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Annunciation Parish, Kiln in Hancock County, Mississippi has a long and interesting history. The year 2019 marked a milestone in this wonderful journey as Annunciation Parish celebrated its 150th anniversary. Bishop Louis F. Kihneman celebrated Mass June 23, 2019 followed by a reception in the Parish Hall. Fr. Bob Higginbotham, then pastor, and Bishop Kihneman welcomed all parishioners and friends of Annunciation to this wonderful celebration. This parish was established originally as a mission of Our Lady of the Gulf (O.L.G.) Parish in Bay St. Louis and was then referred to by the Priests as the “Three River Mission.” This referred to the territory adjacent to the Wolf, Jourdan, and Pearl Rivers.
However, lets go back in time to earlier records pertaining to this area. Before the white men settled in this area, Indians of the Choctaw Tribe lived along the riverbanks and traversed the area. In those days this area was covered with old growth long leaf yellow pines, travel would have been difficult and food in scarce supply. The area now known to locals as “Rotten Bayou” takes its name from Indian activity in that area. In Indian it was referred to as “Benesheewah” (pronounced Bene-she-wah) translated as Rotten Bayou from the time Indians slaughtered animals such as deer etc. along the Bayou; they took all they wanted from the animal such as the skin and the meat and left the carcass to rot by the banks of the bayou. A stone marker is still to be seen in Holy Cross Cemetery in Bayou La Croix, marking the spot where many of the Choctaw Indians are believed to be buried. This Cemetery is now in the N.A.S.A. buffer area. The last of the pureblooded Choctaw Indians left this area by 1900 for land grants in Oklahoma, where their descendents reside to this day.
The earliest white settlers of this area were mainly of French descent, moving west from Mobile. Because they were French and most of them were Catholic, French priests also came to minister to their needs. The earliest church records mentioning this area are now kept in the archives in Mobile and St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Missionaries from these areas periodically passed through these parts and maintained the faith as best they could. The first Catholic diocese in Mississippi was established in Natchez in 1837 and ten years later O. L. G. parish was established in Bay St. Louis. It is the fifth oldest parish in the state. The priests from O.L.G. were given responsibility to this area, referred to as the Three Rivers Mission, they generally visited the area every six weeks either by boat or by horseback. An early visitor to the area in the 1850’s described the land south of the 31st parallel as “a dreary and thinly inhabited pine forest.” The humble homes of the few settlers, most of whom were small farmers, were often as much as 15 miles apart. Generally, the forest was unbroken. There was little undergrowth, and there was almost no wild life – even birds were scarce. The meager economic activity of this area was chiefly connected with its vast long-leaf pine forests. There were numerous “kilns” that produced large quantities of turpentine, tar (used for caulking wooden schooners among other things) and as a by-product charcoal. A good deal of timber was exported to France for Naval purposes. Some timber however was worked at local sawmills along the rivers, having been floated out of the forest during the rainy season, partly by natural waterways, as well as long, straight ditches.
Because of the predominance of kilns for making turpentine, charcoal and for drying lumber, this are eventually took the name of the “Kiln.” Wolftown on the Wolf River eventually became known as DeLisle and Gainsville on the Pearl River, once the seat of the County is now no more, except for what remnants can be found within the N.A.S.A. test area.
The lumber business in this area gave rise to many sawmills in the area of the Jourdan River. One of the earliest of these was owned by Sam Favre, who moved here from Mobile. His home built sometime around 1859 on the banks of the River. This house was moved in the early 1900s (1915?) to its present location, immediately to the east of Annunciation Church and has been completely renovated. Another sawmill in the area was owned by Mr. Francois Haas in Bayou Talla and came to known as the Herlihy-Haas Mill. In 1909 the W. W. Carre Co. from New Orleans purchased the Herlihy-Haas Mill and ran it successfully until 1912 when it was severely damaged by fire. In 1913 it was purchased by the Edward Hines Lumber Co. out of Chicago, it was rebuilt as a more modern facility and soon went on to become one of the largest sawmills in the South. During those years, its generator provided electricity to Annunciation Church, since there was no rural electrification in this area in those years. A very fine panoramic photo of the mill during the 1920’s can be viewed in the rectory. It shows the vast expanse of lumber, train tracks, and buildings that occupied the area along the river now directly south of Annunciation Church. You are welcome to come by and view this amazing photograph; it speaks thousands of words. The lumber boom lasted until 1930, but then collapsed due to depletion of the virgin lumber and the Depression. A railroad that served the sawmill was abandoned; the steel was salvaged, shipped to Mobile and exported to Japan to assist in their war efforts. Overnight Kiln became a virtual “ghost town” and most of the businesses closed for good. In order to survive and make a living many local people resorted to distilling illegal whiskey, which like the lumber before it found a ready market in the Chicago area. This area soon got the dubious reputation as the “moonshine capital of the world.”
