Each gift was a blessing at Holy Rosary Church

Rosetta Smalley shares her family’s experience as black Catholics in this oral history.

SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — A young Rosetta Pipes and her friends walked two miles each December from their community of Briartown to the Dominican Sisters’ St. Catharine Motherhouse.

“We walked the road in the snow,” she said. “But we weren’t cold because we were so excited for our rewards.”

The Dominican Sisters — who were key figures in their lives — gave them fruit, candy, clothing and, if you were little, a new toy.

“You would thank God for whatever you got. What little we had, we were blessed with it.”

Rosetta Pipes, now Rosetta Smalley, was born in 1936 and is a lifelong member of Holy Rosary Church in Springfield, Ky., a predominately African American Catholic church established in 1929.

The parish, still active today, was nestled in a small community known as Briartown, where 21 parish families lived, learned and worshipped together.

Photo by Marnie McAllister
Rosetta Smalley, a lifelong member of Holy Rosary Church in Springfield, Ky., recounts her life as a black Catholic in rural Kentucky.

Smalley recounted her memories as a lifelong member of Holy Rosary for an oral history project Dec. 6. The Record and Father Patrick Delahanty’s Riverbirch Productions are collecting stories that highlight the gifts of faith black Catholics have shared with the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Briartown’s families were all equally poor, but they didn’t know it, said Smalley.

“Every family was your family. We didn’t have a lot, but we didn’t know it because we were all happy. Love and kindness was better than any dollar bill,” she said.

“I miss Briartown because it was a happy settlement. We would go to different houses and pray the rosary when we were 8, 10, 11 years old.
“We couldn’t wait to go to church — we had missions, processions, Christmas parties at St. Catharine.”

Holy Rosary was a mission of St. Rose Church in Springfield until 1973, when it became a parish. In the early years, members came from three communities, said Smalley.

In addition to Briartown adjacent to the church, parishioners came from Fieldtown, which was mostly Catholic, and Jimtown, which had a few Catholic families, she said.

The children attended Holy Rosary School, where the Dominican Sisters were their teachers.

“We did a lot with the nuns,” Smalley said, laughing about her happy memories.

The eighth-grade girls, she said, were tasked with making lunch for the sisters on school days.

The children tried to avoid Father L.L. Bernard, a strict priest who led the church for more than 35 years.

“We stayed away from Father Bernard,” she said. “We stayed on his good side.”

That was fairly easy, though, because Smalley and her friends were, she said, “teachers’ pets.”

Five or so mothers from the church, including Rosetta’s mother Lilly Mudd Pipes, were employed as housekeepers for the sisters. They cleaned the motherhouse, she said. Most of the men, including Smalley’s father, Leslie Pipes, worked on a nearby farm.

In the early years, Smalley said Briartown families were never hungry but their diets were meager — most meals consisted of bread, gravy (made with flour and butter) and beans. They grew their own fruit — apples, pears, peaches, walnuts and grapes.

They always had enough to share with the “tramps” — wanderers with few means — who would show up hungry.

“Bread, butter and potatoes in a pie pan. They thought it was a feast,” she said.

Later, Smalley’s uncle was hired to butcher livestock and brought home the cast-off parts, such as pig’s feet.

Eventually, the family kept about 150 chickens and meatless dinners became less common.

Smalley’s memories of Christmas were vivid during the Dec. 6 interview.

“On Christmas morning about five o’clock, Daddy would go out and shoot a gun to tell us to get up and go to church,” she said.

Afterward, they received two gifts — the only gifts they’d receive until the next Christmas. One Christmas was more anxious than the others, she recalled.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “I ate a piece of candy before Mass.” Those were the days when no one was allowed to eat before Mass, she added.

The ugly realities of segregation and other forms of racism didn’t intrude on their lives in Briartown, Smalley noted. Their parents rarely took them down the small hill into Springfield. Life unfolded within their church and community, where all were equal.

Young Rosetta Pipes grew up to marry Clay Smalley after they dated for 12 years. They were married for 42 years, until he died in 2003.

Clay Smalley, an Army veteran of the Korean War, was well known in the Springfield community. He was a volunteer coach of football and basketball teams at St. Dominic Church.

Their seven children attended St. Dominic School after it integrated. Holy Rosary School closed in 1966.
Today she has 14 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

And she urges their parents to take the children to church, she said.

At age 83, Smalley doesn’t get around as well as she’d like. She watches Mass every day on EWTN and someone from her parish brings Communion each weekend.

She feels content, she said, but is concerned about the future of Holy Rosary.

“I am happy and blessed that I’m a member of Holy Rosary Church. I’m hoping that the younger generation will wake up their kids” and bring them to church, she said. “To us, religion was all of it.

Marnie McAllister
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Marnie McAllister
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