Among American Blacks

The Passionists arrived in the United States in Pittsburgh in 1852. The nation was divided between free states and slave states for the institution of slavery still held sway. Our first foundations were in northern and free states: Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Dunkirk in New York and West Hoboken in New Jersey. After the Civil War was over Passionist monasteries were built in former southern or slave states: Baltimore in Maryland (1867), Louisville in Kentucky (1878) and St. Louis in Missouri (1884). These monasteries put us in closer contact with the Blacks of whom, however, few were Catholics.

Most of our early parish mission work was also in the north. Usually our missionaries were requested to preach missions in parishes of immigrants, especially Irish and German immigrants. We do not have a history of the Passionist parish missions in the United States so I am unable to relate how many missions were conducted in southern states and especially in Black segregated parishes.

When Holy Cross Province was established in 1906, our ministries remained among the poor Catholics of that period, namely, recent immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland and later Italy: From time to time in those early years a mission would also be given to the Black parishes of the cities of the midwest.

In 1913 Father Paul Nussbaum was appointed Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas. There was obviously a large Black population in this southeastern Diocese of the State of Texas. Father Mark Moeslein began the first Colored (as it was then called) parish school and church of Holy Cross in the City of Corpus Christi. For a short time Father Mark Moeslein was assisted by Father Fidelis Kent Stone.

When the Passionists moved to Normandy, just outside of St. Louis, we were put in charge of several of the religious communities of that area. One of the religious institutions that we served at Normandy for many years was St. Francis Home for Colored children, conducted by the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Perhaps for many of us who were students at the Prep in Normandy this was our first experience with Black Sisters.

Perhaps there are very few of us aware of an experiment in the inter-racial movement in Detroit in 1937 and 1938. Father Pius Leabel and Father Silvius Seikauskas started a campaign in the City of Detroit for the conversion of local Negroes. An account of this movement is related in the chronicles of the Detroit monastery, pages 27 to 38.

The campaign started with talks given by Fathers Pius and Silvius at Marygrove College, at St. Mary of Redford’s School, the Catholic Workers of Windsor, the Catholic Worker of Detroit, St. Peter Claver’s Auditorium, Sacred Heart Academy of Grosse Point and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. As a result, regular catechism classes for Colored children were held in the hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and also at Birdhurst Recreation Center. In December “the friendly inter-racial meetings” were held in the hall of Our Lady of Guadalupe. These meetings consisted of entertainment, sermon and question box. Music bands and glee clubs of the various schools were invited to entertain. Priests from the monastery and from the city were asked to speak. The question box was handled by an attorney, Mr. Daniel Foley. The Mission Chronicle of February 19, 1938, stated: “The friendly inter-racial meeting was under the auspices of the Passionist Fathers of the St. Paul Monastery to break-down racial and religious prejudice. These meetings are held every Sunday evening at 7 o’clock at the Spanish-American Hall, Roosevelt and Kirby Avenues.” The Chronicler summed-up the entire experiment as follows: “While all the above work resulted in only twelve actual conversions, the claims of the Catholic Church were made known to hundreds of people and many have requested instructions. In September, 1938, our activities for the conversion of the Colored people at Detroit were suspended indefinitely.” Perhaps some who were living in Detroit at that time will be able to fill in the gaps for us in this interesting story of Passionists working in the inner-city of Detroit in the late 1930s.

In August, 1936, the Holy See appealed to Bishops and Religious Provincials to do more work for the Negroes in the United States. Our Provincial, Father Boniface Fielding, took up this matter with the General Superior in Rome. Father Boniface contacted Bishop Toolen of the Mobile-Birmingham Diocese of Alabama. In April, 1937, Father Cornelius McGraw, C.P., came to Birmingham to look for a suitable place. He decided upon Tuxedo Junction in Ensley. Father Arnold Vetter arrived in Birmingham on January 10, 1938. He obtained an old empty store building at Twentieth Street and Ensley Avenue. The building was cleaned out and a chapel was prepared for the first Mass to be celebrated at Tuxedo Junction on February 12, 1938. In March of that same year Father Julius Busse came to assist Father Arnold. Classrooms were prepared on the first floor.

