Priest says black Catholics have a rich historical tradition in the church

COLUMBIA — During his homily for the heritage celebration in Kingstree, Father Freddy Washington said he hoped to convey the importance and richness of the heritage of black Catholics in South Carolina and the important role they play.

“Right now in the church we have come to see the importance of our presence in terms of diversity,” he said. “In terms of the Catholic population in the U.S., black Catholics number about 2 million, but what we bring to the church is appreciated.”

Father Washington, a Congregation of the Holy Ghost Father, was born in Charleston and attended St. Patrick Church. He has been a priest for 14 years, and is currently assigned to two churches in Chicago.

In a telephone interview with The Miscellany, Father Washington said the event in Kingstree reflected the special experience of the black Catholic community in South Carolina, and was also special for him.

“It was truly a homecoming for me, and for the crowd as a whole I wanted to convey the whole notion of reconnecting and being connected,” he said. “We had the bishop there as the father figure, we had patriarchs and matriarchs of parishes together. It was like a family reunion, a chance to reflect on who we are as black people and who we are as Catholics.”

He said many people do not realize the long, rich history of black Catholics in South Carolina. He said it is important for present-day members of the black Catholic community in the state  to remember the struggles their spiritual forebears experienced with slavery and discrimination and with the preservation of their faith.

“We have a big history in South Carolina, especially with all the plantations in the Lowcountry,” he said. “I tell people to remember that there were black people in this state who died to remain Catholic.”

This was evident to him growing up in Charleston and attending St. Patrick and seeing other historically black Catholic churches there, such as the now-defunct St. Peter Claver.

He said it’s important for black Catholics today to remember the importance of ecumenism, especially because many of them come from families or communities that are predominantly Protestant.

“In my family, for instance, my mother and I were the only Catholics,” he said. “When we speak of black Catholics we need to remember that within their family units, they frequently have people who come predominantly from an A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) or Baptist background. Ecumenism needs to be very important to us in that sense.”

Father Washington said developing strong leaders in the black Catholic community is  one important  way to encourage young black Catholics in their faith and to urge some who have left the church to return.

“When I grew up, the first black priest I knew was Father Figaro in Charleston, and it was through the constant witness of people like him in those positions that I learned okay, I can do this too,” he said. “Seeing other black Catholics become leaders is important for today’s young people.”

Father Washington said he would like those who heard him in Kingstree and everyone in the Catholic community to remember a second theme he says is central to his perspective on life and ministry.

“Remember, nothing is impossible with God,” he said. “Through him, possibilities exist beyond what we can see in our daily lives.”