- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
Cuz’s Old Town Oyster Bar & Grill
Three generations of a coast family check out the new location of a popular restaurant that's a three-generation operation. The result? An exceptionally satisfying meal.
- story by Lisa Monti, photos by Lisa Monti and Ellis Anderson
Cuz’s is open daily at 108 South Beach Boulevard.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
A bit before the lunch time crush, we settled into a booth overlooking the courtyard seating, which was filling up as quickly as the dining room on this warm weekday with regulars, workers on lunch break, and visitors with shopping bags.
Cuz’s opened last year with a new name to reflect its new beach location – Cuz’s Old Town Oyster Bar & Grill – and polished up the popular seafood-packed menu with some new items like smoked redfish and tuna appetizers, chargrilled oysters, and pastas. The new grilled items are winning raves from customers while the old favorites, like fresh seafood served boiled or fried, are as popular as ever. The seafood is local and it’s cooked fresh.
We three generations – my niece Becky Monti Necaise, her daughter Emily, and me – bounced around the menu before settling on our favorites from the poboy section, where there’s no way you can go wrong. One half oyster poboy, one half shrimp and one half roast beef, with shared onion rings and fried sweet potatoes on the side.
We waited for our orders while visiting with other customers going in out of the dining room and talked briefly with Christy as she worked her way around the tables, checking to make sure things were flowing smoothly.
Cuz’s, she said, is a real family operation with the Barnes daughters and grandchildren playing a part in the day-to-day operation. “So it is definitely a family affair,” Christy said.
What’s better at the height of hunger than a properly made poboy on chewy french bread, fried seafood spilling out and dressed modestly with shredded lettuce, tomato slices and crispy pickles? Not much. The shrimp were fresh and tasty, seasoned and fried just right, as were the oysters.
The onion rings, something of a rare treat for me, were the crispiest I can remember ever having, and those sweet potato fries were as delicious as any side you could order. The roast beef, Emily reported, was juicy, full of flavor and piled high.
The new location in the French Settlement building also gave the owners some room to add offerings for their customers. Frozen daiquiris have been a big hit, and so have the gourmet popsicles handcrafted in small batches by Gulfport-based Pop Brothers. Don’t be surprised if the Cuz’s crew keeps coming up with new things to keep the restaurant fresh for its new and regular customers.
A Take on Two Coast Museums
Seasoned reporter and new coast resident John Branston weighs in on two popular visitor attractions - with a fresh perspective.
I had a miniscule part in this deal. In 2003, 2004, and 2005 I was working as a freelance writer for the state of Mississippi Department of Tourism, writing stories for their annual magazine, which printed an astonishing number of copies in the hundreds of thousands and therefore paid an astonishing – by journalism standards – amount of money for a two-week paid vacation from my regular job in Memphis.
The Ohr museum, as it was then called, was just coming to fruition before Katrina hit. My editor had a gentle hand, and advised me to put a little something into the mix along with casinos when I got to the coast. I was one of the wordsmiths who jumped on the “mad potter of Biloxi” with the wild eyes and elegant handlebar mustache as eye candy for my hackneyed travelogue, just as casinos aspire to be more than, well, casinos.
As everyone on the coast knows, internationally famous architect Frank Gehry was hired and came up with those stainless-steel pods. Take that, Ocean Springs and Shearwater Pottery!
The trouble is, as even an art dilettante like me could foresee, giant pods trump giant pots every time.
You can drive by or park in the parking lot and walk around the grounds and admire Mr. Gehry's creations without setting foot inside the main building to see Mr. Ohr's creations.
Never mind, said the editor in Tupelo, the story is swell the way it is. Let Biloxi worry about the turnstile count and the balance sheet.
And this is where the O'Keefe name comes in. My guests (and fellow art dilettantes and crossword puzzle buffs) all assumed, as I did the first time, that art works of painter Georgia O'Keefe would be on display along with ceramics. Later on we learned about benefactor Annette O'Keefe. Good citizenship and good marketing, but not enough to make the museum a moneymaker going up against slot machines, singers, and sand. No snarkiness intended, but a benefactor named Elvis Anything might have helped more in the naming department. Believe me, it has worked in Memphis and Tennessee for 40 years.
Which brings me to another museum less than a mile away, the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum. What a glorious collection of schooners, trawlers, speedboats, and sloops. What a tribute to shrimpers, sailors, shuckers, immigrants, guts, unbelievably hard work, recovery, compassion, and the human spirit.
Worth an hour, an afternoon, a day of a visitor's time. Essential crash course in local history for any newcomer. And a triumph of substance over style and marketing.
Off the Road, Along the Beach
Another segment is being added to the popular beachfront walking/biking path, with plans in the works to make Hancock's coast road even more appealing to cyclists and pedestrians.
