St. Peter Claver celebrates 125 years

| November 20, 2017 | 1 Comment

Longtime St. Peter Claver parishioner Louverne Williams reacts during a choral reading recounting the history of the parish at a brunch Nov. 19 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul to celebrate the parish’s 125th anniversary. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

At the corner of Oxford Street and St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul sits a small, unassuming church. But on the inside, St. Peter Claver has a big reputation for being a welcoming community with a vibrant liturgy.

“Nothing is worse than being in a church and everyone is looking at you,” said longtime parishioner Odessa Bond, 79. [At St. Peter Claver], “you get that feeling of being welcomed. I can’t explain it, but you know when it isn’t there.”

Father Kevin McDonough, who served as its pastor for 26 years until 2016, said St. Peter Claver parishioners practice their faith in a “strongly welcoming and strongly evangelizing way.”

“It is a wonderfully hospitable parish that is proud to be both black and Catholic,” he said.

St. Peter Claver, Minnesota’s first Catholic church established for black Catholics, celebrated its 125th anniversary Nov. 19 with Mass and a fundraiser brunch at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

In 1888 — 23 years after slavery was abolished — black Catholics worshiped in a rented church in downtown St. Paul, on the site now occupied by the St. Paul Hotel. With Archbishop John Ireland at the charge, several members spearheaded construction of a church at Farrington Street and Aurora Avenue in St. Paul, and St. Peter Claver was established in 1892 as a home for black Catholics, also with the hope of drawing other African-Americans to the faith. According to some historical accounts, black Catholics were being turned away from other Catholic parishes.

Today, the parish has about 700 families from 90 ZIP codes. As a canonically-designated “national parish,” it’s responsible for black Catholics “east of the Mississippi River,” said Father Erich Rutten, St. Peter Claver’s pastor. Across the river in Minneapolis, St. Leonard of Port Maurice was established in 1940 to serve black Catholics west of the river.

“Throughout all that time, we’ve been a strong part of the community fabric,” said Father Rutten, who is white and spent a week at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans to prepare to serve an African-American parish. “You come to Mass on Sunday to really get jazzed up for the week. I think black Catholics have a better sense of that than other Catholics.

“The fact that this parish has remained faithful 125 years in is a testament to their faith in Catholicism and in Jesus Christ,” he added.

Father McDonough, who is white, said the African-American Catholic experience is unique historically and now, making St. Peter Claver’s founding purpose and mission important.

“The challenge is that … there are few places where black folks are made to feel at home — there’s still racism in the Church — and in the African-American community, Catholicism is considered something at least exotic, if not foreign. So, the African-American Catholic experience is that of being a double minority.”

The parish took its name from the 16th-century Spanish Jesuit who ministered to African slaves in South America. Father McDonough noted that St. Peter Claver was canonized in 1888, so many Catholic churches and organizations chose the namesake in that era.

The anniversary celebration appropriately took place during National Black Catholic History Month. One of the parish’s founding members, Fredrick McGhee, was born a slave in Mississippi, but became a lawyer and helped organize the Niagara Movement, the NAACP’s predecessor. According to parish records, he was baptized at St. Peter Claver’s mission congregation in 1891 at age 30. And the parish got its first black pastor in 1910 — Father Stephen Theobald, who, with Archbishop Ireland’s mentorship, was the first African-American to be ordained at the St. Paul Seminary. The parish has also had strong leadership in the National Black Catholic Congress.

Culturally diverse

Although the parish was founded to serve black Catholics — much like other ethnic parishes established to serve Polish or German Catholics — the special designation never felt like segregation, said lifelong parishioner Stanley Williams.

Williams, 86, is a third-generation parishioner. He said in the Church, ethnicity is more important than race.

“The black Catholic Church is still predominantly black, but the meaning of the term ‘black’ has completely changed,” Williams said. “We’re really talking about culture. But the common thread is what it should be for all Catholics, and that’s the Mass.”

A number of Nigerian, Cameroonian and Eritrean immigrants attend the parish’s 10 a.m. Sunday Mass, Williams said, noting how demographics are the parish’s biggest change in the last 25 years. In August, the parish added a monthly Nigerian Mass. Cameroonian, children’s and other choirs rotate through Sunday Masses.

The style of worship at St. Peter Claver reflects parishioners’ welcoming spirit, Father Rutten said. During the sign of peace, many people walk up and down the aisles to greet friends. Music directors choose Communion hymns that “draw people in,” and the congregation often claps afterward.

“Here, it’s an authentic expression of their spirit,” Father Rutten said. He noted that about a third of parishioners are African-American, a third are African immigrants, and the final third, “all else.”

While Williams and his wife, Louverne, 84, welcome the diversity, Stanley describes the change as a “slow movement — the death of the first generation of parishioners.”

Neighborhood changes

St. Peter Claver was located in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, which dismantled with the construction of Interstate 94 in the mid-1950s. Rondo was a stable, predominantly black neighborhood with its own community of professionals and business owners, said Stanley, a retired medical researcher. Many residents owned their homes, and people knew each other, making the I-94 addition all the more difficult because it forced people out. Eventually, the children who grew up there didn’t return to raise their own families, a sign of a more mobile society, Father Rutten said. Consequently, the makeup of the parish changed, too.

The pastor at the time, Father Jerome Luger, wanted the church to be where the people were moving, so in 1950, the parish opened a school, followed by a convent that housed the Oblate Sisters of Providence from Baltimore, and the new church in 1957 at its current location.

Stanley said the school was also a destination for non-Catholics, who came to love the black nuns through their evangelization efforts in the neighborhood, which parishioners continue today by regularly going door-to-door inviting people to worship with them. People knew their children would be well disciplined and receive an excellent education at the Catholic school. It closed in 1989 because of low funding and enrollment, but Father McDonough described the re-opening of the school in 2001 as “an icon of the power of Catholic education to advance people who are often otherwise on the low-end of America’s social, economic and justice priorities.”

A mural depicting the parish’s rich history and the African Americans who influenced it was unveiled at the Nov. 19 celebration. Parishioner Mary Gallagher, 62, spent five months painting the two 2-foot-by-3-foot panels that will hang in a hallway at the church.

“It’s a celebration of a spiritual home that I found as a transplant to Minnesota,” Gallagher said. “I didn’t know folks, but I found a place to land and a place to pray with support through many of life’s ups and downs over the past 24 years.”

St. Peter Claver’s school and children’s choir are depicted in the mural, which Gallagher points to as “a sign of hope and the future.”

“The Roman Catholic Church is the largest black Christian church in the world, and we happen to have a local branch of that vibrant faith right in the Twin Cities,” Father McDonough said.

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