Restored Black Catholic churches show power of Black Catholic tradition to evangelize

A mural known as “Dance of Holy Innocents” is pictured in the sanctuary of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in New Orleans Sept. 16, 2022. (OSV News Photo by Elise Grenier, courtesy of Grenier Conservation)

By Robert Alan Glover

At Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in New Orleans, there hangs behind the sanctuary’s altar of worship a mural known as the “Dance of Holy Innocence.”

But this work, measuring 45 feet high by 25 feet wide, and the church it resides in, are symbols of the enduring faith of Black Catholics within the wider church, and the importance of the Virgin Mary in their worship.

“We are in a huge building that has survived more than a few storms — including both Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ida, which struck on August 26, 2021 — during the restoration project,” said Father Emanuel Tanu of the Society of the Divine Word, who is the pastor.

“Our parish is an old one — its original building was built in 1911 — and today we have around 300 families in what is a very organized, very Catholic, African American community,” Father Tanu said.

Getting to this point, however, was anything but a “given.” The parish school, for example, closed down many years ago, and in the wake of Katrina, many Catholic churches were either closed or merged by the New Orleans Archdiocese.

“We are a unique parish whose members are proud to be here, and we are hoping to be here for many years to come,” Father Tanu said.

Our Lady Star of the Sea is one of a number of Black Catholic churches that have undergone restoration efforts. These efforts testify to the enduring importance of parishes formed by Black Catholic traditions and the richness they bring to the church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The church is located about a mile from downtown New Orleans, in the St. Roch area, which became a majority Black neighborhood over the years as African Americans moved into it.

Father Tanu described the mural, originally erected in 2001, “as a work of sheer beauty; one that reflects the spirit — and the ethnicity — of this community and who the real people in it are.”

Baton Rouge native Elise Grenier, an expert in the field of restoration technology, specializes in restoring large-scale artworks in churches and museums. When it came to restoring the mural, Grenier, with the support of its original artist, replaced the all-white angels with a “now more diverse group of angels” around Mary. The restored mural now features an image of the historical Lake Pontchartrain lighthouse, which “reflects the people who live here and the fishing industry,” Grenier said.

“I took care, however, to ensure that we would have a mural that was as close as possible to the original with a few (other) enhancements that were previously determined by the committee, whom, of course, I answered to,” she said.

“The face of Mary is now the focal point of it; she is the first image that we see, and Our Lady seems to be watching you from every angle,” Anthony Carter, a parishioner for 16 years, said.

He said the congregation generously donated to the mural restoration, and “as a restored image, it has lit a fire under this congregation.”

Darren Davis, professor at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of “Perseverance in the Parish?: Religious Attitudes from a Black Catholic Perspective,” estimates that anywhere from 200 to 400 parishes in the U.S. reflect the African American heritage in Catholic life.

“The vast majority of Black Catholic parishes express some aspect of their cultural heritage in their styles of worship,” he said. “From music, cultural symbols, vestments, community and the interpretation of Scripture, Black Catholics have always expressed their identity.”

Davis also noted that “these parishes tend to be more engaged spiritually and emotionally” than the average Catholic parish. However, he explained that despite high levels of faith engagement, Black Catholic churches have declined in number, being closed or consolidated “due to financial reasons.”

This removes a vital Catholic presence in communities that need them and the Black expression of Catholic faith that forms them. Davis said the church should be concerned.

“Black Catholics are the backbone of the church,” he said.

Recently, two Black Catholic parishes — St. Rita Church in Indianapolis and the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia — were among 35 Black Christian churches across the U.S. that received a much-needed financial infusion aimed at preserving their houses of worship in recognition of their spiritual importance to Black Americans.

The grant money, which totaled $4 million, was announced Jan. 16 by the National Trust For Historic Preservation’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action fund.

Father Jean Bosco Ntawugashira, St. Rita’s administrator, said that his parish, founded in 1919, was the first Black Catholic parish established for African Americans in Indianapolis by Archbishop Joseph Chartrand.

“A school was added on the church’s main campus shortly afterward, to also serve and educate Black Catholic children,” Father Ntawugashira said.

He explained St. Rita’s $100,000 in grant money will primarily restore its bell tower and prevent it from becoming a public safety hazard.

“Once our bell tower work is done we will turn our attention to other building matters, such as the gym and getting a new boiler,” Father Ntawugashira said.

St. Rita parishioner Caleb Legg, an alumnus of the old school, chairs the parish’s capital campaign. He said they acquired an additional $150,000 grant from the Fund for the Preservation of Sacred Places, and plan to raise money for several other restoration projects across the church campus, which has been nominated for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, located in Norfolk, Virginia, is the only Black Catholic basilica in the U.S. The basilica underwent a $6.7 million restoration, completed in 2020, and its $150,000 grant will help sustain the upkeep of the church.

The basilica’s pastor, Father Jim Curran, said that the “largest donors” for the basilica’s massive restoration were not even Catholic — showing how “very well known we are around here” thanks to the basilica community’s strong Catholic witness through community outreach. Besides providing help with basic needs, such as utility payments and rent, the basilica also operates a food pantry and soup kitchen four days a week.

“We usually serve between 150 to 200 people — although some days it varies — and since we are partnered with restaurants, a grocery store and Panera bakery, I believe that our outreach program is a good one,” Father Curran said.

The basilica no longer operates a school — that closed in 2001 — however, it continues to be seen as, quoting its website, “the cornerstone of Catholicism in the Tidewater area.”

Father Curran emphasized that the church’s evangelizing mission suffers when Black Catholic parishes are closed.

“When they (dioceses or archdioceses) close parishes — or try to merge them — it is the Black music and Black worship traditions that we lose the hardest,” Father Curran said.

This removes a Catholic tradition that feeds spiritually not only many African Americans, but also people of other ethnic heritages who find a home in Black Catholic spirituality and ways of being church.

“When displaced Black Catholics join a mostly white parish, I can attest that those white churches are not that welcoming — not even to their own people,” Father Curran said.

By contrast, at the Black Catholic basilica, the priest noted, “Everybody who comes here to worship with us always says, ‘it should be like this everywhere.’ “

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