RHODELIA, Ky. — When it opens after Christmas, the St. Theresa Family Life Center will create space to remember parishioners from the past, including the 222 known members who were enslaved. And it will provide a gathering space for today’s parishioners of St. Theresa, the nearby St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi and the wider community.
Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre visited the historic St. Theresa of Avila Church in rural Meade County Oct. 15, where he prayed at the grave of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton’s grandmother, celebrated Mass and blessed the new center located next door to the church.
The day was one of celebration for the parish, drawing close to 300 people who filled the church for Mass. It was followed by a prayerful dedication of the new center.
Archbishop Fabre began his visit with prayer in St. Theresa’s two cemeteries. In the “old cemetery,” he stopped at the gravesite of Matilda Hurd — grandmother of the first recognized African American priest ordained for the U.S. church. Venerable Tolton is currently on the road to canonization.
Hurd and Father Tolton’s mother were among more than 200 people who were enslaved by about 50 St. Theresa families in the 1800s. The priest’s mother was later taken to Missouri, where he was born into slavery.
Praying at Hurd’s grave, Archbishop Fabre thanked her for her faithfulness to the Catholic faith. After enslaved people gained their freedom, they “cast off the vestiges of slavery,” he said. “It’s interesting that the one thing they didn’t cast off was their Catholic faith.”
The archbishop went on to say that Hurd evidently instilled that faith in her daughter, who instilled it in Father Tolton. And he went on to become a priest during “difficult” times, he noted.
“I’m grateful to her. … They saw the gift of the Catholic faith and remained very true to that,” said the archbishop.
The faith of enslaved individuals, he said, is a “model and a bright shining light for us today.”
Hurd’s gravesite and the connection to Father Tolton was discovered by Father Ronald Knott, a senior priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Father Knott and Father Robert Ray, who both grew up at the Rhodelia parish, led an effort to convert the old St. Theresa School into the Family Life Center. During his work on the project, Father Knott discovered the baptismal records of enslaved individuals.
The parish feels “very honored” that Father Tolton’s grandmother is buried in the old St. Theresa Cemetery, Father Ray said during the celebration Oct. 15.
He also said he’s grateful that the enslaved individuals were baptized.
The building — which will also house St. Theresa’s parish offices — has a long center hallway with six galleries displaying historic photographs, as well as the names of the 222 enslaved Catholics baptized at the parish.
The galleries and a museum room are meant to educate parishioners about the church’s history, including its involvement with slavery, said Father Knott.
The center also has two large meeting rooms equipped to live stream events. Upgrades to the building include a geothermal heating and cooling system and solar panels.
During his homily at the Oct. 15 Mass, Archbishop Fabre reflected on the importance of prayer as parishioners deepen their relationship with God and with their community of faith. He told those gathered — including parishioners of St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi — that it was an “honor” to celebrate the opening of the new center with them. He said the center will be a place for them to gather and deepen their relationship with each other.
“We have to gather as the Body of Christ, yes, most importantly in this church, but there’s also that fellowship side to faith where we gather in the parish hall,” said Archbishop Fabre. “That’s like a prayer as well.”