- story by Laurie Johnson
Allison Anderson of Unabridged Architecture is a longtime member of the Greenways and Scenic Byways Committee. She says that the new section of pathway helps move forward the committee’s long-range goals of offering a quality-of-life amenity for locals and creating a major visitor attraction.
Anderson says that when the new stretch is complete, only two gaps in the off-road trail will exist between the Bay Bridge and Bayou Caddy — a total distance of nearly nine miles.
One of those gaps is between the east side of Buccaneer State Park and Lakeshore Road, a distance of 2.25 miles. There’s only seawall there, with no beach to act as a bed for the concrete pathway. The Greenways committee is working toward eventually finding funding for an inland side segment of the path. Currently, pedestrians and bicyclists share the road with motor vehicles.
The other gap, about 1.15 miles, is between the east end of the paved pathway at the Washington Street Pier and the foot of the Bay Bridge, at Beach Boulevard and Highway 90. Although a sidewalk extends through that segment that passes through the heart of Old Town Bay St. Louis, building a dedicated bike path isn’t possible because of the seawall and high-density traffic and parking. But Anderson says that the committee has come up with an innovative way to improve cyclist safety in that section.
Anderson says the committee is applying for a grant with Transportation of America to fund a cultural signage project along that gap. The signage will actually be in the form of permanent pavement markings designed to raise awareness with motorists about sharing the road. These “road medallions” will be eye-catching and attractive, too, since they’ll be designed by local artists.
“This is the road we’ve got, so we’re going to have to make it work,” says Anderson. “And this pavement marking system will allow us to do raise awareness with motorists in a very artistic manner.”
In 2014, local cycling enthusiast Myron Labat formed a group called the Bay Roller Cycling Club. Members of the 11-member group of amateur cyclists are sharing their love of cycling and giving back to the community at the same time.
Labat reports the group secured sponsorships from Hancock Bank, Keesler Federal Credit Union and Coast Electric Power Association to help their fund projects like the Christmas Bicycle Drive. Last year, the Bay Rollers donated 110 bicycles and helmets to local elementary school students.
In addition, members educate the recipients on how to operate bicycles around town safely. Kids learn the basic rules of the road and are taught not to get on the roads without an adult rider. Labat says they also encourage parents to continue bicycle safety education as they ride together.
Both Anderson and Labat want people to know that Mississippi law requires that motorists leave three feet of space between bicycles and their vehicle. Bike paths create a dedicated space for cyclists, but riders can use the roadways as long as they do so responsibly and safely. Signs are needed in many areas to remind everyone to share the road.
For those new to using bike paths, it’s important to know how to coexist safely with cars. Bicycles are allowed to take up the whole bike path lane and should always follow the roadway rules, just like a car.
Riders should never be on sidewalks dedicated for pedestrians. Cyclists should follow the same path of travel as cars; biking directly into oncoming traffic is a huge safety risk for the cyclist and motorists.
Labat says recreational athletes who enjoy cycling come to Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Lakeshore from across the U.S. because there are low speed roads with relatively low traffic. And the views are fantastic.
He notes, “If you have a beach cruiser and your intention is not to go very fast, the bike path is perfect for that.”
But road bikes are designed for speed, and Labat says cyclists on those bikes will want to share the road outside of the bike path and can do so safely and responsibly according to state law.
Labat says anyone can join their group by finding them on Facebook or contacting him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. “There’s an old saying that you can’t be mad riding a bicycle.”
For more information about biking safety, see the website for the League of American Bicyclists.
Ship Island Cruise
A hearty breakfast, a boat ride, a barrier island with a fort and a shore-side restaurant dinner: the perfect Mississippi summer day.
- story and photos by Karen Fineran
Ship Island, about two square miles in area, lies about 12 miles from Gulfport, between Horn Island on the east and Cat Island on the west. The island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the nutrient-rich waters of mainland bayous and salt marshes serve as breeding grounds for shrimp, crabs and fish. The island’s beaches provide nesting sites for shorebirds and endangered loggerhead sea turtles.
This year, Ship Island Excursions is commemorating the 80th anniversary of their flagship ferry ship, the Pan American Clipper, which has been operating continuously since 1937.
Our day started early on a Monday morning. The ferry leaves Gulfport at 9 a.m., and we wanted to have enough time that morning to make sandwiches for lunch and to have a filling breakfast before we started our day on the island.
A quick internet search for places near the harbor that open early led us to By the Slice Café (28 Pass Road in Gulfport), which opens at 6:30 every morning. We arrived at the café at 7:30.
Service was speedy after we told the waitress that we were going to Ship Island. I ordered the house specialty, the Potato Casserole Wedge, a hearty slice of baked cheesy goodness topped with slices of bacon and more crusty cheese ($3.99).
