Conflicting Images—Preaching To Catholics, Non-Catholics & “Colored Catholics”: The Sign & the Beginnings of the Passionist Presence in North Carolina in the 1920s.
by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
Given the present Passionist presence in Greenville, NC, it might be worthwhile to examine the genesis of the Passionists in the region. The Sign shows that a diverse Passionist ministry existed in North Carolina in the 1920s. Passionists conducted missions for Catholics, non-Catholics, and a small number of missions were conducted for “colored Catholics.” The Sign indicates that the Passionist effort to “colored” or black Catholics may have been fostered by the singular efforts of Passionist, Fr. Mark Moeslein. Still, more research is needed to ascertain why Bishop William J. Hafey of Raleigh, NC, offered the Passionists a “colored mission” after they appear to have been so successful with preached missions to Catholics and non-Catholics. Finally, the essay below raises a question as to the importance of the relationship between The Sign editor, Fr. Harold Purcell, C.P., and Fr. Moeslein for the early success of the “Colored Mission.”
Fr. Stephen Sweeney, C.P.: The Passionists, wrote Passionist Stephen Sweeney in the August 1926 issue of The Sign, were invited by Bishop William J. Hafey of Raleigh to come to eastern North Carolina to preach missions to “scattered Catholics in isolated sections of the country” and to “reach non-Catholics…antagonistic” to the Catholic Church. Fr. Sweeney’s mission platform was a train traveling through the countryside; a custom-made Pullman Car—St. Peter’s Chapel Car—owned by The Catholic Church Extension Society specially built for the evangelical task.
Picking up the special car in Chicago on February 27, 1926, Fr. Sweeney met in Richmond, VA, with “companion, chef acolyte and steward,” Mr. Stephen McLaughlin. Sweeney commenced preaching March 2 in Kinston, NC. The area had three Catholic churches and twenty-four mission stations for twelve counties (pop. 125,000) and 210 Catholics. Though publicized in advance influenza limited attendance to four Catholics.
The Sign article described the non-Catholic prejudices of the era: Catholics were going to kidnap young children for the faith, and anti-Catholic literature in the Menace and the Fellowship Forum referred to a Catholic priest as the Anti-Christ. Fr. Sweeney indicated the ambiguity of the culture when he wrote how “the poor colored people” of Washington, NC, had received literature against the Knights of Columbus while, at the same time, mentioning how one of his “best friends in Kinston” was the Grand Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan who worked on the railroad.
The Chapel Car was on an evangelical tour. It went to Maysville. At Greenville they met with “militant Catholicity” but were impressed by the faith of the Skinner family. A hopeful sign was that attendance averaged “sixty people” in the evenings. Discussions with Protestant clergy were not uncommon on these stops and this led Fr. Sweeney to write that he thought Catholics could learn a lot about “matters of finance” from non-Catholics. The Car went on to Williamston, Plymouth, Bayboro, Aurora and Belhaven. Typically the evening sessions were an opportunity to explain Catholic doctrine. Two years earlier, Passionist Fr. Alexis Cunneen had preached at Belhaven on a Chapel Car venture.
While Fr. Sweeney encountered no anti-Catholic feelings in Aurora or Belhaven, at Plymouth the KKK ordered him out of town. At Bayboro because members of the KKK from nearby New Bern threatened violence, attendance was low. After Oriental, he preached at Whortonsville to sixteen people in Mrs. Curry’s dinning room.
Though Fr. Sweeney makes a point to say that his “itinerary did not call for any missions for the Negroes” when the train slid off the track in the segregated section of Washington, NC, he realized that a mission for whites would be a “failure” so he decided “to hold a mission for the colored.” He “never preached, ” he wrote “to a more docile or a more enthusiastic congregation.” Praising the Negro “love for religion,…cheerful and happy under persecution” while “even praying in the fields,” Fr. Sweeney lauded the work of Fr. Charles Hannigan with Negroes in eastern North Carolina.
The Southern church, Fr. Sweeney concluded, needed help from Northern Catholics to overcome the long history of Protestant anti-Catholicism so he suggested Catholic literature and hopefully an increase in the number of priests.
Fr. Sweeney’s article received a favorable letter from a person in Oriental, NC, in the September 1926 Sign. The writer, a convert, had attended Chapel Car services at Greenville and Wilmington and praised the services as a source of Catholic Revival.
