Southern, Black and Catholic

A different kind of minority

St. Augustine Catholic Church, which is predominately black, has black icons and a dark brown figure of Jesus on the main sanctuary crucifix. The Mass features not only traditional Gospel-style music, but a trio of youngsters performing simple African dance moves along with the responsorial psalm. Whereas white Catholic congregations in the United States have tended to dress more casually for church in recent years, the parishioners at St. Augustine have maintained the tradition of other African American churches by dressing in their “Sunday best,” including suits and ties for the men, and, for some of the ladies, fur coats and fine hats.

The white priest, Paulist Father John Geaney, asks the congregation questions and expects a response, as a black preachers often do. He peppers his dynamic homilies with “Can I get a witness?” A recent homily addressed issues such as the minimum wage and the death penalty.


“I don’t think it’s about race,” said Jonathan Feild, who had attended mostly white Catholic churches before joining St. Augustine. “I like it because he kind of keeps me awake. Father G’s homilies are interesting.”

While Feild applies to law schools, he has been working nights at the FedEx distribution hub in Memphis. “Some mornings, I’m tired,” Feild said. “Father Geaney does a good job of keeping a homily interesting.” More than that, St. Augustine makes Feild feel at home. “Everybody treated me like family,” he said. “Everybody has fun. It was a very homey environment.”

“Whether you are a black Christian or a white Christian, we are still doing the same thing, and that’s worshiping God.”

During his diverse academic career— public, protestant private, parochial— Feild attended mass with his father, Ronald Feild, a devout Catholic. Thus, Feild has learned the differences and similarities among different denominations. “One thing I’ve learned is that I am not into denominations,” Feild said. Questioning whether a person is a Baptist or Methodist or Catholic is not important to Feild. “What the real noun is that we should be looking at is we are Christians,“ he said. “Whether you are a black Christian or a white Christian, we are still doing the same thing, and that’s worshiping God.”

African American resources in the Catholic Church

African American Catholic Center for Evangelization, focusing on the Los Angeles Archdiocese,
Anderson F. Shaw, director, 9505 South Haas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90047, (323) 777-2106. Web site:

Black Catholic Chicago, chaired by Bishop Joseph N. Perry, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, P.O. Box 733, South Holland, IL 60473, (708) 339-2474. Web site:

Black Catholic Information Mall, managed by the Catholic African World Network at The Archbishop Lyke International Center, P.O. Box 13559, Detroit, MI 48213, (313) 521-7777. Web site:

Committee on African-American Catholics, same as Black Catholic Chicago, above.

Eat The Scroll Ministry, evangelist Michael P. Howard, P.O. Box 1022, Lanham, MD, 20706,
(866) 552-6551. Web site:

Institute for Black Catholic Studies, Sr./Dr. Jamie T. Phelps, director, Xavier University, 1 Drexel Drive, New Orleans, LA 70125, (504) 520-7691. Web site:

Knights of Peter Claver, H. Bronco Henderson, executive director, P.O. Box 8278, Montgomery, AL 36110-0278, (334) 265-3214. Web site:

Life Education and Resource Network (L.E.A.R.N.), P.O. Box 157, Montclair, NJ 07042. (866) 242-4997. Web site:

National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, M. Annette Mandley-Turner, president, 1200 S. Shelby St., Louisville, KY 40203, (502) 636-0296, Ext. 245. Web site:

National Black Catholic Apostolate for Life, Father James E. Goode, president, 440 W. 36th St., New York, NY 10018-6326, (212) 868-1847. Web site:

National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, 440 W. 36th St., New York, NY 10018, (212) 868-1047. Web site:

National Black Catholic Congress, Valerie E. Washington, executive director, 320 Cathedral St., Baltimore, MD 21201, (410) 547-8496. Web site:

National Black Sisters’ Conference, 101 Q. Street NE, Washington, DC 20002-2166, (202) 529-9250.
Web site:

National Office for Black Catholics, Walter Hubbard, executive director, 3025 Fourth St. N.E., Washington, DC 20017, (202) 635-1781.

St. Joseph‘s Society of the Sacred Heart (the Josephites), Fr. Ed Chiffriller, superior general,
1200 Varnum St. N.E.,Washington, DC 20017, (202) 832-9100. Web site:

Secretariat for African-American Catholics, c/o Beverly Carroll, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 Fourth St. N.E., Washington, DC 20017, (202) 541-3000. Web site:

Xavier University of Louisiana, 1 Drexel Drive, New Orleans, LA 70125, (504) 486-7411. Web site:

To help blacks feel more comfortable in the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, Atkins, who also serves as the Diocese’s director of African American ministries, has organized celebrations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Martin de Porres, who focused on serving people of African descent. The Diocese also organizes conferences for black Catholic youth and sends young black Catholics to conferences around the country.

Dreaming Together

This helps Catholics of African descent throughout the South, and they need it. E.J. Watson, 22, a senior majoring in marketing at Christian Brothers University, of Biloxi, Miss., said, “Being from Mississippi, it’s hard finding a lot of black Catholics to relate to.” But that lack was not inside his family. “Half my aunts are nuns, and my uncle was the late archbishop of Atlanta, Eugene Marino,” said Watson, who also serves as president of CBU’s Black Student Association. “When he would marry one of my aunts, it was more of an event, because the archbishop was in town. People we didn’t know were trying to get into the church, just to see him. “I was always one of those kids who woke up on Sunday morning and was forced to go to church. … I didn’t understand (my uncle’s) position was one of power until my sixth or seventh year. That’s when my mom told me what he was doing for Catholicism. That’s when I think I had a little more pride in what he was doing.”

Memphis’ diocese of West Tennessee, which was only separated from the rest of Tennessee in 1970, has a black bishop, Terry Steib, who is originally from southern Louisiana. Chris Reid said he remembered visiting family in Memphis and looking up to Steib when he was appointed in 1992.

Angela Lee said, “We are very proud of Bishop Steib and how he embraces everybody together, and he doesn’t single out one particular church. We are all one church.”

This tendency toward inclusiveness particularly attracted M. Annette Mandley-Turner to the church. “One of the things about being in the Church is that you are able to dream together and make those dreams a reality as a diverse family,” Turner said. “Wherever I go, whether it’s South Africa or Germany or Japan, when I go to church, I’ve felt at home.”