Diocesan reports indicate that a new church was built here in 1886 to replace the original one in 1869 that had grown too small. It was dedicated by Bishop Janssens in November of that year. From then on, the church was known as the “Church of Annunciation.” Fr. Henry Mortier served it in 1890, followed by Fr. Henry Chauvin, and by 1919, Fr. Alexander C. Denis (pronounced Deni) from Belgium took over as pastor for the next 26 years. He is still remembered by our older parishioners today for his dedication and frugal lifestyle. In an annual report of the Bishop dated 1925 he lists the total populations of Catholics in Kiln at 540 excluding the many missions. Fr. A. C. Denis died in 1953 and his grave is well marked in St. Joseph Cemetery (Rotten Bayou) outside of Diamondhead.
Following the death of Fr. A.C. Denis, the religious order of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians) assumed responsibility for the Parish, with Fr. Francis Xavier Toner assuming the pastorate in June 1945. The missions of Annunciation Parish at the time encompassed Fenton (St. Joseph Chapel), Rocky Hill (St. Louis of France Chapel), White Cypress (Infant Jesus of Prague), and later Catahoula, where a chapel was dedicated in September 1949 (Our Land of the Pines). The Trinitarian Sisters came to the parish in 1950 to assist with the Religious education program. Sister Mary Ellen Henebury is probably the best remembered of these especially for her work as nurse serving the poor of the area for the next 25 years. She died November 27, 1989 at their motherhouse in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the ripe old age of 92.
Then in 1959, Annunciation purchased a public consolidated school that ended up operating in Kiln for many years with 260 students of whom 240 were Catholic. This structure was purchased by the parish from the school board after Hancock North Central was built in the late 50’s. It was renovated by the parish and opened as a Catholic school with classes up to the 8th grade in 1960 with the assistance of the Trinitarian Sisters followed by Sisters from the order of the Religious of Jesus and Mary (R. J. M.) from New York. The school continued to operate up to 1985 when it closed due to insufficient enrollment and financial problems. It is now the present day Annunciation Church.
By the 1970’s, the mission chapel at Rocky Hill had been damaged by Hurricane Camille and it was subsequently closed, as was the Chapel of the Pines in Catahoula when N.A.S.A. acquired almost 1/5th of the county to serve as a buffer around the Test Site. The mission at White Cypress eventually became a parish in the spring of 1982 with its own pastor. The parish was named St. Matthew the Apostle. The remaining mission, St. Joseph in Fenton was closed in 1984. Annunciation was renovated that same year with the side wings being added on and utilizing the pews from St. Joseph’s. It was rededicated in April 1985 by Bishop Joseph Howze.
The Trinitarian Order continued to take care of the parish until 1988 when it reverted to the care of the Diocese of Biloxi and so in June 1988, Fr. Henry McInerney was appointed as pastor here, the first diocesan priest since 1945. The parish then welcomed Fr. John Noone in 2002. Unfortunately, Annunciation was hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. When repairs were being made, it was discovered that the church had more damage than was previously thought. Fr. John received approval to renovate the gym. The old church is now being used as a chapel for daily mass and adoration. With this Annunciation was able to bring decommissioned artifacts from older churches to life in the new church. Then in 2014, Annunciation welcomed Fr. Richard LaCorte as administrator and in 2017 Fr. Bob Higginbotham as our pastor. Currently Fr. Sebastian J. Thekkedath CMI serves the parish and focuses on self-reliant Eucharistic community.