What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? ~Langston Hughes
On Sunday, August 30, 2020, key members of St. Anthony Parish in Madisonville, Ohio took the unusual step of publicly lamenting the death of their beloved faith community. Their story of grief, pain, and loss was set out in a half page eulogy in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
A historically diverse faith community located in a predominantly Black neighborhood, St. Anthony members struggled for four painful years to save their rich African American traditions from being torn asunder by a newly arrived priest who, in plain sight and with the full support of his archbishop, dismantled the once vibrant faith life they shared as servants of the Gospel. Their liturgical traditions reflecting the centrality of the Black heritage they had inherited and honored were, bit by bit, undone. The words, Spirituals, liturgical dress and settings that nourished their collective spirit were muted and erased. The voices of Black lay leaders and their allies who led ministries, outreach, and raised consciousness regarding the realities of parish level racism and white privilege/supremacy were silenced. In the beloved community where Catholics of faith lived out their belief that Black lives mattered, one priest who thought he knew better, ripped apart the African fabric that held it all together.
And although the struggle to retain the essentials of their beautiful and rich faith tradition was valiantly fought, it became increasingly evident that their pleas would continue to be rebuffed by those in power. With profound sadness, they erected a public tombstone with a simple inscription. An Epistle to God's people in its own right, their words laid bare the depth of their love for the Gospel, for the Church, and for each other.
We are saying goodbye to our beloved St. Anthony Church Community. That is not to say that the Parish is not still there and staffed, but the community we have known for decades is gone. We are taking a moment in time now to acknowledge that, commemorate what we have lost, and say goodbye.
Our community was re-born out of the promise and hope that was Vatican II -- a time when the Catholic Church opened the doors to many things: the welcoming of the laity to participation in our Sunday worship and in the development of a rich parish life. This included establishing and nurturing Parish Councils and Commissions and other means for parishioners’ input on the direction, values and accountability with regard to finances.
As such, our Parish began to thrive. Increased lay participation and vibrant, meaningful Sunday worship led to continued growth. Members came from 50 zip codes across the Archdiocese. People were drawn to the Gospel values that were being articulated and lived out in various ways.
St. Anthony Church is located in the Madisonville neighborhood, a predominantly Black community, within the City of Cincinnati. Many parishioners in black families go back generations. The Church’s location, as well as the message of Vatican II, drew Black and mixed-race families into our church community, where we had a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion. Our racial and cultural mix influenced the nature and character of our worship, from the words we used, to our choice of hymnals, church decorations, altar cloths, and occasional African drums and praise dancers. Black Catholic lives have always mattered to our parish community and have inspired our spirituality and our worship.
Our choral music has consistently been a priority. It includes African American music, both contemporary and spirituals, as well as traditional Catholic choral music. We cannot overstate the blessing our choir directors have been to our worship experience.
Throughout these years, we have additionally been blessed with women lay pastoral associates. They have greatly enriched our experience, offering a depth of wisdom and insightful spiritual guidance and support.
The Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has changed over these last few years and is reverting to the Church that existed prior to Vatican II. It is time to acknowledge this even though we do not want to accept it. The institutional structure of the Catholic Church as a European-centered, White church has re-embraced the hierarchical and more authoritarian model of Church leadership. Although laity involvement is sometimes solicited, there are tightly controlled limits - no “lay leadership” or even clerical-lay collaboration is encouraged.
There does not seem to be room for more than one model of Church, i.e. hierarchical, authoritarian, and clerical.
Slowly over the last four years, this church model has almost entirely reasserted itself at St. Anthony. We have lost what we cherished for many years. We anticipate even further loss. The Parish itself will go on. Some will remain, but many have already left. St. Anthony Parish will never be the same. That is why we are publicly acknowledging our loss, that it has happened, that we are grieving, and that we now know it is time to say goodbye.
Farewell to the St. Anthony – Madisonville Parish we have known. You have served us well. We treasure your memory and the friends we made. You have led us to serve the Gospel and God’s people, and as always …. grown us closer to God. We will be forever grateful. Let the church say …. Amen.
To understand the sentiments of the parishioners who wrote and signed this eulogy, it is important to understand how the St. Anthony community came to be.
The story of the making of St. Anthony Parish is a rich one. Pioneering German Catholic farmers founded it in the the spring of 1858 naming it St. Michael after lay man, Michael Buckel, who sacrificed so much to birth it. Fortuitously, the foundation of the church was set in soil where emancipated Black women and men lived. As documented in 1811, Madisonville stood out compared to other small villages because it was inhabited by formerly enslaved peoples who had lived the hard fight for freedom. These freedom fighters knew education had to be a top priority if they were to attain freedom's full promise in a country where white supremacy still reigned supreme. The spirit of these emancipated Black women and men would have a profound God-effect on St. Anthony as it grew.
The bishop of the diocese of Cincinnati, John Baptist Purcell, was also instrumental in laying a foundation for St. Anthony's rich heritage of lay leadership and ministry. Working to help welcome and integrate the large numbers of newly arrived German immigrants to Cincinnati, and unlike other bishops, he entrusted lay leaders with the authority to build their faith communities and care for their temporal affairs. Thus, from the beginning, lay leadership was established as the bedrock for parish life at St. Anthony. Throughout the course of many demographic and cultural shifts, lay leaders were instrumental in guiding the life and liturgy at St. Anthony in ways that were sensitive to the needs of the people.
