Molly Pyle, Special to the Catholic Virginian

During the past year, in researching the bicentennial history, I held two roundtables with parishioners about a little-examined chapter in diocesan history: the closure of the diocese’s black parishes during the 1960s. I wanted to learn how the closings  affected members’ faith and lives.

In addition to parishioners, Msgr. Walter M. Barrett Jr., vicar for the Eastern Vicariate, the second African-American priest in the Diocese of Richmond (ordained in 1975), and today its only active African-American priest, joined Norfolk’s roundtable. Broad issues, relevant to the future of the diocese, emerged.

Why Catholic?

“How and why did you become Catholic?” I asked roundtable participants.

In addition to Msgr. Barrett, Norfolk’s gathering was composed of 12 women. Alma H. Brown said she’d been raised “a staunch Protestant” – New Calvary Baptist Church. But when she married her childhood sweetheart, who was Catholic, she accepted his stipulation that their children would be raised Catholic.

“Nosey as I am, I said my children were not going to know more than I did!” Brown said. “I enrolled in a religious education class at St. Joseph’s, and at the end, after I had asked all my questions, not only was I satisfied, I was impressed with the Catholic faith. And I became Catholic.”

Similarly, Sandra Cofield said her decision was due, indirectly, to the Daughters of Charity who taught the Catholic and Protestant African-American students at Our Lady of Victory (OLV) Catholic School.

“My parents were born-and-bred Baptists, and they died Baptist,” Cofield said. “But my oldest sister became Catholic because she loved the nuns, and I followed my sister. Catholicism has been in my blood since I was 7 years old.”

Growing up under segregation, parishioners recalled feeling loved and empowered. Karen Paige Womack said, “You felt special, joyful. As kids, we were taught to swim by the priests at St. Joseph’s.”

Outside the neighborhood and parish, however, things were different. If one missed Mass at St. Joseph’s, recalled Virginia Griggs (née Elaine Jones), one had to go to St. Mary’s, which was predominantly white:

“When (African-Americans) arrived at the church door, an usher, carrying a flashlight, would escort you to the stairs leading up to the choir loft. Once you got your foot on that first step, the usher closed the door behind you,” Griggs said. “You had to feel your way up the steps, your hands braced against the walls. When you reached the choir loft, you got some light. That’s where you heard Mass.”

Charlottesville’s 2018 roundtable included 15 participants — three former members of St. Margaret Mary Parish were joined by interested Protestants and Catholics. Notably, St. Margaret Mary, founded in 1953, was integrated, periodically drawing white families from the city’s Holy Comforter Parish.

Extended family

Rob Sargeant said his family began attending St. Margaret Mary when Holy Comforter’s pastor refused to allow him, at age 10, to be an altar boy. The parish extended his family a warm welcome, Sargeant recalled.

Given city-wide racial segregation, St. Margaret Mary Parish and Holy Comforter School were anomalies. In fact, Lottie Wynn recalled that an African-American neighbor cautioned her mother that “you Catholics need to teach your children that while they can play with whites within (Catholic institutions), outside they need to learn, for their own safety, not to mingle.”

Earl Chapman fondly recalled his days growing up in St. Margaret Mary Parish, serving as an altar boy and socializing with fellow parishioners who were role models.

“St. Margaret Mary was like one big family. I didn’t realize that blacks and whites had a problem until years later when I entered the Air Force’s basic training,” he said.

To this day, because of his parish role models and relationships, Chapman said, “I don’t see color; I get along with everyone. I look for the common denominator in another person.”

Impact of decision

Given their value, the question arises as to why, in the 1960s, Bishop John J. Russell (1958-1973) closed the black parishes.

“His intention was to integrate parishes,” Msgr. Barrett explained, noting that in mandating the integration of all diocesan organizations the bishop exercised courageous moral leadership.

However, in retrospect, the closure of only black parishes, which resulted in African-American Catholics having to join predominantly white parishes, proved counterproductive and costly. Many territorial parishes were not prepared to welcome African-American members. As a result, many black Catholics left the Church.

“Is there a distinctive African-American way of celebrating the Eucharist, a distinctive spirituality?” I asked.

“There are different styles of worship in the black Catholic family,” Cecelia Livermon Brown said.

Another former OLV parishioner, Janice Davis, described the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Mary, Norfolk.

“There’s a lot of celebration around the Eucharist. During the gesture of peace, parishioners circulate to deliver hugs and catch up on news,” she said. “On any given Sunday, the pastor might recognize people for extraordinary accomplishments, or congratulate young people on school graduations.”

Msgr. Barrett noted, however, that an African-American usher at St. Mary confided to him that he wouldn’t be caught dead at the 9 o’clock Mass; the usher, according to the priest, prefers the more traditional noon Mass at St. Mary; it’s quiet, and he can be alone with God.

‘Special closeness’

Vanessa Ann Williams (née DeBerry), who serves on the St. Mary Parish Council, wanted her daughter to experience a “black Catholic” way of worship. After OLV, she joined St. Mary Parish because of its “special closeness and warmth.”

“You can get that feeling of closeness in some parishes, but you can also get the feeling of being different, and sometimes it’s so strong that it interferes with the Catholicism that you’re there to experience,” she said.

Today, Msgr. Barrett observed, the majority of the diocese’s black Catholics, reflecting a national trend, have joined mixed neighborhood parishes; however, around 20 percent make an effort to celebrate Mass at a predominantly black parish.

More broadly, as Harriet Brown observed, “There are often pockets of discord within a parish. The pastor needs to be able to communicate well enough with his parishioners to sense when something’s not right in his parish and find ways to address difficult issues.”

Cecelia Livermon Brown wondered aloud, “Is there a path to priesthood for young African-Americans? I worry about children of color, our next generation. We need priests who know and can empower our young people.”

The roundtables explored important themes to be addressed in the completed history. There are certain challenges. Yet, as Janice Davis commented, reflecting on this history, God is always there “lifting us up for his purpose. God teaches us how to walk on water, again and again.”