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A Mississippi-sized Love: Stories from ACErs on the Coast

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 by Grace Carroll and Emily Voorde, ACE 22, Biloxi

As for many newly-minted ACErs on placement night when they find out where they will be teaching for the next two years, our pictures on the cardboard trifolds next to the label “ACE Biloxi” elicited a flood of surprise and giddiness and questions.  

Biloxi? 
Are they sure?? 
Am I even saying it correctly?!

Little did we know that we had just landed ACE’s best kept secret: the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And, little did we know, that what awaited us amidst the humidity and southern accents was a love that would stay with us long after we finished ACE - a Mississippi-sized love.

“I was overcome with the bonds of kinship that had been forged so quickly and effortlessly...how an ‘outsider’ was instantly made an ‘insider.’ In all the places I’ve lived, I’ve never encountered a community like this.”

It is the type of love that stopped Johann Qua Hiansen (ACE 18, RCES) on his first day in Pascagoula, MS when he was walking home from church. Upon hearing that he was the new ACE teacher, the locals in the car begged that he climb in so they could take him out to brunch! Or, the love that startled Nick Padrnos (ACE 22, St. Alphonsus) when he checked out his 5th grade classroom upon arriving in Ocean Springs, MS and ran into a parent in the hallways. The parent insisted that the new ACE teacher spend the next day with the whole family on the boat exploring the islands off the coast and basking in the Mississippi sun. As Nick said, “I was overcome with the bonds of kinship that had been forged so quickly and effortlessly...how an ‘outsider’ was instantly made an ‘insider.’ In all the places I’ve lived, I’ve never encountered a community like this.”

Four years later, both of us, Grace and Emily, live far from the southern home that shaped us so deeply (and sometimes painfully!) as teachers, coaches, community-builders, champions for Catholic education, and Christians, but we know that we are forever changed from our time in Mississippi. One way to honor those two years and their continued impact on our vocational discernments, world perspectives, daily dispositions, and faith is to share stories. Our housemate, Brian Scully, recently attested to the grace of a story well-told and so, in a similar spirit, we invited former ACE Pascagoula/Biloxi teachers to share their own stories. 

Just as there is grace in a story well-told, there is beauty in a story remembered because these stories have shaped us into who we are today. They remind us that we are a changed people. Elizabeth Stowe Fennell (ACE 12, RCES) recalls, “The time I spent in the Mississippi community post-Katrina was paramount in my formation. I learned the true meaning of selflessness, love, support, resilience, and trust in God, through the people of Pascagoula. A piece of my heart will always be [there].” Jill Briody (ACE 21, RCES) echoes these sentiments when she calls to mind the constant dinner invitations, co-workers who became like parents, classroom help given without hesitation, shout-outs at Mass, and more. She says, “The people, the community, the love, the generosity, the selflessness, and the hospitality that was so freely given, asking for nothing in return, continue to inspire me on a daily basis. The people lived the message Jesus calls us to every day, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’...In a world filled with skepticism, individual success, and power, [Mississippi] reminded me to live out the faith God calls us too, to never turn a blind eye to someone in need, and to love with my whole heart no matter what.”

"In a world filled with skepticism, individual success, and power, [Mississippi] reminded me to live out the faith God calls us too, to never turn a blind eye to someone in need, and to love with my whole heart no matter what.”

In the act of remembering stories, we are reminded of the lessons learned and the people who imparted those lessons. Peter Prindiville (ACE 21, St. Patrick) summarizes the most important things he learned from his time on the coast from his students and housemates: “First, how to eat crawfish. Second, the great beauty of slowing down.” Others, like Michael McLaughlin (ACE 13, St. Patrick), speak of learning from the community’s example to be gracious amidst hardship. He says, “I was there one year after Katrina and witnessed teachers, my principal, and students still living in trailers...They had a resolve to push ahead and rebuild both the school and their homes. I continue to be inspired by their strength, faith, hospitality, and sense of community...in as much as [the ACErs] were looking after students and energizing academic and co-curricular life with our ideas, initiative, and service, those families were so very good to all of us. I’ll continue to pay it forward.” Briody, similarly, remembers the resiliency of the community when tragedy struck. They responded with faith in God and an outpouring of kindness, such as “making a meal, subbing for a fellow teacher, stepping up to drive the bus, bringing a costume for a student in need, a grandparent eating lunch with their grandchild, leaving a jar of chocolate on [her] desk, ending the day with a school-wide chant, waving in the rain during after-school pick up, offering to plan class parties, or sending in a King Cake for Mardi Gras.” Through these small acts of Mississippi-sized love, we who taught on the coast witnessed the heart of a community. 

“The warmth of the Gulf Coast and the hospitality have helped give me the freedom to see myself authentically, to see myself as God sees me.”

What underlined the ACErs’ stories was the outpouring of love that came from immersion in the community. For many, God’s presence in that outpouring became more tangible. Julianne Corroto (ACE 18, RCS) reflects on the way her own faith changed: “Through weekly Masses and daily interactions with students and community members, my faith transformed into a practical life force, animating relationships and opening my eyes to God's presence in all things.” Danny Martin (ACE 24, RCS) notes the newfound freedom in faith from his time on the coast, saying, “The warmth of the Gulf Coast and the hospitality have helped give me the freedom to see myself authentically, to see myself as God sees me.” 

There is beauty in remembering stories because the act of remembering can move us to action: to reach out to a former coworker as First Communion for the current 2nd graders approaches, to text our former housemates a funny memory that brings us back to the late nights and long days of our first semester, to look through the dusty box of students’ letters, or to flip through pictures of weekend road trips to see the nearby ACE (and sometimes not-so-nearby) communities. More than anything, remembering calls us to love with the reckless abandon and generosity that we witnessed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


 Learn more about the places ACE Teaching Fellows serve at ace.nd.edu/where-we-serve.