by Greg Magnoni, Northwest Catholic
Clayton Pitre recalls attending Mass as a child in a segregated parish in Louisiana. “I went to a church where we sat on one side of the church and the Cajuns sat on the other side of the church,” said Pitre, 91, a cradle Catholic and member of St. James Cathedral Parish. “We went to Communion on one side of the altar, and they went on the other side of the altar.”
Corliss Nesbitt-Reed of St. Anthony Parish in Renton also experienced racial segregation by Catholics. Reed grew up non-Catholic in the 1960s in Buffalo, New York, with a population of mostly Polish and Italian Catholics. “I felt the anger and the discrimination” from white Catholics, she said of those tense days when race riots flared in her hometown and across the country.
Se’Vera Dowe of Seattle’s Immaculate Conception Parish became Catholic in the 1970s, but when she first encountered the church, she “couldn’t understand what was going on. I really thought, the first few Sundays, this is not for me.”
For the better part of a hundred years following the Civil War, the church failed to distinguish itself from the secular culture and largely missed what the late Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis called “a golden opportunity for a harvest of souls.”
“We never produced clergy among the African-American community,” said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of the cause for sainthood of Father Augustus Tolton, the first American priest recognized as black. “That was a residual from the non-acceptance of blacks in seminaries and convents and other Catholic institutions. Consequently, the church gave the guise of itself being a white institution not terribly interested or ambivalent about its black membership.”
According to Father Davis’ book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, beginning in the 19th century, a majority of African-Americans gravitated to black Protestant churches led by black ministers. Today, black Catholics represent just 3 million of the 36 million African-Americans in the U.S., according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops…