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Brenda Vanderford was one the original organizers of the St. Charles Lwanga Center. She still volunteers with the center, helping with the annual Testimonial Dinner and Celebration and other areas as needed.
Brenda Vanderford was one the original organizers of the St. Charles Lwanga Center. She still volunteers with the center, helping with the annual Testimonial Dinner and Celebration and other areas as needed.
Photo Credit: Sid Hastings for the St. Louis Review

Brenda Vanderford describes work of the St. Charles Lwanga Center as an important means of evangelizing the African-American community

Founding member of St. Charles Lwanga Center Brenda Vanderford describes legacy of center serving the African-American Catholic community

Father Ed Feuerbacher was a visionary who understood the importance of transcending the walls of the parish and going into the community to invite people into the beauty of the Catholic faith.

Participants in a North Area Youth Group gathered during the 1980s in this undated photograph in the early days of the St. Charles Lwanga Center in St. Louis.
Photo Credits: Courtesy St. Charles Lwanga Center
That vision is what led him and lay leaders at the former Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in the Kingsway West neighborhood of St. Louis to establish in 1978 the St. Charles Lwanga Center, a center for spiritual formation and leadership development serving the African-American Catholic community.

More than four decades later, the center — named after a Ugandan saint who was martyred with 22 others for their Catholic faith in 1886 — has remained a mainstay in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, evolving its ministries to the needs of the present day, said Brenda Vanderford, one of the Lwanga Center’s founding board members, who remains involved as a volunteer.

Father Feuerbacher would say, “you don’t just show up to church — you are the Church,” said Vanderford, who was a longtime member of Most Blessed Sacrament until its closure in 2001. “He knew what we needed, and when we would sit around at the parish council (meetings), he would say, ‘What’s going to get us involved in our community? What’s going to get us involved in our Church?’” Vanderford now attends St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist Parish, located next door to the Lwanga Center’s current location of 4746 Carter Ave. in the Penrose neighborhood of St. Louis, where it moved in 2003.

Father Feuerbacher suggested presenting the idea to other parishes serving African-American Catholics. At its start, there were five sponsoring parishes in the north St. Louis area that found a home at the center, where African-American Catholics were invited to explore and grow in different aspects of their faith. By 1985, the center grew to include 15 sponsoring parishes. The center named its lifetime achievement award in memory of Father Feuerbacher, who died in 2002.

In the early years, training workshops were offered on topics including Gospel music for music ministry leaders, RCIA sponsorship and Black Catholic lay leadership. Regular days of prayer and a Scripture series boosted the spirituality offerings of the center. Crossroads was another ongoing program that explored the idea of what it means to be a Christian and reaching out to others in that context. A north area youth group already in existence hosted retreats at the center, too.

Cardinal John J. Carberry, left, former Archbishop of St. Louis, posed for a photograph with Father Ed Feuerbacher, visionary behind the St. Charles Lwanga Center, in this undated photograph.
Photo Credits: Courtesy St. Charles Lwanga Center
“I think it was also a matter of convenience, in addition to the fact that most of us in the African-American community did not come together” outside of their parishes, Vanderford said. “We all were here on the Northside, but we didn’t really celebrate anything together.” As the idea for the center spread, some of the first events that brought people together were a regular revival and a Mass and reception celebrating the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The revivals featured guest speakers from here and other parts of the country, and they brought an African-American flavor to the worship experience, said Vanderford. “That’s how we were able to evangelize and bring some of our young people back, as well as some of the people who were of other denominations,” she said. “Some of them were thinking we were still speaking Latin, to be quite honest.”

Over the years, the ministries and programming have adapted to the needs of the times. The center also has served as a way for African-American Catholics to remain connected as parishes closed and merged in the North St. Louis area.

Vanderford maintains a connection with the center as a volunteer, helping with the annual Testimonial Dinner and Celebration, and anywhere else where it’s needed. “This is my baby — I love coming in here,” she said. “It makes me feel young again. I tell everybody that if you really, truly care about something, no matter what the changes are, you adapt and you stay rooted in it. You have to grow with it.”

>> St. Charles Lwanga Center

The mission of the St. Charles Lwanga Center is to promote Catholic teaching, Catholic spiritual formation and leadership development, including advocacy for justice and racial equity concerns within the Black Catholic community and for all who collaborate with them, in accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

The center oversees ministries in several areas:

• Evangelization: Liturgies, pastoral care for individuals and engaged and married couples, a Bible study and Crossroads retreat for busy people

• Youth ministry: Preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation and the annual Kujenga youth leadership conference

• Advocacy: Initiatives promoting racial equity and social justice concerns, including consultative services relating to cultural awareness

• Ministry of consolation training and support

• Legal ministry

• Planning of the archdiocese’s annual Mass commemorating the birth and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Model of Justice Awards program

• Annual St. Charles Lwanga Testimonial Dinner and Celebration

Sponsoring parishes include Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Ferguson, and in St. Louis the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, Most Holy Trinity, Our Lady of the Holy Cross, St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church, St. Augustine, St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist, St. Matthew the Apostle, St. Nicholas and Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church.

Father Arthur Cavitt is the executive director, and Corliss Cox serves as special assistant to the executive director. For more information, visit archstl.org/lwangacenter or call (314) 367-7929.

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