Christmas wasn’t a time of joy and happiness for all Chicago Catholics this year.
For example, look no further than the parishioners of St. James Catholic Church at 2942 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. The 132 year old Bronzeville neighborhood church is facing demolition, and the mostly black congregation attended what is likely their final Christmas Mass at St. James this week. The Mass had to be held in the community center, since the church itself is in such poor condition that no masses have been said there for two years, and a canopy was recently installed as a precaution in case pieces of the building started to fall off. Chicago Archdiocese officials applied for the demolition permit last year, when it was estimated that restoring the church would cost $12 million — as opposed to $5 million to $7 million to build a new church one block away. The congregation isn’t going away, but it just won’t be the same at a new church, since many of the locals have worshiped together in the same building for decades, and have fond memories of the church. One mother noted she had her daughter baptized there less than two months earlier.
Churches like St. James often get overlooked in the media, probably because you don’t hear much about Catholics of African ancestry. Once heavily Catholic communities often see less and less presence at Catholic Churches when the demographics of the neighborhood change. We routinely hear about white Catholics and Hispanics Catholics, but black Catholics? The only major black Catholic congregation that gets any press in Chicago is Fr. Pfleger and St. Sabina – where most of the regulars who show up on Sunday aren’t even Catholic and the minister preaches almost exclusively “social justice”. To many Catholics, it would be unrecognizable as a “Catholic” parish. Are there really any “authentically black and truly Catholic” parishes in Chicago? In a word, yes.
I’ve covered several majority black Catholic parishes around Chicago before – St. Columbanus, St. Benedict the African, and so on. But with my “Once voice, many faces” series, I like to focus on different cultural traditions from parish to parish. Here’s the tricky part: with Americans of European and Latin American ancestry, you often hear about various cultural traditions brought from different nations: Irish, Polish, Italian, Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and so on. With Americans of African ancestry, that’s often not the case. Unfortunately many black Americans have a difficult time tracing their ancestry, and many African tribal customs and people have become sadly displaced in diaspora or died out completely. As a result, we have black American holidays like “Kwanzaa” that are a hybrid of various African traditions, but don’t actually exist anywhere in Africa. Andrew Lyke, the director of the Office for Black Catholics at the Archdiocese, helps coordinate many such cultural activities. Contrary to popular belief, there are indeed various Catholic parishes in Chicago that are home to a growing number of different types of black communities. So, in my seventh article looking at many “Many Faces”, let’s look into three:
St. Ambrose Catholic Church at 1012 E. 47th Street in Chicago is the first parish on the list. It is a mostly black congregation that has and welcomes everyone, but is perhaps best known as being the main parish of Chicago’s Ghanaian Catholic Community.
The pastor of St. Ambrose is Fr. Freddy Washington, C.S.Sp. He serves as pastor of both St. Ambrose as well as nearby St. Mary Magdalene, and is director of formation for Spiritan seminarians studying in Chicago. Like his parishioners, Fr. Washington has a multitude of different faith traditions in his ancestry, but also deep Catholic roots: “My father’s side of the family was Catholic from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. My mother’s family was mostly Methodist and Baptists from Charleston. She converted to Catholicism about the time of their marriage. My grandfather was a Baptist minister. Ecumenism was a daily part of living…. My great-great-grandmother was Catholic. She was the last of 20 children and the only one not born in slavery. She had been baptized by a Spiritan. She died at age 107 and was able to be at my ordination.”
After classes at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union in 1986, Fr. Washington became a Spirtan and went to Tanzania, Africa, as a deacon. “We worked with the Masai and Chagga tribes, and I loved it! It helped me get in touch with both my American part and my African part.” He came home for ordination. Assigned to Dayton, Ohio, he became a pastor of two merging African-American parishes after a few years. He also ministered in Harlem before returning to Chicago in 2005. He notes that many black Americans feel awkward about being in a Catholic Church because they expect the pastor will be white, and have never seen a black priest. “Most people in Charleston [South Carolina] had never seen a black priest. It was a novelty”. Living in Charleston, South Carolina as a child helped Washington see the truly universal nature of the Catholic Church “Different cultures, it was eye-opening! I saw the church was bigger than my parish.” As a spiritan, he describes his work in the church as “We are missionaries who work among immigrants, or in places where a diocese has difficulty in finding someone to staff certain ministries or in places where people have heard the Gospel but it hasn’t taken root. So we work in evangelization all over the world.” Fr. Washington has used his international traveling experience to minister to many African immigrants unfamiliar with the Church’s historic ties to Africa.
