By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
The atmosphere inside St. Augustine Church during its 145th anniversary celebration Mass Aug. 23 resembled that of a large family gathering.
This may be because the church at the corner of 13th Street and West Broadway has been home to generations of families. Older parishioners, such as Annette Cowden, recalled witnessing a host of children grow up in the church.
Cowden, 66, who attended the now closed St. Augustine School in the 1950s, said she is a lifelong member and her family is one of the oldest at the parish.
Her grandmother, Agnes Helm, was married at the church in 1924.
Cowden said her childhood, spent growing up in the parish, was a happy one.
“Those were happy times,” she said. Of her experience in the Catholic school so many years ago, she said, “Being educated by the nuns was good for us. We did what was asked of us. If we didn’t we got a spanking.”
The elementary school opened in 1871 and was operated first by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and later by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart. The school closed in 1967. The parish also had a high school, which operated for seven years before it closed in 1958.
St. Augustine was the first black parish to be established in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
In 1868 — five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which eventually freed the slaves, was issued — Bishop William G. McCloskey appointed Father John L. Spalding to start a church for black Catholics in Louisville, according to history recorded by the Archdiocese of Louisville.
St. Augustine began in the undercroft of the Cathedral of the Assumption, 433 S. 5th St. As the parish took shape, however, a church was established at 14th Street and West Broadway.
As the church outgrew that space, a bigger church was built a block down Broadway at 13th Street. That building was dedicated in 1912.
On Feb. 20, 1870, the original group of parishioners walked from the cathedral to their new church. Twenty years ago, a group of parishioners, including Cowden’s grandmother, re-enacted the walk on the occasion of the church’s 125 anniversary.
Cowden recalled how the church has changed over the years. “The sermons are more tailored to speak to the way life is now,” she said. Years ago, she noted, churchgoers weren’t allowed to be as expressive. “You’d get on your knees and pray or you’d sit and be quiet.”
As the times changed, she noted, the sermons have become more expressive. “There are times when, during a sermon, many are moved to tears and others have let out shouts of joy.”
And so it was during the celebration Sunday.
During his homily, Deacon James Turner, pastoral administrator for St. Augustine, reminded the congregation of how far they’ve come.
“History records this as the first African American church in the Archdiocese of Louisville,” he said. “Aren’t we blessed?”
“We shouldn’t take for granted that we’re here,” Deacon Turner told his listeners. “It’s by the Grace of God we are here and still on the battlefield today.” With that, he invited the choir to join him in singing the Gospel song “I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.”
Deacon Turner reminded parishioners that, though St. Augustine has come a long way and done good works in “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked,” now is the time to think about the church’s future.
“Where do you and I go from here?” he asked. “What cornerstones have we laid to make the journey as we press forward in preparing the church for the future?”
Deacon Turner assured St. Augustine parishioners that “this is our moment in time to take the plunge of faith and follow Jesus. He needs leaders and ministers of the church. The Lord is leading us. We feel the pull of his almighty hand.”
Cowden said St. Augustine Church is her “passion” and, like her ancestors, she plans to always be a member.
“My hope is that the church will keep prospering and that the children who have grown up will always remember their roots,” she said.