In her research for a biography on civil rights icon Sister Mary Antona Ebo, Winnie Sullivan discovered a wealth of knowledge about the history of African-American Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Sullivan, a member of St. Francis Xavier “College” Church and founder of indie publisher PenUltimate Press, said her three years of research revealed an “amazing story of determination and resilience, and incredibly strong faith” among black Catholics in St. Louis. Her presentation Feb. 20 at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury was held in recognition of Black History Month.
From its beginning, St. Louis was inhabited by black Catholics, some enslaved and some free, Sullivan noted. The first black Catholics arrived in the St. Louis area — what was then known as upper Louisiana territory — in 1719. French explorer and entrepreneur Philippe Renault had brought 500 enslaved people to work in the lead mines in the area. Some of the earliest sacramental records of black Catholics date back to the 1770s (around the time of the founding of St. Louis City), found at the Old Cathedral.
Records showed that there were “neither racial barriers or economic barriers separating worshipping Catholics from one another” in those early days, she said.
The late Jesuit Father William Barnaby Faherty, a historian on Catholicism in St. Louis, had written that blacks participated in much of the parish life. “During the colonial days, the pioneers were far too busy providing for the essentials of life for themselves and their families to be color conscious,” he wrote. “They battled elements, and they welcomed every hand. Together they worked, they played and they prayed.”
There were several factors that led to racial separation in St. Louis, Sullivan noted, including the movement of Anglo settlers westward into Missouri from the upper tier southern states, Missouri registering with the Union as a slave state when it was founded in 1821 and an influx in the mid-19th century of European immigrants, particularly from Germany and Ireland.
Within the growth of ethnic and national churches, led by Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick and Cardinal John Glennon, there came an increasingly segregated structures with housing and places of worship. In those days, several parishes were known to minister to African American Catholics, including St. Vincent de Paul and Sts. Mary and Joseph. In 1842, St. Francis Xavier Church opened, and a little more than a decade later, Jesuit Father Peter Koning secured an upper gallery as a chapel where black Catholics could worship. Having outgrown that space, Archbishop Kenrick in 1873 designated a new parish for black Catholics, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. He instructed that white Catholics were not allowed to receive the sacraments there.
St. Elizabeth became the epicenter for black Catholic worship. It produced a nationally recognized publication, hosted national conventions for black Catholics, and developed a radio program dedicated to interracial issues, beyond providing for the everyday sacramental needs of parishioners.
“It was the center of black Catholic religious life in St. Louis,” Sullivan said.
She cited the work of numerous religious communities that ministered to black Catholics, as well as the founding of several other parishes and mission churches dedicated to ministering to black Catholics in the archdiocese over the years. By the 1940s, integration of black Catholics was becoming more noted, including the integration of black students at Saint Louis University in 1944, and the work of Archbishop Joseph Ritter to integrate Catholic schools by 1946. (Archbishop Ritter suppressed St. Elizabeth Parish in 1951 to encourage racial integration.) Sullivan also noted the work of Msgr. John Shocklee, who led the archdiocese’s first human rights commission.
“Throughout a significant portion of that history, the Catholic Church in St. Louis neglected multiple opportunities for evangelization, remained silent when it should have spoken out, or actively engaged in racial discrimination,” Sullivan said at the conclusion of her presentation. “Nevertheless, the African-American Catholic community, supported and served by some dedicated clergy and committed religious, have remained strong, active and faithful to the current day.”
Sister Antona Ebo book
A book on the life of Sister Mary
Antona Ebo, written by Winnie Sullivan and published by PenUltimate
Press, is anticipated to be released in April.
Sister Antona, a
Franciscan Sister of Mary whose courageous words during the March 10,
1965, march in Selma, Ala., became a rallying cry for many in the Civil
Rights movement, died in 2017 at the age of 93.
For many, Sister
Antona was the face of the civil rights movement, standing up with
courage against racism and injustice. One of the pioneers of civil
rights, on March 10, 1965, Sister Antona, the only African-American
sister in the crowd gathered in Selma, Ala., to march in protest against
the brutality of Bloody Sunday just days earlier, was thrust to the
forefront. She told the crowd, “I’m here because I’m a Negro, a nun, a
Catholic, and because I want to bear witness.” Throughout her life she
stood for justice and equality for all.
Sister Antona also was a
pioneer in health care administration, becoming the first
African-American woman to administer a hospital in the United States
when she was named executive director of St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo,
Wis. She also served as director of medical records at several hospitals
in the United States.
Sullivan’s presentation on black Catholic
history in the Archdiocese of St. Louis also is available to groups. For
more information, email [email protected].
Winnie Sullivan also invited Barbara
Williams to share her story of growing up in St. Louis as an African
American Catholic. Williams, now a member of St. Alban Roe Parish in
Wildwood, attended St. Nicholas, St. Clement and St. Alphonsus Liguori
“Rock” for school.
Taught by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, she
said the sisters gave them many opportunities. “They said you had to be
10 times better than anybody else, because white people would get the
jobs,” Williams recalled. She also shared memories of participating in
plays and dances. Her family was active at several parishes, including
St. Nicholas and St. Clement. Her parents were friends with several
priests, and one of her brothers went on to become a priest in Wichita,
“We were very poor, but we did everything that everybody
else did,” Williams said. She experienced racial discrimination, but she
also shared a particular story about how her teacher looked out for her
when she experienced discrimination outside of the school.
why she’s remained Catholic, Williams said, “I didn’t think there was
anything else. There was no other religion that I was interested in. I
can go to Mass and Communion every day — where else can I do that?”