A Trinitarian Sister, Sister Marie Theresa, opened a kindergarten in June, 1938. In late August three Felician Sisters from Chicago arrived to open Holy Family Elementary School. There were four grades and 200 children. From this small beginning arose Holy Family Church, Holy Family Elementary School, Holy Family High School, St. Mary’s Church and Elementary School in Fairfield and Holy Family Hospital in Ensley. With the cooperation of the Felician Sisters of Chicago, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, and the Franciscan Sisters of Joliet, these institutions are all flourishing today. An integral part of this ministry is the story of the Procuration Office. Father Ludger Martin took over the Office in 1945 and began a very successful fund raising program that helped finance the various institutions of Ensley, Fairfield and later on in far off Japan. Father Ludger remained at that post until 1972. The Province and our ministry among the Blacks will forever be indebted to Father Ludger Martin.

One of the unique goals of Father Boniface Fielding in setting-up the missions among the Blacks in Alabama was to establish a regular Passionist canonical monastery nearby. It was with this purpose that property was bought out on “the hill” southeast of Birmingham to serve as St. Joseph’s monastery. The original plan was that this be a canonical monastery with full observance to which the missionaries at Holy Family, St. Mary’s and several other mission centers could return from time to time for rest, spiritual renewal and community living. A large enough monastery was never built at St. Joseph’s and unfortunately the ideal was not achieved.

In the 1960s when so many Blacks migrated from the southern states into the northern and far western cities religious from Holy Cross Province were involved in ministry and social action among these Blacks in the “ghettos.” This was especially true of students of that time who began working in the Inner City of Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. The location of the Catholic Theological Union on the south side of Chicago has kept this ministry among the Blacks alive in the experience of our younger religious.

Father Alex Steinmiller began ministering to the inner-city Blacks in the City of Detroit in the mid-l970s. This program has come to be known as Focus: LIFE. It is an inter-community ministry conducted by a Passionist (Father Alex Steinmiller), a Redemptorist (Father John Phelps), and a Dominican Sister (Sister Rosalie Esquerra). Focus: LIFE is an out-reach program directed to the youths of the inner-city of Detroit.

There is special emphasis on the formation and enabling of laity in youth ministry. Focus: LIFE seeks not only to minister to young people but with them and so seeks to enable young people to minister in out-reach to others. From a funding point of view, Focus: LIFE is a continuing miracle, for each year with sufficient financial aid it carries on to produce wonderful fruits. Several of our own students have worked with Father Alex in this ministry. Also several vocational prospects have experienced community and ministry by working with the staff.

From almost the very beginning our retreat houses were integrated and welcomed both white and black parishes. This enabled white men who lived in the suburbs and Blacks who lived in the ghettos to meet together in a Christian and religious atmosphere at our Passionist retreat houses. Our white parishes also developed inter-racial groups and social action committees to work on the racial problems in the northern cities. Another example would be the Passionist students at our seminary college in Louisville in the 1960s working with the people of St. Agnes Parish to host Ensley’s Holy Family High School seniors to weekends in Louisville. In the 1970s Holy Family’s Gospel Choir was hosted at St. Agnes and other northern parishes.

Over the years young Black youths have been welcomed to our preparatory seminary and into our Province. Bernard Brooks of Houston was professed in 1953 and ordained in 1960. Xavier Albert also of Houston was professed in 1956 and ordained in 1963. Unfortunately, both have left the community. There are several Black candidates or associates at the present time. Passionists’ formation among Blacks will certainly keep in mind the cultural roots of such young men.

Holy Cross Province is grateful to God for our past and present ministries among American Blacks. We are also conscious of our failures and our neglects. We are hopeful that Black Americans will be a vital part of Passionist community and Passionist ministry during the decades ahead.

Very Rev. Roger Mercurio, C. P.
Provincial Superior
February 22, 1982

Please contact Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. at [email protected] if you have any comments. Permission of Archives needed for publication.