My friend had a sausage and Colby cheese omelet ($4.99), and his teenagers seemed well satisfied with their biscuits and sausage gravy. We ordered a club sandwich to go; our waitress told us that many people on their way to Ship Island order a salad or sandwich to-go from the lunch menu, or a piece of cheesecake or brownie from the well-stocked dessert case.
A few minutes’ drive brought us to the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor at the intersection of U.S. Highways 90 and 49. After a short wait, we boarded the “Capt. Pete” ferry, along with couples, families, and groups hauling coolers, chairs and backpacks. The ferry was inviting, with seating outside above deck or at comfortable tables and booths inside. There were large, clean restrooms and a snack bar.
Ship Island Excursions operates through a contract with the U.S. National Park Service, which administers the string of Mississippi barrier islands as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Our skipper that day was Captain Buck, one of six licensed ship captains who work for the organization. During peak season, the skippers pilot the Ship Island ferries, and during the off-season, they perform maintenance and testing on the ferries or take other maritime jobs.
Captain Buck advised us that we had made a good choice by coming on a weekday. “Saturdays in summer are super busy, and they sometimes sell out. I always tell people that they’ll probably find a less crowded boat and a more peaceful beach on a weekday.”
A Short Dip Into Ship Island History
As I sipped coffee from the snack bar and read my iPad during the 50-minute ferry ride, I took the opportunity to research Ship Island’s history. (My reading was briefly interrupted when excited passengers rushed to get photos of the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins jumping alongside the ship.)
It turns out that Ship Island played quite an important role in the settlement of the Gulf Coast. Having the only deep-water harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River, the island served as a vital anchorage for ships bearing explorers and colonists.
Ship Island was named by the French in 1699 (“Ile aux Vaisseaux”), who were impressed with the protected deep-water anchorage it offered their ships. Some believe that in 1699, Ship Island was the place of the first recorded celebration of Mardi Gras in what is now the United States! (A French explorer is said to have named it “Mardi Gras Island.”) After New Orleans was founded to the west in 1718, Ship Island served as the principal port of entry from Europe for French colonists.
During the War of 1812, the area between Ship Island and Cat Island served as the assembling area and launching point for the 60 British ships that unsuccessfully attempted to capture New Orleans in the Battle of New Orleans.
During the Civil War, Ship Island served as the base from which Admiral David Farragut’s Union fleet sailed in 1862 to attack and capture the ports of New Orleans and Mobile. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
In 1933, the United States sold the western section of Ship Island, including Fort Massachusetts, to American Legion Post 119 in Gulfport. The Legion built an island fishing resort for WWI veterans, with a pier, a canteen restaurant, and cottages. It even enclosed parts of the old fort itself as rustic lodging. (The Legion turned the resort over to the National Park Service in 1971.)
During World War II, the Coast Guard used Ship Island for anti-submarine beach patrol.
In 1969, Ship Island was changed irrevocably when Hurricane Camille’s massive 30-foot tidal surge cut Ship Island into two separate islands, creating East and West Ship Islands. Everything on West Ship Island was completely destroyed, including a new 3,000 square foot snack bar, a power plant, and a 300-foot boat dock.
East Ship Island remains mostly vegetation and wildlife, accessible only by private or chartered boat, while West Ship Island is a tourist destination, with most visitors arriving by the privately owned ferry boat company Ship Island Excursions. The gap between the two islands is still known as the Camille Cut.
Since then, other major storms have breached the divided island, though these smaller breaches filled back in naturally. Hurricane Katrina almost completely submerged East Ship Island in August 2005, and wiped out the visitor and employee facilities, pier, and boardwalk on West Ship Island. All have since been rebuilt. In 2008, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike ravished the eastern half of Ship Island yet again.
A Day At The Beach
As the ferry tied up on Ship Island and passengers disembarked, a stiff wind blew and dark storm clouds threatened our plans to enjoy the sun. The crew announced that umbrellas would remain closed until the wind died down later in the morning, and they informed us that in case of rain, several covered pavilions offered shelter.
I felt reassured that the crew seemed familiar enough with the weather patterns to know that the weather was likely to clear up soon. Sure enough, within 90 minutes, the sun emerged and the sky was clear for the rest of the day.
As we walked across the wooden boardwalk that crosses the island over the marsh, we passed the imposing, brick fortification of Fort Massachusetts, and then a large covered picnic pavilion with tables and benches, restrooms and showers, and a ranger station.
Near the end of the boardwalk were another covered picnic pavilion, more restrooms, and the Ship Island concessions and gift shop just as we reached the south beach. At the shop, reclining canvas lounge chairs could be rented for $5 per day, and large umbrellas for $15 per day.