Fr. Egbert Albert, C.P.: In September 1926, Fr. Egbert Albert, C.P., received hospitality from the Benedictines at Belmont Abbey then quickly began his mission preaching (without the Chapel Car) to the 700 Catholics at Charlotte, NC, (pop. 60,000). Protestants, he wrote in a November 1927 Sign article, attended more out of interest. The next mission was at Salisbury where Benedictine Lawrence McHale was pastor to 80 Catholics. High Point followed; it was an out mission of Greensboro, Father Albert’s fourth stop. Greensboro had 500 Catholics (pop. 50,000). Attendance was good. Sixteen converts came forward. One of Fr. Albert’s successful strategies to increase mission attendance was to write articles in local papers to promote himself.
After Greensboro Father Albert visited several days with Bishop Hafey in Raleigh. The Bishop then drove him to Rocky Mount which had 150 Catholics led by Fr. Joseph Gallagher. After the mission Fr. Gallagher drove Fr. Albert to meet Fr. Sweeney who was preaching from the Chapel Car at Halifax.
Fr. Albert continued on to Tarboro—15 Catholics (pop. 3000), then St. Paul’s white parish at New Bern—200 Catholics. This was followed by a separate mission for St. Joseph’s colored parish at New Bern—30 parishioners. Later, a school opened in September 1926, and was staffed by four Sisters of the Immaculate Heart from Scranton, PA. Only 10 of the 150 students were Catholic. The Sisters went on to open a school for “white children at Goldsboro” and one for “colored children in Washington.” The St. Joseph “altar boys” noted Albert “are little Protestant colored boys.” Later Fr. Albert addressed a “Colored Baptist Church” at Oriental and a mission for Protestants at Kinston where he met with Passionist Bonaventure McHugh, also giving missions in the state.
Fr. Albert expresses his opinion of the importance of this preaching for the Passionists of the 1920s when he writes: “whilst the Passionist Fathers have sent a great many missionaries to China, they have also sent a band of noted missionaries to the home missions.” Coincidently, this was about the same time that Passionist missionary to China, Godfrey Holbein, who was to be murdered in 1929, was finding adjustment in China difficult and lamented that he might be a better missionary at home in the Southland. After preaching at Greenville, Fr. Albert took Fr. Sweeney’s place in the Chapel Car in early 1927. Preaching continued at Vanceboro—2 Catholics; Havelock, Morehead City about 10 Catholics in the town; then Beaufort. After Beaufort Fr. Albert went north and returned again after Easter 1927 to give more Chapel Car missions.
Obviously, both these articles exhibit a strong Passionist commitment to preach missions to small Catholic groups. There was an interest in non-Catholics and converts. The two Passionist preachers, it appears, also followed the accepted rules of racial segregation of the time.
The preaching activities of Frs. Sweeney and Albert make the October 1927 Sign article by veteran Passionist Mark Moeslein all the more interesting. It described the third annual convention of The Federated Colored Catholics held in early September 1927 in New York City. Chaired by Dr. Thomas W. Turner of the Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA, Father Moeslein lamented the lack “of Catholic laymen and women of the white race” at the meeting and then went on to point out how the organization was challenging the Catholic Church to deal with the prejudice.
Catholics needed to address six areas of prejudice: “segregation in Catholic churches and schools,” “segregated spaces for Negroes in churches, frequented chiefly by people of the white race,” educational segregation, segregation in “nearly all” Catholic seminaries, “admission of so very few colored men to the Catholic priesthood” and “restricting the ministrations of colored priests to Negro Congregations.” Father Moeslein advocated an end to the “colorline” of the Catholic Church. His opinion was applauded in a letter to the editor by Fr. Raymond Vernimont of Denton, TX, in the November 1927 Sign and by Gustave B. Aldrich of Tacoma, WA, in a letter published in February 1928.
While praising the Passionist effort to China in a January 1928 Sign editorial, Harold Purcell, C.P., recalled that for 75 years American Passionists had been “continuously and indefatigably engaged in preaching of missions to Catholics and non-Catholics, to whites and colored and Mexicans along our southern border.” Purcell then proclaimed that the Passionists had been invited by Bishop Hafey to conduct “a special missionary enterprise among the colored people of North Carolina.”
A June 1928 editorial went on to feature Passionist Mark Moeslein in a financial appeal for enlarging a school for “the congregation of colored Catholics” at Washington, NC. The appeal was strengthened, in the same issue, by a biographical article on the 50th jubilee celebration of priesthood at Washington, NC. Pictures of Moeslein, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, and “colored” Catholics proved informative and successful as contributors to “Father Mark’s Mission” were listed in the August 1928 issue. In July 1929 the Washington, NC, “Colored Mission” was given a full two-page ad for contributions and an editorial endorsement in the August 1929 issue. In September 1929, the Washington Colored Mission was compared to early mission zeal of the 1830s. By 1929 the Chapel Car of the Passionists had developed into the “Colored Mission” of North Carolina.