Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Parish for the Black Catholics of Boston

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Parish for the Black Catholics of Boston

Article excerpt


It took almost thirty years to establish an all-black parish in Boston from the time of the first organized effort in 1917. Saint Richard's finally opened in 1946, staffed by Josephite priests, as the designated parish of the archdiocese serving the black Catholic community. The internal and public debate over the establishment of an all-black parish reveals an ambivalence, and sometimes contradictory attitude, among some whites and blacks toward racial integration, although often for different reasons. Throughout its history, black support for the parish was never unanimous, nor was the archdiocese's support unwavering, as the evidence will show. This attitude is nothing new, of course, and the debate continues today over the value of separatism versus integration, not only in matters of religion, but in secular ones as well, particularly education. The controversy also reveals much about the true feelings of local church officials toward the project. William Cardinal O'Connell flatly refused to consider the idea. His successor, Richard Cardinal Cushing, disagreed, even though he voiced concerns about the appearance of segregation. The parish opened on Cushing's insistence that blacks were in no way required to attend the church. Those favoring the establishment of St. Richard's saw the parish as a refuge from whitedominated parishes where they did not feel welcome. The parish closed in 1964, when it was sold to the city's redevelopment authority. For all intents and purposes, however, the parish community ended in April,1962, when the church was made a mission of another church, St. Joseph's, and the Josephites left. Actually, St. Richard's fate was sealed by the late 1950's when the racial composition of Roxbury (where St. Richard's was located) began to change from mostly white to predominantly black. This population shift, in effect, ended the debate over the parish's value to the community because de facto African-American parishes were being established throughout the area as whites left. One specifically designated as such was no longer desirable or necessary, and the financial cost to maintain the church in a decaying and depopulating area was not feasible.

From interviews with former parishioners, it is clear that St. Richard's is an intricate part of their history as black Catholics. Today they share in a rich and varied history, shrouded in the fight for equality and acceptance in a largely unsympathetic white-run church. Their struggle, while often frustrating, seldom diminished their pride in being AfricanAmerican and Catholic.1

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament: The Beginnings of a Community

The story of St. Richard's parish begins with the ministry of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to Boston's black Catholic community in the early twentieth century. The order was founded by the heiress to the Drexel family fortune, Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1889. Upon the death of their father, Francis, Katharine and her two sisters inherited millions of dollars in the form of a trust. After much soul-searching, Katharine decided to enter the religious life in 1889. She joined the Sisters of Mercy convent in Pittsburgh. With the desire to work exclusively among blacks and Indians, Katharine established her own order with the help of her family trust and well-placed connections in Philadelphia, particularly the bishop.2

The Sisters were devoted to work among the Indians and "Colored"in the United States, organizing schools and other charitable endeavors for blacks. The order received canonical recognition in 1907. In August, 1914, the Sisters arrived in Boston, where they set up a "social service center" that administered to the sick, instructed the "ignorant," and provided "food and clothing for the poor, besides conducting a sodality and sewing circle for colored women:'3 Their mission consisted of little more than a place where black Catholics could come and were made to feel welcome. …

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