By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
St. Augustine Church parishioners reached back into their church’s past on a cold February morning as they re-created a walk made by their predecessors 150 years ago.
About 200 men, women and children raised their voices singing Gospel songs as they traveled west down Muhammad Ali Boulevard from the undercroft of the Cathedral of the Assumption. Their pilgrimage ended little more than a mile away at the historic black church on 13th Street and West Broadway.
The walk and motorcade, followed by a liturgy Feb. 23, kicked off a year-long celebration to commemorate the parish’s 150th anniversary.
Father Christopher Rhodes, pastor of St. Augustine, prayed as the gathering prepared to leave the cathedral’s undercroft.
Reflecting on the parish’s long history, Father Rhodes said he felt “honored” to be its pastor and to be standing not only on the backs of their ancestors but on their “prayers, tears, hopes and dreams.”
On Feb. 20, 1870 — only seven years after the emancipation proclamation freed enslaved people — 75 black Catholics walked in a procession from the undercroft of the cathedral, where they had been worshipping, to the newly built St. Augustine Church on 14th Street and West Broadway.
Bishop William McCloskey, who helped raise money to build the church, blessed the new building. The original St. Augustine campus included a school on the first floor, the church on the second floor and a rectory next door.
In May of 1902 a second church building was dedicated to accommodate the growing parish. Ten years later the property where the church now stands on 13th Street and West Broadway was purchased. That church building, which included four classrooms, was dedicated in 1912.
Over the last century and a half, generations of faithful have found a spiritual home at St. Augustine.
Ninety-year-old Deacon John Churchill, who took part in the motorcade, said his grandparents were members of St. Augustine. His mother was baptized there and attended the school.
Deacon Churchill’s father, Joseph Churchill, became a Catholic when he married Deacon Churchill’s mother and continued the tradition at St. Augustine.
The deacon and his six siblings grew up at St. Augustine. He said his father was a musician and tap dancer. The parish was a lively place filled with music and talent shows. The school had a winning basketball team and a marching band known around town, he said.
Deacon Churchill, his wife Genevieve Churchill, and their children are still active members of the parish and members of the choir.
Parishioner Ruth Winstead too found a home in St. Augustine three decades ago. Winstead, dressed in a bright blue traditional African dress and head piece, walked in the procession down Muhammad Ali.
She described her mood on the cold February morning as “pumped and excited.”
“My husband and I raised our kids there,” she noted. “I look forward to coming and worshipping at St. Augustine every Sunday.”
Winstead said her husband was a “cradle Catholic” and he was the reason she converted to Catholicism 35 years ago.
“It’s the best change I’ve made in my life,” she said. “God puts you in places he wants you to be in and he puts the people around you that should be there.”
As the years have passed, the parish has not waned in its ability to provide spiritually for its parishioners, say members of the younger generation.
Alexis Cammack, 18, is one of those young people who have known the goodness of the St. Augustine “family,” she said.
“For as long as I can remember I have been a member. This has been my family and home. Without St. Augustine and the black Catholic family I wouldn’t be the strong black Catholic I am,” said Cammack. “They have seen me smile, cry, laugh and love and they’ve been with me and mentored me through it all.”
Deacon James Turner, who served as St. Augustine’s first pastoral administrator delivered the homily at the anniversary Mass.
Deacon Turner described St. Augustine as a “mansion on Broadway.”
The church was the spiritual home black Catholics prayed and waited for as they worshipped in the small space below the cathedral, he said.
It was a place where they could “lay down their burdens and worship and talk to God,” said Deacon Turner. “God is worthy of being praised. Just look where he’s brought us — from a cellar, a hole in the ground, to a church house made by human hands, a church house dedicated, sanctified and blessed, a church house filled with God’s praise,” said the deacon to the lively congregation that responded with applause and words of agreement.
“For that, you ought to give him praise. How good it is for us to be here. The journey has not been an easy one, but we know that there has been a Lily in the valley,” he said.
Deacon Turner said that black Catholic ancestors left behind much more than a church building. They left behind their faith, dedication and perseverance.
“We have learned well from our teachers, brothers and sisters who have gone before us … brothers and sisters who were determined to worship their God, but yet separated because of the color of their skin,” he said.
The underground space they occupied didn’t prevent the Word of God to be carried to the “highways and byways of this great city,” he said.
Those ancestors were “blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit” which allowed them to “persevere in spite of the odds to survive in a church filled with oppression and filled with acts of separatism.”
For nearly a century of the parish’s history, black Catholics were made to sit in the balcony or the back pew of white churches. They were forced to be content with hearing the Word of God being “taught from a distance,” Deacon Turner said.
Those ancestors responded, he noted, with acts of mercy, faith and forgiveness and trust in God which ultimately “changed the course of the church’s history in the Archdiocese of Louisville.”
The parish’s 150th-anniversary celebration will continue on Aug. 23 with a Mass at noon in honor of St. Augustine’s feast day, followed by a picnic in Shawnee Park.