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Mar 15, 2004 6:19 am

Going Out Past Pie-a-nona ...

Yesterday, Pope John Paul became the third longest serving pontiff in western Catholicism's history, surpassing the tenure of Leo XIII and surpassed only by Peter and Pius IX. It's a major milestone in a remarkable pontificate.

Oddly, the milestone reminded me of a summer spent in Macon, Georgia, where I was the young, white assistant pastor of the city's historic First Baptist Church, Colored, as it was then known. The civil rights movement was reaching to its crescendo. I had just graduated from Duke and been run out of Durham by the local police for my civil rights activity. So, I jumped into the fire by moving to Macon for the summer. Dr. King was leading demonstrations in Albany and I worked with the movement's leadership in Macon.

In some ways, it was a summer of exclusions: from being run out of Durham, to being thrown out of my best friend's house when his parents found out why I was in town, to getting tossed out of the YMCA when I made the mistake of asking its secretary where 595 New Street was. He knew the address was an old African American one and advised me to take the next bus out of town. Of course, I didn't and that summer still supplies some of my fondest memories.

Just around the corner from 595 New Street's First Baptist Church, Colored, and up Cotton Avenue were other historic black congregations: Tremont Temple Baptist Church, named for a historic abolitionist church in Boston, and Steward Chapel A.M.E. Church. It was named for an early pastor and theologian, Theophilous Gould Steward. Bishop Henry McNeill Turner had often preached from its pulpit and both Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr., later preached there. Up around another corner were two of Macon's most imposing white churches. One of them was First Baptist Church, no racial identity then attached. It was the"mother church" of the congregation I served, but none of my members would have been allowed to worship there in 1962. The other imposing church, just around the corner, was St. Joseph's Catholic Church. I wandered into St. Joseph's one day, just out of curiosity. It may have been the first time I'd ever been in a Catholic Church. Its beauty seemed both amazing and mysterious.

There were many confrontations that summer. I got run out of a drugstore for asking why it would not serve a friend at its lunch counter and, then, wrote to Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, to protest the fact that a post office outlet was in this store which discriminated against my church members. The confrontations grew more serious over the summer. By its end, there was a race riot in Tatnall Square, when some of my African American friends sought to use its public park. One of them had his head busted open in that fray.

The misunderstanding that continues to amuse me, however, was that I never did get the directions given in Macon's deep South dialect when they told me to"drive out past pie-a-nona." What the heck could that mean? It took me years to figure it out. They meant"drive out past Pio Nono." That 19th century pontiff experienced both the loss of secular authority over the Papal States and the declaration of papal infallibility. From 1876 to ca. 1890, the diocese of Savannah conducted a Pio Nono College in Macon and a major thoroughfare there was named for Pius IX. There's still a big religious transformation in Macon at the intersection where Pio Nono becomes Pierce Avenue. It's named for the Methodist Bishop George Foster Pierce. But you won't find either of the 19th century brothers on the maps. Both Pio Nono and his lesser Wesleyan brother are subsumed in the non-denominational Highway 41. Forget about"going out past pie-a-nona." The question is: will John Paul outlast Pio Nono? That will take another six years.

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Michael C Tinkler - 3/15/2004

The great anecdote about Pius IX and his many, many years runs like this:

Tradition dictated* that at the coronation the chamberlain whispers as he crowns the new pope "Your years will not exceed those of St. Peter" (A.D. 33-64). Pius is said to have exclaimed cheerfully, "That's not an article of faith!"

I like the idea of a Pie-a-nona in Macon. I've heard that English language cabbies in Montreal refer to his street there as Pie 9, pronounced like Blackberry rather than en francais.

*though goodness knows they tossed out everything else about papal etiquette with Vatican II, so maybe they no longer do this, either

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