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(p.195) Conclusion
Authentically Black and Truly Catholic
Matthew J. Cressler
NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces readers to the most famous Black Catholic parish in the country today, St. Sabina’s on the South Side of Chicago, and its nationally renowned white pastor, Fr. Michael Pfleger. It argues that it is impossible to understand the distinctively Black Catholicism on display at St. Sabina’s today without first understanding the longer history of Black Catholic Chicago explored in the book. It also reviews the ways in which studies of Black Catholics introduces new characters and generates new conclusions with regard to the study of African American religion and American Catholicism.

Keywords:   St. Sabina, Michael Pfleger, Black Catholicism, race, African American religion, American Catholicism, American religion, Black Power, missionary, Chicago

Forty-seven years after Father George Clements became pastor of Holy Angels, the South Side of Chicago remains home to the most famous Black Catholic church in the United States. Turning off 79th Street onto South Racine Avenue in the middle of Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, it is impossible to miss the presence of a parish plant that looks as if it belongs to an earlier era in the Catholic Metropolis. A sign at the intersection identifies the redbrick apartment complex as St. Sabina Elders Village, a home run by Catholic Charities since 1977. Other storefront signs name the neighborhood as the Faith Community of St. Sabina. There is St. Sabina Academy, a Catholic school that serves students from preschool through the eighth grade. There is the ARK of Saint Sabina, a community youth center that serves as a “safe haven for youth to escape from the storms of the world,” the St. Sabina Employment Resource Center, and an office for Catholic Charities Social Services. At the heart of the block towers a gray stone belfry.

Upon entering the church sanctuary one is immediately struck by the evidence of two different communities. Stained-glass, stations of the cross, side altars, and a majestic rose window have changed little since the church was dedicated in 1933, when St. Sabina served as a virtual cathedral for the Irish South Side and the birthplace of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Porcelain white statues and traditional bronze stations are overshadowed today, though, by new additions. A platform rises in front of the old altar rail in the midst of the congregation, occupied by lay ministers, altar servers, musicians, and priests. Ministers sit on a throne made of black walnut carved into images of African men, arms upraised and clasped in unity. Statues of Black women pouring water stand sentinel in front of the right side altar, a Black Madonna in front of the left one. Kente cloth hangs from the walls and drapes over the altar, which is shaped like an African drum. Suspended above the altar is a yellow neon sign that proclaims, quite simply, JESUS. And where (p.196) the original altar once stood now hangs an enormous twenty-foot-high painting of a Black Christ, arms outstretched with God’s hands enlarged and inviting the congregation into a warm embrace.

Sunday Mass begins in vibrant song and dance. A cantor leads the congregation in a roaring call-and-response rendition of “Alleluia.” After about a half-hour the pastor processes in, swaying and clapping with the percussive cadence of the choir, and opens the service with extended extemporaneous prayer. He calls the congregation to worship God by God’s many names and they respond in kind with shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Him!” The service accelerates toward its climax when the pastor will proclaim his sermon. This is definitely not a typical Catholic homily. Father Michael L. Pfleger’s sermons draw heavily on the rhythm and rhetorical flourishes of the Black preaching tradition, regularly call on the congregation to interact with him and one another in the pews, and, depending on the day, can stretch well over an hour. Perhaps even more striking than the sermon itself, though, is the man delivering it. To quote Cathleen Falsani, a journalist who has followed his career for decades, “No one is whiter than [Michael Louis] Pfleger; no one is whiter than this blond, blue-eyed, movie-star-handsome Catholic priest raised on the white South Side of Chicago.”1

One of the most prominent Black churches in Chicago today is a Catholic church pastored by a white priest. This book has illustrated how this is possible. The Faith Community of St. Sabina is a living testament to the rise of Black Catholicism. First of all, St. Sabina’s story bears a striking resemblance to many of the parishes we have studied. St. Sabina was an emblem of Irish Catholic triumph that, much like Corpus Christi and Holy Angels before it, found itself in crisis just decades after its dedication. As Black Chicagoans attempted to escape the confines of the Black Belt, they moved into white Catholic parish neighborhoods hostile to their presence. A brief, albeit ambitious, experiment in parish integration failed. In 1964 about three thousand families, mostly white, were registered parishioners. Three years later the parish claimed only 530 families. By 1971, the parish and the school were majority Black.2 But as Cardinal Cody prepared the church for closure, a charismatic white priest set about repopulating the pews with Auburn Gresham’s Black residents.

