The wounds of racism were the topic of a Lenten discussion on Sunday, March 6 hosted by St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, and held at the nearby Miraculous Medal Shrine.
The meeting was attended by 115 people representing 14 parishes in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Some of those parishes are working together in a “Year of Encounter with Pope Francis,” during the Year of Mercy, to explore and act on the sources of exclusion, which in addition to racism include poverty, immigration and criminal justice.
Attendees began with a prayer service and together sang “Amazing Grace.” Afterwards several black and white Catholics from Germantown shared in a panel discussion their personal experiences with racism within their own church communities. Many expressed feeling unwelcome at church and were even outright shunned. Some of the panelists had family members leave the Catholic Church in search of a more welcoming church community.
For parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul, racism is an issue they faced right from the start when the church opened its doors in 1851. The large majority of St. Vincent’s parishioners at that time were Irish Catholic immigrants.
Just a few years before, in 1844 Irish Catholic immigrants had suffered through the Nativist riots, fueled by strong anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments. A stronger city police force was created to deter further violence and Irish Catholics continued to live and pray in Germantown despite the prejudices they faced.
In 1909, racism reared its ugly head at St. Vincent’s when an African-American first Holy Communicant, Eleanor Tyler, was made to wait to receive Communion until all the white people in the church had received first.
The panelists described this incident as a “defining moment” in the history of the parish. Angered by the incident, many of the church’s African American members decided they wanted their own church. They approached Mother Katherine Drexel and she asked them to raise $500, which they did, and St. Catherine of Siena Parish was born as a result in 1910. The parish closed in 1972.
A discussion ensued about the choice people have when they are wounded by racism within the church. One woman said she was questioned by a friend about why she would stay in a church in which she didn’t feel welcome. The woman replied that it is because she’s Catholic, it is her faith and has been the faith of her family for years and years.
The response echoes that of Sister Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, who said in an address to the United States’ Catholic bishops in 1989, “What does it mean to be black and Catholic? It means that I come to my church fully functioning … I bring myself, my black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I’m worth, all I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility as a gift to the church.”
Today St. Vincent de Paul is a very ethnically diverse parish known for its dedication to social justice issues. At the prayer meeting panelists spoke of how important it is that Catholics get out of their comfort zones and address those issues. This is something Pope Francis has repeatedly urged Catholics to do.
The panelists suggested that society can move toward racial healing with person-to-person encounters. In that spirit, after the panelists’ presentations, small groups of three persons formed for discussions on racism, followed by a full group discussion of all the attendees.
They no doubt took comfort in St. Katharine Drexel’s inspired words: “Ours is the spirit of the Eucharist, the total gift of self. Let us open wide our hearts. Press forward and fear nothing.”
Those interested in getting involved with the “Year of Encounter with Pope Francis” should contact organizer Mary Laver for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The parishes represented at the March 6 meeting included: Our Lady of Hope, St. Helena, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis de Sales, St. Martin de Porres, St. Athanasius and St. Peter the Apostle, all in Philadelphia; Our Mother of Good Counsel, Bryn Mawr; St. Thomas of Villanova, Villanova; St. Patrick, Norristown; St. Rose of Lima, North Wales; St. Peter and Paul, West Chester, St. Jude, Chalfont and St. Katharine Drexel, Chester.
Other “Year of Encounter” parishes not attending are Our Mother of Consolation, Visitation B.V.M., Holy Innocents and St. Malachy, all in Philadelphia.