As Madisonville grew, St. Anthony's parish grew. The census data from 1880 - 1890 recorded 2514 residents with nearly 10% being African American. Parishioners built a new church and a school that was overseen by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.
But, as is the case throughout the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, racism was operative, and Black people of faith were not easily received into Catholic communities. In fact, pastors and parishioners often repelled them or made their presence invisible. Official St. Anthony documentation notes the first Black student came to the school in 1937, but long standing Black parishioners recall that Black families were a part of St. Anthony long before that date. Still, as time went on, the number of Black families attending St. Anthony parish grew and according to 2006 parish rolls, there were 528 families with 6% (n32) of these families being Black.
Thus as Black Catholics desegregated their society, schools, and churches, the people of St. Anthony grew increasingly intentional in their efforts to create a more just and inclusive culture where Black spirituals, music and dance were fundamental components of worship. Under the pastorship of priests like Father George Jacquemin and Father Len Wenke, the community deepened their embrace of the Gospel and Catholic social justice and worked unceasingly to upend the reality of poverty and racism in the lives of the people in their communities.
Still, in 2016, with the installation of a new pastor, the intentional, inclusive culture of St. Anthony's was dismantled - little by little - as the pastor took up a new "evangelical direction."
To understand how racism operates and reasserts itself at the parish level, White Catholics have to be acquainted with the work of prophetic Black Catholic scholars and theologians such as Fr. Bryan Massingale who make plain the brutal contours of racism and Dr. Shannen Dee Williams who calls the Church to account for its own participation in racism and to do justice by making reparations.
In Racism and the Catholic Church, Fr. Massingale identifies the ways white supremacy and white privilege play out in the Church, a force that is invisible to many if not most White Catholics who benefit from it, but baked into the lives of our Black sisters and brothers who must daily navigate its death dealing effects.
The dynamics of racism in the Catholic Church and the dynamics of racism in society are mutually reinforcing. The "softer" elements of racism within the Church -- the stripping of the altar of the symbols and cloths that represent African culture; the replacement of deeply held African Spirituals with Western music; the striking of cultural language that is inspiring and uplifting; and the removal of Black parishioners from places of parish leadership -- all prop up the ugliness we see on our streets where Black women and men are not safe in the most ordinary of environments, and where Black parents much teach their children how to survive the approach of police officers and White people who enforce their perceived superiority in myriad ways.
Many have not survived.
Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are just a few who belonged to God and to us, and who have been murdered before our eyes as a result of our collective participation in this insidious evil.
White supremacy is ugly, sinful, pervasive, and operates "out of view" for most white Catholics, even our Catholic bishops. Even as they have rightly named racism as "contrary to the Gospel", Massingale points out that their words have also obscured and denied the full weight of it. In fact, their lack of prophetic and serious action (an ad hoc subcommittee on racism vs a permanent committee with a battery of attorneys on religious freedom) to address racism makes it clear that the "Catholic Church in the United States is a 'white' institution, insofar as it promotes, defends, and partakes...of a culture of dominance" (p80).
For Massingale, “Catholic” still equals “White.”
“What makes [the church] 'white' and 'racist' is the pervasive belief that European aesthetics, music, theology, and persons – and only these – are standard, normative, universal, and truly 'Catholic'" (p80).
The parishioners of St. Anthony understand the truth of Massingale's analysis because they have lived it. They have seen the damage done when white European aesthetics masquerade as "orthodox" and supplant what is life-giving to a community of believers. They have seen the damage done when white clerics believe that because of ordination, they have the right to ignore the wisdom of the faithful and impose a retrograde version of Catholicity, an idea that flies in the face of the teachings of Vatican II and Pope Francis.
And in the name of "orthodoxy", the pastor has been unbending and sometimes harsh in imposing his will.
Over the course of the past few years, parishioners who challenged the pastor's direction and tactics were removed from parish council and parish ministry. In defending himself, he was not above making accusations against a long time (30 years) Black member who he accused of "doing the work of the devil." This pastor responded to the grieving parishioners who signed the eulogy by bidding them goodbye, and according to some reports, has removed them from the list of lectors and ministers. He told one Eucharistic minister who signed the eulogy, "You are causing scandal in the church and I cannot allow you in the sanctuary."
In the name of "orthodoxy", this pastor dismantled St. Anthony's Black legacy -- a legacy that was built with care, determination, and love over many long years. And he did it because he could.
Pope Francis has consistently warned Catholic clerics and their lay enablers about the evils of clericalism and racism. If Clericalism 101 and Racism 101 were taught at the diocesan seminary, the actions of the current pastor at St. Anthony and his archbishop would serve as the perfect case study for how it functions.
When St. Anthony's faithful felt the pull of the Spirit to write their eulogy, they stepped out in faith, unsure of what effect it would have. They only knew they were compelled to claim their experience, rejoice in what had been life giving, grieve the heartbreak they had endured as their beloved community was upended, and hope for a better day where God's justice and reconciliation would prevail.
Their example has inspired many.
In response to the eulogy, they have received overwhelming support from hundreds of Catholics. Many who wrote expressed gratitude for their courage in speaking out and shared similar experiences from their own parishes.
It is heartening to know there are everyday saints like those who built the community of faith at St. Anthony, who embrace their faith and speak with unflinching clarity about what is at stake in our parishes as we try to live out Vatican II precepts while facing down the destructive elements of clericalism and racism.
They are prophets for today nourishing the entire Body of Christ. May their work live on!
"In center of Black community Madisonville’s St. Anthony parishioners protest removal of African American theme", at https://thecincinnatiherald.com