holy Family with new Stations of the Cross and a new baptismal font. Shortly after Father McCormack arrived in Lanett, he remodeled the interior of the church with new carpeting and pews and a new altar. Just before he left in 1978, an expansion of the church to double its capacity was completed at a cost of $45,000 (the original church had cost $4,500!). In 1984, a confessional/reconciliation room was installed.
Holy Family Parish's extensive area and unusual state border location gives it a unique distinction which was noted -- not necessarily with ecclesiastical or canonical precision -- by a Columbus newspaper reporter in 1977:
"Due to increase in church membership, the dioceses in Alabama and Georgia have been divided. The dividing line in both states cuts in half the section included in Holy Family. Because of this, Holy Family Catholic Church in Lanett is one of the few in four counties, two states, and four dioceses, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile, and Birmingham."
Father McCormack was responsible for the complete remodeling of the church interior. This included new carpeting, pews, and stained glass windows. The removal of the old altar and communion rail and replacement with a new altar facing the congregation, in keeping with the new Liturgy, was also completed.
Father Symes became pastor in 1978. Renovations were completed in the church. The St. Vincent de Paul Society was started, providing food vouchers to the poor, and later, making up food boxes for pick up at the church. This continues to the present time. Also in 1978, Father Symes rode his bicycle in the Valley Haven Hike-Bike-Run. The Knights of Columbus began to support Valley Haven through the Hike-Bike-Run and the Knight's Tootsie Roll Drive each year. The proceeds of the Drive each October since then has generated thousands of dollars for Valley Haven.
Father Conroy arrived in 1981. His time at Holy Family was short, but he remained interested in community affairs. In 1999, he was honored for his contribution to Valley Haven's Hike-Bike-Run.
In 1982, Father Bruce Krause said his first Mass as a Vincentian priest at Holy Family, his home parish. That same year, Father Casey became Pastor at Holy Family. There was a need for a confessional in the church; Father Casey had one built by Mr. Henry Begley, a parishioner and master woodworker.
Our 75th anniversary was celebrated in September, 1970. The Very Reverend Joseph L. Levesque of the Vincentian Congregation of the Mission said Mass on Saturday, after which we held a catered dinner. Then on Sunday the Bishop, the Most Reverend Raymond Boland celebrated Mass and we held a brunch for all present.
Father Walter Menig was our pastor from 1988 to 1995. During his time. Our first Vincentian Lay Affiliate, Jim Hatton, was named. He was followed by several more lay persons who served the parish in a particularly energetic and pious manner. Affiliate is the highest honor that can be awarded to a lay person by the Vincentian order. Father Menig was especially attuned to the needs of our growing number of older members.
During the next several years, Greg Hurley – who served as organist at both Holy Family and Immaculate Conception for over 50 years – was honored by being installed as a Vincentian Lay Affiliate. Sue Copeland was our next honoree for her work keeping the church clean and t he altar and priestly linen clean and in good order.
Father Martin McGeough became our Pastor in 1995 and served for 10 years. Father Marty was an energetic Pastor, working with the West Point Ministerial Association and the New Horizon community theater. The church needed a new roof, and when it was repaired, a beautiful new knotty pine ceiling was installed. The Krause family rented their home in West Point to the church for the Pastor to live in, and the Parish started making plans to replace the old Parish Hall with a new Parish Hall. Work began in 1998 and the new building was completed in 2000. Holy Family now has a very functional Parish Hall complete with a modern office and kitchen, as well as PSR classrooms. The Parish holds many parties and pot-lucks in the new Hall which are enjoyed by young and old alike.
The Vincentians let it be known that they would be leaving our Parish and restructuring their work in the Southeastern United States. Vincentians Father Frank McGuire in arrived in 2005, then our final Vincentian priest, Father Steve Cantwell in 2009, whose business it was to shut down the work of the Vincentian Order in our Parish and to hand it over to the Birmingham Archdiocese. That was completed in 2010, and our first Diocesan Pastor, Father Antoo Alappat, arrived in January 2010, and continues to serve us today.
Holy Family is preparing to celebrate our Centennial year of service to the Community in April, 2015. We will post information on this joyous occasion as it becomes available.
Our pastors over the years: