by Elias Krim
in America Magazine
Parishioners in rural Kaplan, La., just west of Lafayette, must have found their sophisticated new priest, Father Albert McKnight, a curious figure upon his arrival there in 1957. He was a priest who would later argue that the Catholic Church was fundamentally racist, all the while remaining a faithful member of it and working for healing and justice.
The Brooklyn native, one of the few African-American Holy Ghost (Spiritan) priests in the United States at that time, was possessed of a good education and a powerful intellect. One year after his ordination in 1952, he was assigned to a parish in Lafayette, deep in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. He also found himself serving communities like Kaplan with illiteracy rates of up to 75 percent.
Father McKnight started up literacy classes for the parish and persisted for two years until he finally admitted failure. He found he was unable to use the tool of literacy to overcome a greater problem in the community, what he called a “poverty of spirit.” He had to find another method to help build up the community.
Father McKnight traveled to Nova Scotia in the summer of 1960 to take a class on the philosophy of cooperativism and worker co-ops at the Coady Institute, established to continue the work of Canada’s Antigonish movement. The experience gave him the social vision for his ministry going forward.
“What we need to do,” he insisted throughout his life, “is reinvent the cooperative idea. If ever the cooperative approach was needed, it is today. It’s still a disgrace to Black folks that no place in the country do Blacks control economically.”…