For example,St. Ambrose parish recently celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Kibeho, when the Virgin Mary appeared in Rwanda in 1981. While proudly being a “multicultural, multiethnic parish”, the parish website notes “we continue to look for new ways of being present to our surrounding community”. It is little surprise that a sizable number of Ghanaian Catholics in Chicago have taken root at St. Ambrose. The parish recently celebrated its 108th anniversary and is still going strong.
Next on my list is a parish with a very large French-speaking congregation, Our Lady of Peace. Now, wait just a minute! Did I say French when my article is supposed to be about black parishes? I did indeed. Our Lady of Peace Parish at 7851 S. Jeffrey Blvd. in Chicago is home to the largest group of Haitian Catholics in Chicago, and the islanders native language is French, owing to the Caribbean island’s time as a French colony. The parish is a very historic Catholic Church in Chicago’s South Shore community that first opened its doors in July 1919. In the decades that followed, the community of South Shore went through major demographic and socioeconomic changes, and is a heavily black area now, but the church population has remained stable and now home to a growing number of Haitian-Americans.
The pastor is Fr. Mark Kalema, an African-born priest who was only 10 years old when dictator Idi Amin’s troops arrived in his native Ugandan village and killed his parents and 12-year-old brother. Given his background, Fr. Kalema is certainly able to minister to and understand local residents under siege from violence. “Almost every day there is a shooting here. I have some fears at night sometimes when the alarm goes off,” noted Fr. Kalema, who lives on church grounds. “They feel, I think, that no one cares.” Just a few months earlier, five people were shot at the bus stop outside of Our Lady of Peace. The Church’s name stands in stark contrast to the environment that surrounds it. Because many of the congregation has relatives in Haiti, the parish has been heavily involved in the Catholic Church’s outreach efforts to the people of Haiti.
For the last half century, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been in Haiti, gathering a strong familiarity with the people and landscape of the Caribbean nation. In the aftermath of the recent Haitian earthquake, CRS has been distributing food and medicine at various sites throughout the country as well as helping with medical care at six clinics near Port-au-Prince. Members of the archdiocese’s Haitian Catholic Apostolate have been praying for their loved ones in Haiti since the earthquake. From his base at Our Lady of Peace Church, 7851 S. Jeffery Blvd., Harry Fouche directs the apostolate, which hosts approximately 300 active parishioners. Since the quake rocked the Caribbean nation, Fouche and his staff have been on overdrive. “With this new crisis, we’ve become an information center for Chicago’s Haitian Catholics, so many of them looking for loved ones and wondering how things are progressing,” noted Fouche.
Every Sunday at 5:30 p.m., the parish has its regular Haitian French Mass, serving as the primary cultural and spiritual gathering place for Chicago’s Haitian Catholics, as well as functioning as a regular parish for English-speaking Chicagoans during other services. On Jan. 17, 2012, Bishop Joseph Perry presided over a Mass at Our Lady of Peace Parish to intercede for the earthquake victims and survivors.
So what’s the final church on my list? That would be Corpus Christi Catholic Parish, located 4920 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The parish is home to Chicago’s Igbo community, an ethnic group based in West Africa, chiefly in southeastern Nigeria (the largest ethnic tribe in Nigeria) and many in the parish are from Nigeria, including the pastor. Fr. Raphael Ezeh was ordained in his home country of Nigeria in 1996 and came to the United States in 1999. He was installed as pastor of Corpus Christi in 2007.
