Building the House of God on Living Stones of Black and White

Black and white Catholics reflect on the concrete ways their experience can help the Church become more integrated in its diversity.

Father Emmanuel Mulenga, a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, greets a parishioner at St. Augustine Catholic Church, where Father Mulenga is pastor, in New Orleans.
Father Emmanuel Mulenga, a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate, greets a parishioner at St. Augustine Catholic Church, where Father Mulenga is pastor, in New Orleans. (photo: Courtesy of St. Augustine Catholic Church)

April Posch has never felt more integrated in parish life or more connected to God than she does at St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans.

The Catholic congregation is historically African American, worshipping in a tradition that emphasizes singing, long homilies, wearing one’s Sunday best and engaging in heartfelt Christian fellowship. But Posch is white — and has never felt more at home.

“When you go to this church, you’re part of the family,” she said. “It’s really this community of pure love.”

Posch remembered how the congregation first embraced her when she came to join them for the first time. The pastor delivered a homily that moved her to tears with thoughts of her father whom she had recently lost. Parishioners comforted and reassured her.

“At that point, I started crying again because people are so wonderful here,” she said, adding that one of the African American women become a second mother to Posch.

“That is this church,” she said. Since protests erupted in many U.S. cities and the heartland following high-profile police-related killings of African Americans, many Catholics have grappled with the presence of racism in society. But some parishes and ministries are already showing what a truly integrated future for the Catholic Church in the U.S. can look like in concrete ways.

St. Augustine’s stands as a symbol of that effort: The church was built in 1841 by African American families, both free and enslaved, along with Creole, Haitian, Cuban, Italian, German and various European American families. Today, the church is in the midst of a major restoration project to be a symbol of that promise for future generations.

Posch, who now steers St. Augustine’s restoration committee, said the $2.5-million restoration cause has rallied Catholics of all ethnicities, including New Orleans Saints’ owner Gayle Benson, and they have $1 million dollars left to raise.

And as the oldest Catholic church founded by African Americans in the U.S., St. Augustine’s has witnessed the struggle for racial justice in New Orleans from 1841 through the present day. The church was home for Ven. Henriette DeLille, who was the foundress mother of the Sisters of the Holy Family, the first African American order of women religious.

Posch said the universal Church has something to learn from her parish and the close relationships the parishioners have.

A personal account from Fr. Jerome LeDoux, former pastor of St. Augustine, relayed that when St. John Paul II learned about their church during his 1987 visit to New Orleans, he was moved to say, “All churches should be like St. Augustine.”

Posch believes a fully restored St. Augustine’s can be a powerful symbol of hope and joy for the whole Church.

“It didn’t matter that I was white, it didn’t matter that they were Black,” she said. “We were one family.”


Black and White Alliance

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, most African American Catholics (76%) are part of “diverse or shared parishes,” and 24% belong to predominately African American parishes, most of which are on the East Coast.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has a small handful of African American-majority parishes today, but African Americans worship in parishes across the archdiocese.

The archdiocese’s African American Catholic Center for Evangelization (AACCFE) has worked hard to build relationships of solidarity between African American Catholics and European American-majority parish communities in the Archdiocese. Anderson Shaw, the AACCFE’s director, told the Register the AACCFE has worked closely with the archdiocese to promote special Masses, events and speakers. They are looking at livestreaming their Masses to give all Catholics wider exposure to this sacred patrimony.

“What makes the task easier is when you have the support of the archbishop,” Shaw said, praising Archbishop José Gomez’s commitment.

But Anderson said the partnerships AACCFE built so far with about 15 large white-majority parishes have exponentially helped them promote more of an integrated awareness of the Catholic tradition of African Americans and their struggles today than the city’s African American parishes could have accomplished on their own.

“We rely on their direct support,” Anderson said, adding the AACCFE has a goal of building relationships with all 350 parishes of the archdiocese. “But we have a long way to go in terms of impact on the archdiocese.”

What has helped build bridges are the presence of African American Catholics in parishes, especially in leadership roles, which catalyzes “the involvement of the larger community more than if you didn’t have those leaders involved.”

Shaw said the partnerships have allowed them to promote more widely speakers, events, and plays like Tolton: From Slave to Priest by St. Luke’s Productions, which tells the story of Venerable Augustus Tolton, the country’s first African American diocesan priest and his path of holiness.

St. Monica Catholic Community in Santa Monica, California, one of the AACCFE’s partners, is a European American-majority parish that is culturally diverse and has helped promote and provide a large venue for Tolton.

“We strive to listen and try to do more,” Delis Alejandro, St. Monica’s pastoral associate, told the Register.

Alejandro said the parish hosts a Martin Luther King breakfast, which is attended by 300-400 people every year.

“It is a huge event,” she said.

And on the evening of George Floyd’s June 9 funeral, Alejandro said St. Monica parishioners organized a rosary walk from St. Monica’s church to the Pacific Ocean where there is a statue of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. More than 300 people joined the prayer vigil where they knelt for eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence to commemorate Floyd’s final moments.

The parish is culturally diverse, Alejandro said, but she said the parish is making intentional efforts to do more work for racial integration among Catholics.

“We just see ourselves at the beginning,” she said.


Walking in Each Other’s Shoes

The St. Louis metro area is one of the most racially segregated areas of the country, where the dividing line between racially and economically diverse neighborhoods can be found crossing the street. But following the 2014 Ferguson protests, the archdiocese under Archbishop Robert Carlson began to cultivate a personal approach of integrating the Church.

Cheryl Archibald, co-founder the North City Deanery Interracial Relations Committee, told the Register that her organization also has led pilgrimages to walk in each other’s neighborhoods. The two-mile “Crossing the Delmar Divide” pilgrimage Sept. 10, named for Delmar Boulevard, saw several hundred people walking in neighborhoods they had literally never set foot in before.

“People talked and had a good time,” she said. The committee had only expected 30 people to show up, and the turnout showed a real hunger for authentic racial integration.

“We realized there was a continued need to foster conversation and build those bridges,” she said. They have embarked on traveling the city together to learn their common history and important events in African American history, such as the Great Migration and Juneteenth.

Another successful approach, Archibald said, are small group conversations they have held to foster trust between Catholics to talk with each other about race — and translate what they mean by terms such as “Black lives matter” or “white privilege” — without triggering a defensive reaction that shuts down conversation.

“When you have a group like we have, we can talk about it, and our friends can listen,” said Archibald, who is Black, noting that people no longer feel like they need to “tiptoe” around each other’s feelings because they have trust in these relationships.

“There’s not many groups that I’m a part of that have that freedom,” she said.

Beth Lappe, a member of the primarily European-American parish of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, told the Register that she and her parish have been enriched by the relationships they have now built with St. Elizabeth Mother of John the Baptist parish as part of their commitment to the archdiocese’s beONE initiative.

Pre-COVID 19, the two parishes started cosponsoring Catholic initiatives based on social teaching and co-hosted speaker series, socials and other events.

“It’s actually fostering relationships and actually breaking down fears white people have,” she said.

Lappe said her own experience of St. Elizabeth’s African American patrimony in going to Mass there from time to time “transformed me.”

“It’s very warm and welcoming,” she said, noting that Mass takes longer than she is used to, but “the music is fabulous” with a “very vibrant” sense of community.

“They just included us in the life of their parish,” she said.

The social relationships, Lappe said, have forged connections between parishioners and integrated each other better to the wider community.

“It’s opening our eyes to a lot more,” she said. “These developing relationships are the key to change.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.