The teenagers with us wasted no time diving into the frothy surf, inventing challenges to amuse themselves, and renting boogie boards and inner tubes at the nearby snack bar pavilion. We sank down in our folding carry-on chairs to take in the sun and watch the antics of the crabs skittering nearby. We read, fed the seagulls, had a couple of beers from our cooler, and darted into the surf whenever we felt warm.
Within an hour, everyone felt hungry enough to dive into our food supply and bring out the chips, fruit, and ham and cheese sandwiches that we had made that morning. Even so, we found ourselves later in the afternoon eyeballing the grilled food for sale at the snack bar. We picked out some chili-cheese hot dogs, chips and beer to eat under the shaded pavilion with a pleasant view of the Gulf. While we were there, we also bought some pretty cool Ship Island hats, visors and swim trunks.
A Tour of Fort Massachusetts
Like many other visitors that day, we took a break from the beach to stroll around historic Fort Massachusetts on the sand spit at the extreme western tip of Ship Island. We also stopped to read every instructional placard placed about to get a little context of the fort’s purpose and history.
The formidable brick and granite fort was commissioned to protect New Orleans from foreign invasions, like the unsuccessful British attack in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Its construction began in 1859 and continued up to the Civil War, when the Confederates named the uncompleted structure Fort Twiggs after one of their generals.
However, the only action that the fort saw during the war was a 20-minute cannon exchange in the summer of 1861 between the Confederates in Fort Twiggs and the Union steamer USS Massachusetts. Ship Island was soon abandoned by the Confederates because they felt it could not be adequately protected, and the Union took possession of the island the same year, renaming the fort Fort Massachusetts in honor of the Union warship that had seized the abandoned outpost.
We became absorbed by the small museum, exhibits and informational placards installed around the fort. We learned that the fort had become a prison for Confederate prisoners of war, and that there are more than 153 Confederate soldiers buried on Ship Island. Ship Island was also the base for the U.S. Second Regiment (Louisiana Native Guards Volunteers), one of the first American units composed of African-American soldiers.
After Fort Massachusetts sat mostly empty for over 30 years, it was abandoned by the federal government in 1900. A sole cannon still stands guard from on top of the fort today.
The Skrmetta Family
The original “Captain Pete” was Martin Skrmetta, an 18-year-old Croatian fisherman from the Dalmation island of Brac who immigrated to Biloxi in 1903, a time when the harvesting and canning of oysters and shrimp was the city’s chief industry. The hardworking young man began working for his uncle, piloting the wood sailing schooners that hauled millions of pounds of oysters and brown shrimp to be processed at Biloxi’s seafood canneries.
In time, Skrmetta became a first-rate skipper, and in the early 1920s, the entrepreneur had his own 56-foot diesel-powered schooner built. He named that first boat the Pan American, establishing in 1926 the company that is now Pan Isles, Inc., doing business as “Ship Island Excursion Ferries.”
In the 1920s, a shortage of freezer facilities caused the shrimping industry to have to shut down during the summer months. Shrimpers began using their vessels to haul general cargo in summer, such as clamshells destined for private driveways. It was then that Captain Pete began to charter his ship for summer pleasure cruises into the Mississippi Sound.
Biloxi was a major resort area in the Roaring Twenties, and the Pan American carried a jazz band, tap dancers and a roulette wheel aboard the boat. Tourists were ferried from Biloxi to the Isle of Caprice between Ship and Horn Islands, known as “the Monte Carlo of the South.” There, tourists gambled and danced the evening away, on the boat and in the casino and dance hall on the island.
Unfortunately, the Isle of Caprice literally sank into the Gulf due to natural and manmade causes (like tourists removing the sea oats for souvenirs). By 1932, the island was completely submerged (and still is), so that year, Skrmetta purchased property on the eastern part of Ship Island to develop his own tourist resort.
With its dock and small beach pavilion providing access to pristine swimming waters, Ship Island became a popular destination. As the number of tourists increased, Captain Pete built three increasingly larger excursion boats: Pan American Clipper (1937), Gulf Clipper (1950), and Pan American II (1963). After Captain Pete’s death in 1963, his son Peter Mathew Skrmetta continued to manage and finance the operation, which expanded the same year with daily departures from Gulfport.
The National Park Service purchased the island in 1971, and the Legion turned the business over to the NPS. The Skrmetta family continued as usual, ferrying and providing concession services for the NPS. In 1981 Peter built another ferry, the 65-foot, 150-passenger Island Clipper, to support the increasing Gulfport passenger counts. In 1990, the company purchased the 110-foot, 374-passenger Gulf Islander, and in 2000, another large aluminum vessel, the 100-foot, 308-passenger, Capt. Pete.