The parish is another historic Catholic Church, and his served the Bronzeville neighborhood as “a beacon of faith for more than 110 years”. Originally the congregation was Irish-American. One major link to its historic past is the parish is also home to The Missionary Society of St. Paul & The Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque Iowa, a group of mostly Caucasian nuns from the Midwest. One of the nuns, Sister Marilyn, noted she was assigned to work at this church as a young woman in 1963 and arrived two days before Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington. “Can you imagine what it was like little farm girl from Iowa moving here?” she noted, while pointing to the recently added red, green and black trim around the perimeter of the ceiling, the colors of the Pan-African flag.
Yet Fr. Raphael Ezeh proudly notes that Nigerian Catholics have a very strong Catholic identity. He has been Catholic is whole life: “Our family was Catholic. The priests who laid the groundwork were the Holy Ghost Fathers. I attended a government-run Catholic school at the cathedral… The Nigerians’ spirituality is very deep. But when I wanted to go to the seminary my mother refused for many years. When I finally decided to go ahead, it was without her permission. Everybody in my family and extended family was against it, except my uncle. It’s a big deal in the tribe about getting married and having children, and there were just two boys in our family. I wanted to be a missionary, to share the Good News, and grow closer to God. Those things were paramount. By the time I got to the diaconate my Mom accepted it.”
He notes one faith tradition they brought from Nigeria that has been welcomed in Chicago: “Bishop Perry has encouraged us to start Eucharistic adoration in the parish. It’s widespread in Nigeria — all day in most parishes. We have it here after Mass on First and third Fridays and Saturdays, until 7:30 p.m. in the chapel. When I came I asked people to invite me to their homes to know where they’re coming from. Many invited me and the rest didn’t want me to come! I know them better now and their stories. If I don’t see them at Mass I try to call. It’s an elderly parish. It’s small but very active. I’d say 80% of the parish is involved.”
Fr. Ezeh also sees no problem with the supposed conflict between black Chicagoans wanting to focus on social justice issues like poverty, and Catholic officials wanting to focus on moral issues like abortion. “Some Catholics and non-Catholics cry foul when the Church turns our (and society’s) attention on moral issues that affect us. They want the Church to get off their back and focus on social justice issues. Although not as vocal, the second group accuses the Church of focusing on social issues more than on moral issues. The reality is that the Church and every Christian should focus on both and never neglect the other. It’s never either this of that. As we know, our response to God’s love and goodness should be both vertical and horizontal”.
In any case, the parish has been majority black since the 1930s, and Fr. Ezeh says Nigerians find a lot to like about Chicago. Among the most beautiful features of the parish include the ornate cathedral with an altar made of Italian marble, mosaics of the Last Supper and St. Francis preaching to the birds, and detailed stained glass windows. Fr. Ezeh also noted the climate differences in Chicago with the frigid winters: “I think it’s beautiful. I love snow, so I’m good”.
The continued success of these three Chicago parishes, through decades of massive changes in their communities, proves one thing: Neighborhoods change, faith doesn’t. In the wake of tragedies like the closing of St. James, the Church and faith of its people will still prevail. Those who are skeptical about whether one can be both “authentically black and truly Catholic” need look no further than the parishioners at St. Ambrose, Our Lady of Peace, and Corpus Christi. Catholicism need not disguise itself with a protestant-style parish, a patronizing “social justice” pastor, or remove the word “Catholic” from its building to be successful in black neighborhoods. A universal church is one that is truly present everywhere.
Celebrate Mass with the Ghanaian Catholic Community
Every Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Pastor: Fr. Freddy Washington
St. Ambrose Catholic Church
1012 E. 47th Street, Chicago
Phone: (773) 624-3695(office)
Fax: (773) 624-3697 (fax)
Celebrate Mass with the Haitian Catholic Community
Sunday, 5:30 p.m. (French)
Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church
Rev. Mark Kalema, Pastor
Rev. Rameau Duissereth, Deacon
Mrs. Cindy Hope, Secretary/Book keeper
2010 E. 79th Street, Chicago
Phone: (773) 768-0105
Fax: (773) 721-3835
Celebrate Mass with the Igbo Catholic Community
Last Sunday of the month, 2:30 p.m.
Bible Study: Thursday 6:30PM
Corpus Christi Catholic Church
Rev. Raphael Ezeh, Pastor
4920 S. King Drive, Chicago
Phone (773) 285-7720