Black Catholics see their history on display

COLUMBIA — November is Black Catholic Month and the Diocese of Charleston is celebrating the national event with a traveling pictorial display that is proving to be an effective way of establishing the place of African-Americans in Catholicism.

The display, containing some 50 historical photographs, was put together by Kathleen Merritt, the director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries; Cherry Seabrook, a member of the Office of Black Catholics advisory board; and Mary Giles of the diocesan archives. It is in five parishes now and will travel to other parishes when requested. When Merritt made a presentation of the display to an assembly at St. Anthony School in Greenville on Nov. 17, it was an eye-opener for the mostly black students.

“They sure were exposed to something they had never seen or heard of before,” said Franciscan Sister Catherine Noecker, principal.

At St. Martin de Porres, where parishioners augmented the display with pictures from their own files, the pastor and vicar for African-American Catholics, Franciscan Father Paul Williams, found that the photos affected people.

“It shows the rootedness of black Catholics in the diocese. One picture is of a former slave who was baptized in the church. Others are of nuns in their habits from the ’30s. And this kind of history is important because black Catholics are a minority within a minority in South Carolina,” the Franciscan friar said.

One possible consequence of being a minority within a minority is isolation. Father Williams thinks that may be the single greatest cause of black Catholic defection from the faith.

He told the story of a woman who told him she went through Catholic schools and wanted to be a nun. But she felt unwelcome at a predominantly white church and eventually left the church for another religion.

“I know other blacks who are perfectly comfortable at that same church,” the vicar said. “But sensitivity aside, race is still an issue we have to deal with in this nation and in our church.”

Merritt sees the precipitous drop-off in black Catholic population numbers in the diocese — nearly 3,000 in the latest census taken by the Office of Ethnic Ministries — as a direct result of the closure of predominantly black schools and parishes.

“The visibility of black Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston was huge in the ’50s, for instance, but after these closings their numbers were reduced substantially,” the director said. “When parishes closed, many did not seek new Catholic parishes but migrated into traditional black religions, like the Baptists.”

She said that her office continues to evangelize to blacks and welcomes opportunities to do so. She and Father Williams are not alone in thinking that displays of history can strengthen today’s black Catholic.

In an article called “Catholic Roots” in the current issue of The Crisis magazine, Ervin Dyer mentions prominent black Catholics, such as Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Nigerian, and Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And Dyer quotes historian Cyprian Davis, who like Bishop Gregory visited the Diocese of Charleston during its 175th anniversary year in 1997, as saying that history “reveals a strong black presence in the U.S. church and individual lives of great sacrifice and holiness.”

That is exactly what the traveling pictorial display is meant to drive home during Black Catholic Month.