The business is now owned and operated by Peter’s four sons, and operates three passenger ferries, the air-conditioned Capt. Pete and Gulf Islander, and the smaller, historic 65-foot Pan American Clipper.
The oldest of Captain Pete’s grandsons is Louis Skrmetta, Pan Isles’ CEO and president. He is also known as Captain Lou, and is one of three siblings who skipper the family’s ferries to Ship Island. His brother, Captain Kenny, is also one of the company’s active ferry skippers, and his brother Steven is a licensed skipper as well.
Louis described his earliest memories of Ship Island, riding on the Pan American Clipper in the early 1960s on his grandfather Captain Pete’s lap when he was six or seven years old, being allowed to “steer” the ship, and then camping out on the island with his siblings and cousins. “We used to all sleep together in the big screened-in porch of the snack bar,” he remembered fondly.
“The business is a true family business,” Louis enthused. “Just like me and my brothers did, my nephews and young cousins are training to move up the ladder. We start off as teenagers working in the snack bar and as barbacks. Then we train as deckhands onboard, and then when we turn 18, we apply for our captains’ licenses and take the exam.” His own son Peter Joseph Skrmetta got his captain’s license five years ago when he was 23, Louis added with pride.
Since he was a child, Louis has been fascinated by the history of the island, and the role that it has played from the colonial era to the present. “Ship Island is such a children-friendly, family-oriented excursion to begin with, but kids who are interested in history can really benefit, like I did.
“The National Park Service has staff on the island at all times, and they give historical tours. Also, NPS has joint programs with the University of Southern Mississippi to bring kids here for a maritime summer camp.”
Louis also pointed out that some of the most special things about the island that are often missed by casual visitors are the serene and scenic hikes. The hike toward the east end of the island is about one and a half hours each way, and the easier hike toward the west end is about 30 minutes each way. I made a note of that for my next visit.
A Fitting Cap to the Day
At about 4:15, we walked back over the boardwalk to the other side of the island to check out the beach there and to wait for the 5:00 ferry. Pleasantly fatigued and mildly sunburned, we started driving back toward Bay St. Louis, keeping a sharp eye out for an outdoor restaurant where we would feel comfortable sitting with our still sandy clothing.
Bacchus On The Beach in Pass Christian (111 West Scenic Drive) hit the spot, with a large outdoor patio and a long covered bar, a view of the Gulf, and platters of raw and charbroiled oysters with cold drinks (we barely missed half-off oyster happy hour, which ends at 6 p.m. every day). Everyone agreed that it was a fine ending to a good day.
If you have never been to Ship Island, then you’ve missed out on one of Mississippi’s treasures. And if you haven’t been to Ship Island since your childhood, take your children, to share with them one of the rare experiences that has remained essentially unchanged from the time of your childhood to theirs.
All You Need To Know
The excursion costs $29 per adult and $19 for children aged 3 to 10 (babies are free). If you’re going to take the family out more than a few times over the summer, your best bet may be the Frequent Rider Pass (10 adult trips for $205, or about $20 per person per day; or 5 adult trips for $115, or $23 per person per day). Discounts are offered to active military personnel and senior citizens for $27.
From mid-May through mid-August, ferries depart Gulfport at 9 a.m. and noon, and depart Ship Island for the ride back to Gulfport at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. This schedule permits visitors to enjoy either a whole day or a half-day on Ship Island.
In the spring, from mid-March to mid-May, and in the fall, from mid-August to the end of October, the ferries make two round trips daily on weekends (departing Gulfport at 9 a.m. and noon, and departing Ship Island at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.) and one round trip daily on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays (leaving Gulfport only at 9 a.m. and leaving Ship Island only at 5 p.m.).
There are no trips on Mondays or Tuesdays in the spring or fall, and the ferry does not operate at all in the winter between November and mid-March.
Bring some cash onto the island if you want to buy snacks or gift items (the ticket office in Gulfport takes credit cards, but not on the boats or on the island). The snack bar sells cheeseburgers, chicken wraps, nachos, hot dogs, beer and sodas.
You are welcome to bring compact folding chairs and umbrellas, any ice chest not exceeding 42 quarts, and any beverages you like, so long as they are not in glass bottles or containers. Umbrella and chair rentals are also available there ($5 per chair, $15 per umbrella).
And be sure to come prepared for the sun and possibly intense heat; if you are sensitive to burning, bring hats, high-SPF sunscreen and long-sleeved protective clothing. The main beach is staffed with lifeguards.
The fleet remains active year-round with chartered special event shoreline cruises such as corporate parties, weddings, cocktail parties, and class reunions, typically a sunset cruise from about 7 to 9:30 p.m., with catering and entertainment options available. For more information, call 228-864-1014.