(p.197) Ordained in 1975, Michael Pfleger bears comparison with both his white missionary and Black activist predecessors. Just as Fathers Martin Farrell and Joseph Richards before him, Pfleger was a white priest who uncharacteristically requested an assignment in a transitioning parish and once there, worked to save a dying white parish by transforming it into a vibrant Black one. Unlike the “convert makers,” though, Pfleger succeeded in making himself and the parish relevant to the surrounding Black community. In this he took more after one of his mentors, Father George H. Clements. Pfleger installed a bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the church—he had been inspired to enter the priesthood in part by the Chicago Freedom Movement and, like Clements, had been radicalized by King’s assassination. Pfleger employed African and African American aesthetics in the sanctuary in order to encourage Black ownership of the church, commissioning West African-inspired wood-carved furnishings as well as the portrait of the Black Christ titled For God So Loved the World by the Mexican-born Jesuit Fernando Arizti. The parish became famous—and more than a little controversial—for its invited guest speaker series, which has included over the years Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte, Cornel West, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.3

This South Side community has achieved—and could be said to achieve anew each day—self-determination of a kind the Black Catholic Movement aspired to in the 1970s. Under the leadership of Dr. Kimberly M. Lymore, who has been a member of St. Sabina since the early 1980s and full-time pastoral associate since 2000, weekly worship integrates praise practices common in Black evangelical churches with the Catholic Eucharistic liturgy as well as African-inspired liturgical dance. St. Sabina Academy has thrived as a highly rated majority-Black school that incorporates both “the gospel of Jesus Christ and African values.”4 Parishioners have organized protests and spearheaded campaigns on every issue that has plagued the local community. They fought to remove cigarette and alcohol advertisements from neighborhood billboards, they fought for the closure of stores selling drug paraphernalia, and perhaps most famously, they led struggles against gang warfare and gun violence. The Faith Community of St. Sabina has even asserted its own self-determination in the face of open resistance from two different Chicago archbishops, first Cody and more recently the late Cardinal (p.198) Francis George who attempted (unsuccessfully) to remove Father Pfleger as pastor of the parish.

St. Sabina is clearly unlike your ordinary Catholic church. Viewed from another vantage point, though, St. Sabina—and Holy Angels, Corpus Christi, and St. Malachy before it—illuminates the new stories that can be written and the new conclusions that become possible when Black Catholics are centered in our scholarship. Without diminishing the significance of Catholic interracial activism, we can safely say that missionaries dedicated to the conversion of African American migrants were more important to the making of Black Catholic Chicago and, by extension, Black Catholic America than the liberal interracialists who have so dominated the study of Catholics and race in the United States. If we listen to converts themselves, it is clear that becoming Catholic was neither an expedient choice nor a matter of coercion but an educative process that many thousands of children, women, and men found compelling. White missionary priests and sisters inculcated ways of being religious that set Black Catholics apart from the Black Christian communities proliferating around them. Such conversion often came at great cost. Focusing on Black Catholics allows us to glimpse the unforeseen consequences of the fraught relationships forged between migrants and missionaries. Thus, for instance, Black Catholic converts shared an impulse with Black Muslims and Black Hebrews to fashion new ways of being Black and religious amidst the upheavals of the Great Migrations.

Mary Dolores Gadpaille’s love of the Latin Mass, the strife a child’s conversion could cause in a family, Mary Howard’s experience of “living” the stations of the cross—the intricacies of these ordinary lives are lost when we rely on comfortable (and comforting) narratives of Black religiosity. So much of what is written about Black religion is oriented around the struggle for civil rights that it can seem as if Black religion matters only insofar as it is progressive, political, and Protestant. This is no less the case with regard to scholarship on Catholics and race, in which African Americans are often absent unless and until racial justice is discussed. Scholars should not ignore interracialism, but we would be wise to restore it to its proper place: as a remarkable exception rather than the rule. When we shift our attention from liberal interracialists (p.199) to convert-making missionaries, and more importantly to the tens of thousands of converts in relationship with them, we begin to see Black Catholic life for what it was rather than what we wish it would be. The creativity of the migrations era comes to the fore as we witness Black Catholics engaged in the art of self-transformation alongside Black Muslims, Hebrews, and Moors. Uncomfortable truths also arise; such as the fact that white missionaries were often more concerned with spiritual salvation than social liberation, or that Black converts denigrated what they took to be the uncouth emotionalism of “the Black Church.” But if we hope to understand what it means to be Black and religious—or, to put it more simply, what it means to be human—we need to be willing to wrestle with the contradictions and complexities of life as it is lived.

