Black Catholics saving their own history in Louisiana
From education and housing to the military, the fight for equality also extends to religion.
There are eight historically Black Catholic churches in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
For Black Catholics, that connection is through both family and the community - keeping them tied to the church parishes that were originally built just for them.
In Napoleonville, down Bayou Lafourche, still stands a 110-year-old church that has quite the history.
“Saint Benedict the Moore is the oldest African-American church in the Diocese of Baton Rouge,” said Jerilyn Williams, a parishioner and director of religious education at St. Benedict.
At Saint Benedict, Deacon Alfred Adams illustrated how one person can make a difference. He serves as the first Black deacon for the diocese.
“When I took office, I said the first thing I want to do is make sure all those parishes are being represented, and I want people to know that this is still part of the diocese of Baton Rouge,” Deacon Adams said.
Adams has been fighting racism from within the church.
“Racism is something that we didn’t create it, but we are responsible for what we do with it,” Adams explained.
A lifelong Catholic, it was an idea instilled in him by his devoted mother.
“My mom, we were almost the first ones in church and we were always sitting in the back of the church. I remember asking my mom at 5 or 6 years old, ‘why are we sitting in the back of the church? We’re almost the first ones.’ My mom would say, 'don’t worry about it son, God’s gonna take care of us,'” he said.
The prejudice, and the indifference to it, was an issue he pledged to change, even as it would take the diocese years to fully desegregate both churches and schools after starting the process in 1964.
Unlike other Black Catholic schools and churches, which are now closed, Jerilyn Williams maintains records at St. Benedict. The church was built by the society of Saint Joseph, called specifically to work with African-Americans.
“The Josephites started not just St. Benedict the Moore but African-American churches from St. Luke in Thibodaux, Mission Church at St. Augustine in Klotzville, and St. Katherine of Sienna,” Williams said.
“Even with a school at one time, St. Benedict is now one of the places holding the stories of Black Catholics in south Louisiana,” she continued. “One of our earlier priests, Father Van Bass, literally rode a horse up and down Bayou Lafourche to provide services for the people. Because with African Americans we wanted to be able to worship in a place where we felt comfortable."
Under the leadership of Bishop Michael Duca, Deacon Adams has been leading difficult conversations on race, reflective of a verse in the book of Matthew: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”
“Low and behold I was in the back of the church, but now I’m in the front. Not just in the front but up looking at the people,” Deacon Adams said.
Deacon Adams is also a member of the racial harmony commission for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. They are hosting a series on racial healing and transformation. Their next discussion is on February 24th via Zoom. To listen in to the discussion, visit: https://diobr.org/events/zoom-series-racial-healing-and-transformation