A small shrine to Our Lady of the Woods has become a touchstone for two girls' schools - together spanning more than a century and a half.
- story by Ellis Anderson
The grotto was built in the 1860s on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Academy, a parochial girls’ school that was just a few years old at the time. St. Joseph’s was started by three hardy French nuns who made the journey across the Atlantic for just that purpose. Classes filled immediately.
According to an excellent article on the Hancock County Historical Society’s website, the presence of the nuns heartened Father Buteux, the pastor of Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church. He wrote about their arrival with great enthusiasm in his 1855 diary.
Bay St. Louis then was a primitive village. Living conditions would have been Spartan, even by standards of the day, without conveniences like electricity or running water. Yellow fever and other diseases were always a threat.
Yet three more nuns arrived the following year. By the 1860s, when the shrine was built, the school began to offer boarding facilities. Board, tuition and washing (of clothes, presumably, not students), cost parents $220 annually in 1867.
The grotto was built after a perilous trip Father Buteux made, sailing from France back to the States. Caught in a violent storm that sheered the mast from the schooner, the priest promised to build a memorial to the Blessed Mother if she would spare the ship and its passengers. In those early days of the city, the shrine was set deep in the surrounding woods.
St. Joseph’s Academy continued to grow through the years, gaining a national reputation for scholastic excellence. Unfortunately, an enormous fire ravaged much of the town and destroyed the school and the church in 1907.
The plucky nuns rallied with wholesale community support and found funding to build a new school. They and their students moved into an elegant new three-story building in 1908. In 1924 a companion two-story brick building was constructed. Referred to as the gymnasium, it was used for music and other classes as well.
The ultimate demise of St. Joseph’s came from a scarcity of teaching nuns rather than a diminishing student body. The front building that had been built in 1907 was torn down after the school was closed in 1967. According to one graduate, it was an act that came as a shock to the town’s residents and the alumni who cherished the architectural treasure.
The gymnasium was destroyed by another fire a few years later. Hurricane Camille in 1969 scoured the grounds. The Our Lady of the Woods shrine was all that remained.
A campus that had been one of the prides of the coast no longer existed. And local parents who wanted a parochial education for their daughters had to look elsewhere.
Then, in the aftermath of Camille, a local attorney with four daughters kick-started a drive to establish a new girls’ school at the site of the former. The late Michael D. Haas teamed with the pastor of OLG, the late Msgr. Gregory J. Johnson and Brother Lee Barker, who was principal of St. Stanislaus College prep school at the time.
Haas’s wife, Myrt, calls herself the original naysayer of the project. When the idea was first discussed, she found it difficult to believe such a grand dream could be brought to fruition. But her enthusiasm quickly caught fire. She remembers that the concept had instant “wholesale community support.”
Many obstacles had to be surmounted. For instance, the group discovered the new school couldn’t receive accreditation without a science lab, a library, or language courses – things that seemed out of reach with their limited funds. But Father Lee offered to share the facilities at St. Stanislaus, an unprecedented move. Co-educational programming between the all-boys school and the female students at St. Joseph’s had never before been considered.
“Our girls learned a lot from the experience,” says Myrt, laughing. “For one, they learned to put on lipstick before they went over to the St. Stanislaus campus.”
Myrt says that the main reason the school succeeded was the good attitude of the early students. In those early days, they didn’t have the resources that the public schools did. For example, there was no cafeteria, considered a school basic.
“I give the students credit for sticking with it and making it work,” Myrt says. “Those girls made it happen as much as the parents and teachers.”
Current OLA principal Darnell Cuevas, who’s been at the school’s helm for two years, says that the school’s enrollment is nearly up to pre-Katrina levels now, with more than 250 students. The students are excelling academically as well. In 2017, 38 graduates scored in the top tier on standardized college entrance tests and were awarded nearly $5 million in scholarships.
The Our Lady of the Woods grotto has become a historical and spiritual tie between the two academies. It’s a favorite place for group photographs of students, teachers and St. Joseph’s graduates, who reunite often. In May of this year, more than 40 students and teachers from the final class of 1967 gathered for their 50th reunion.
The grotto was a favorite meditative spot for Cuevas, even before she began as principal, and she’s eager to see that her younger charges learn the history of the shrine.
Both Myrt and Cuevas speak fondly of the legendary caretaker of the shrine, Sister Albertine, who kept the grotto tidy and with a candle burning at its base around the clock, throughout the year, for decades.
Myrt tells the tale of wartime sacrifice that kept Sister Albertine from performing her duties.
“During World War II, enemy submarines were patrolling the waters of the gulf,” says Myrt. “We had blackouts every night. Lights had to be turned off in houses and buildings. Even cars couldn’t drive the coast roads with headlights.”