The intersection of Black Catholics and Black Power poses an even more direct challenge to the ways in which scholars have studied race and religion. The rise of a distinctively Black Catholicism represents an unexpected aftereffect of the “foreign mission fields” on the South Side of Chicago, one that missionaries could never have predicted. If we take white Catholic encounters with Black people, or even interracial work, as our subject the stories we tell naturally tend toward topics such as “civil rights” and “integration.” But the Black Catholic struggle for racial justice did not end with Martin Luther King’s death in 1968. It was born of Black Power. As a growing number of Black Catholic activists embraced the anticolonial arguments of the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael’s call for self-determination, the very missionary mentality that initiated Black Catholic Chicago’s rise became the focal point for a comprehensive critique of the Church as a “white racist institution.” The rhetoric and aesthetics of Black Power revolutionized what it meant to be Black and Catholic when it was taken up by the laypeople, sisters, and priests who gave birth to what they understood be an “authentic Black” Catholicism. The goal of twentieth-century interracialists had been to make the Church whole by lifting Catholics up above the color line. Their mantra, that all people were members of the “One Mystical Body of Christ,” dreamed of a day when race would be erased, a day when there would not be Black and Irish and Italian and Polish churches but one Catholic Church. The Black Catholic Movement flipped this aspiration on its head. Racial justice for Black Catholics would stem not from the embrace of an “unhyphenated Catholicism,” as it were, but (p.200) from unapologetically Black communities with the power to determine their own destinies.

Black Catholicism thus emerged out of a confrontation with U.S. Catholicism as a whole. For decades Black converts had been sold Catholic universalism and been told that their new religion “knew no race.” When activists declared the U.S. Church a “white racist institution,” they named something that had long gone unacknowledged. The so-called “universal Church” preached, in practice, its own brand of racial particularism. Though interracialists liked to separate the Church’s ideals from the actions of individual Catholics, Black Power activists collapsed this distinction as immaterial. Instead, to paraphrase the Holy Angels parish motto, they insisted that they would get it together by themselves. The study of Black Catholics and Black Power helps us to better understand this particular historical moment. It moves white Catholics to the margins and allows us to recognize the ways in which Black nationalism—an embrace of Blackness rather than its dissolution—empowered activists and sparked the most significant Catholic contribution to racial justice movements in the twentieth century. There is a historiographical challenge here as well, however. When Black Catholics are centered in our studies of Catholicism in America, they force a reckoning with the limitations of our own concepts. For too long scholars have treated “American Catholicism” as an innocent term and assumed that it is a race-neutral category. The Black Catholics who took up Black Power in the 1960s revealed the hypocrisy of that presumption. Their embrace of racial consciousness—by naming the whiteness of the Church and struggling to create a Black one—illuminates what remains hidden in plain sight, namely, that Catholicism, as with all things in America, is ineluctably entangled with race.

Finally, if this book highlights the creative accomplishments of the Black Catholic Movement, it also shows that Black Catholics were never unanimous in their embrace of this revolution, nor are they now uniform in their identity and practice. Attentiveness to the lives of Black Catholics in the turbulent middle decades of the twentieth century makes clear just how controversial the idea of a distinctively Black Catholicism was, especially for Black Catholics. Activists founded new institutions, articulated diverse ways of expressing Catholic identity, made and remade Black liturgies, and became missionaries in their own parishes (p.201) as they sought to convince Black coreligionists that one could be both “authentically Black” and “truly Catholic.” By the 1980s they had succeeded in establishing a new norm for what it meant to be Black and Catholic in the United States, even if it remains true today that “there is no one way to be Black and Catholic.” To say as much, to acknowledge the contingency of this way of being in the world, does not belittle Black Catholicism. It testifies to the joys and struggles of Black Catholics and to the “uncommon faithfulness” they share.5 (p.202)


(1) Quoted in Robert McClory, Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010), 6.

(3) Ibid., 41–42.

(4) “Saint Sabina Academy,” accessed on September 15, 2016, saintsabina. org.

(5) I borrow this turn of phrase from M. Shawn Copeland, ed., Uncommon Faithfulness.

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