“The Coast Guard came to St. Joseph’s, saying that they could see the candle at the foot of the shrine more three miles out in the gulf. Sister Albertine had to stop lighting the candle. But just for the time being.”
Brice Phillips, founder, owner, engineer, station manager, DJ and talk show host at WQRZ 103.5 FM rules the airwaves in Hancock County by merging two passions: communications and community service.
- story and photos by Tricia Donham McAlvain
Listen to WQRZ 103.5 FM anywhere in the country with Tune-In - a free service that doesn't require registration.
And check out the premier "On the Shoofly" radio hour by clicking here. Listen for "On the Shoofly" on the first Wednesday of any month, 11am!
Since Chinese television stations were the only ones available when Brice was growing up in Taiwan, he turned to radio for entertainment, tuning in English-speaking stations from around the world.
As a boy, he was also a frequent visitor at the MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System) base of operations in Taiwan. At the time, MARS allowed service personnel to connect internationally with family and other service people. At MARS, he learned the inner workings of radio and its power to facilitate communication — especially in emergency situations.
Brice also credits his mother for instilling a never-say-die determination. "When you have a sense of accomplishment, you can't stop trying. Mother said never quit. ... One day, you will succeed.”
His mother’s advice proved to be true. Today, Brice Phillips is president of Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, Inc. (HCARA). The 501c3 non-profit organization runs both WQRZ (serving Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead, and Kiln) and the “station-in-progress,” WQRG, which will serve the wider Diamondhead area.
Due to his extraordinary community contributions during and after Hurricane Katrina, in 2006 Brice was awarded the Small Business Administration’s Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Volunteer. That same year, he also garnered the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Volunteer Excellence.
Brice has called Bay St Louis home for more than 26 years, moving to the coast from Slidell. Former Bay St. Louis mayor Les Fillingame contracted with him as a bench technician to repair VCRs, radios and other electronics.
His first job at a local radio station was with WBSL AM in Bay St Louis. When Brice was hired, WBSL was off the air because of a broken transmitter. After repairing the transmitter, he moved on to a popular coast rock station. Working late nights on weekends as a DJ gave him on-air experience - until he violated protocol by playing a song not on the playlist. That experience merely reinforced Brice’s belief in freedom of speech.
Determined to launch his own radio station, Brice’s father cosigned a loan for his first transmitter. It became the workhorse for WQRZ 103.5 FM. In the early days, the transmitter was powered by solar panels. After Hurricane Katrina, Brice used car batteries to keep it going so he could inform his desperate listeners during the storm and in the long aftermath.
Deciding to stay on the air during Katrina reflects Brice’s dedication and his first-hand knowledge of how important communications can be during severe weather.
During the storm, WQRZ was only off-air for 90 minutes while Brice was fighting the hurricane to swap out antennas during the unprecedented tidal surge. He was one of 35 early responders who had gathered at the emergency operations center in Bay St. Louis. When the water in the building started rising, the situation looked so dire that the rescue workers wrote their assigned numbers on their own hands to make identification easier for compatriots in case they drowned.
He hasn’t missed a beat since the storm. The station has been on the air 24/7 ever since. Internet streaming allows listeners around the world to tune in.
(Click here to stream from "Tune In," a free site that doesn't require to sign up).
WQRZ offers programming about gardening, politics, and community news. Every weekday, during the two-hour Morning Show, Brice and his volunteers read news from the local papers, connecting with residents who may be disabled or economically challenged, and with those who just like to hear neighborly voices.
The music playlist varies with the day of the week. There’s Local Monday, for instance, when area musicians and singer-songwriters are featured. Blues Tuesday, Free Speech and World Wednesday (keeping listeners abreast of local civic meetings), Jazz Thursday and Rock-n-Roll Friday keep listeners entertained through the week.
Music from the ’70s and dance music are Saturday favorites, while Sunday is “Album Therapy,” starting with gospel, moving on to albums and ending with relaxing new age music: “The floaty stuff,” Brice says.
"Brice amazes me every day,” says Jennifer Sones, WQRZ volunteer of seven years. “He can take something that is nothing and build anything.”
Lynn Smith, a WQRZ volunteer of five years, explains the general philosophy. "The station maintains the ability to play anything possible, including 8-tracks, reels, cassettes, and vinyl. We have no rules other than those of the FCC. We also hold a ham radio license for official communications.”
"People are lost without communication,” Brice says. “Information is the key that binds our community together. I’ll do this for the rest of my life.”
“Rock on, dudes!”
Who to Believe?
I recently went shopping with friends to a number of our favorite thrift shops and found a long linen coat, a sweater, two shirts and three dresses. All of the items fit and I bought them.
For non-thrift store afficianados, the first piece of advice I have for you is to avoid shopping by size. You may miss some great buys that way.
The coat I bought was a size 6, the sweater was a medium; one shirt was an XS, and the other a large. The first dress I bought was a 6, the second was a 2, and the third was a 0. Really? A zero? That is absurd.
This is Deena Shoemaker. She is a teen counselor and a frustrated buyer of women’s clothing. These are the photos she posted on her Facebook page to illustrate a point. Clothing sizes make no sense. Her travails were written up the in Business Insider.
Mind, Body, Spirit
When someone you love dies, people irritate you. Friends especially. Lots of them do, anyhow.
Here is a for-instance. The ones who come up and ask you what stage of grief you are in are beyond irritating. “What stage are you on?” was how I always answered.
Grief may have stages but they are in such a constant muddle that anger bleeds into denial that may, in an hour or so, morph into bargaining or depression, and so on and so on. Some wag once said that everything learned in sociology is either obvious or untrue. How obvious and true.
Across the Bridge
I've lived in Bay St. Louis for twenty years and may for another thirty, but I’ll always be a newcomer.
Of course, nobody tries to make me feel that way. From Day One, I’ve been welcomed and accepted with open arms. The night I opened my Main Street gallery in 1995 stands out as one of the most joyous in my life.
Twenty-two years ago, when I handed out invitations to the evening opening, the response was always the same: What can I bring?
The Human-pet companion bond is what I write about. For thousands of years we have been in partnership with you. The beginnings of our long association were in helping you hunt, or destroying vermin who ate stored food. Gradually the relationships grew. Today we are recognized as service animals and faithful, loving companions.
Dogs are used to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as guides for people who cannot see and who need companions to help them live independently.
One of our specialties is acting as catalysts for communication and social interaction. We help teach children responsibility, and are often the only listeners who do not judge young people or adults. Much research and anecdotal data points to what we animals bring to relationships with people.
Puppy Dog Tales
Three dystopian novels have climbed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list since the recent presidential election. George Orwell’s novel 1984 was first published in 1949. According to USA Today, recent use of the term “alternative facts” led to a renewed interest in the novel.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis joined 1984 on the bestseller list. This strong interest in dystopian fiction prompted me to investigate its popularity.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a dystopia as a place where people lead dehumanized and fearful lives. It is the opposite of utopia, a place of ideal perfection especially in law, government, and social conditions.
The first use of the word utopia is attributed to Sir Thomas More, who wrote a socio-political satire in 1516 titled Utopia.
On June 6, the voters of Bay St. Louis hired on a team of mayor and seven councilmen who will serve them for the next four years. The eight officials took their oaths of office before a full house on June 30 at the Bay St. Louis Community Hall (with the exception of Gene Hoffman who was unable to attend and was sworn in at the June 22nd city council meeting).
They officially commenced their jobs at 12.01 a.m., July 1. The first city council meeting for these new officials is slated for 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 5.
The Shoofly was able to contact most of the officials the week before they took office. All expressed enthusiasm for their upcoming terms of service. You can read their comments below.
Talk of the Town
Waveland Library Donation
Hancock County Library System Executive Director Courtney Thomas announced at the June 22 Waveland Mayor and Alderman meeting some sensational and noncontroversial library news: The late Richard M. Tracey, a former resident of Waveland who passed away last year, left the bulk of his estate to the Library Foundation of Hancock County, to be used exclusively for the Waveland Public Library.
What's Up, Waveland?
This specially themed Second Saturday artwalk on July 8th celebrates the birthday of iconic artist Frida Kahlo with an extraordinary costume contest and a fiesta of other special happenings!
This event has quickly become one of the absolutely do-not-miss annual celebrations on the coast.
Make sure to visit Hot Spot businesses Identity Vintage (111 Main Street) and Gallery 220 (220 Main Street).
Complete Frida Fest Schedule!
This Second Saturday column is sponsored by
Click here and scroll down to read archived Second Saturday columns
Thanks for joining us for another edition of Beautiful Things. Here's a quick project that will help keep the family moving through the summer and into the school year.
When we moved into our new real estate office, we created a "chalkboard wall." Our intention was to use this wall as our strategy board to post our listings and our closings.
I think we found a much better use for it. We now use our chalkboard wall as a signature wall where all of our clients and visitors sign when they come in. It has become one of our favorite features in the building. Here's how we made it:
Across The Bridge
At Home In The Bay
Beach To Bayou
Coast Lines Column
Friends Of The Animal Shelter
Growing Up Downtown
House And Garden
Old Town Merchants
On The Shoofly
Puppy Dog Tales
Station House BSL
Talk Of The Town
Wines And Dining