Reflecting on Hilda Mae McDougald, a 100-year-old parishioner who has continued attending Mass faithfully at St. Luke Parish in Washington, D.C., since public Masses resumed with safety precautions after the coronavirus shutdown, Josephite Father Cornelius Kelechi Ejiogu, her pastor, said, “She’s the heartbeat of this church.”

McDougald and her family began attending St. Luke’s when it was founded as a mission of Incarnation Parish in 1957, and it’s continued to be a mainstay of her life. She had sung in the choir at Incarnation, which had been her family’s parish, and when St. Luke’s started, “We came here singing… We started in the choir here.”

When then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory celebrated the 63rd anniversary Mass for St. Luke’s on Oct. 24, 2020 – the day before Pope Francis named him as one of 13 new cardinals from around the world – she was of course in the congregation of the church, along with other African American parishioners and Catholics from Nigeria and Cameroon who worship there.

In an interview for the Catholic Standard’s Black Catholic Voices series, McDougald spoke about the roots of her Catholic faith, and how she kept the faith through times of segregation.

She grew up in Mansura, Louisiana, “in the bayou country” about 100 miles from New Orleans, the oldest of eight children. Her father, a farmer, grew “cotton, corn, potatoes and everything,” and she helped him.

The Catholic faith was part of the fabric of her family’s life. My whole family, we were just brought up Catholic,” she said.

In addition to going to Mass together as a family at St. Paul’s Parish in Mansura, “We prayed every morning and every night. We said just a regular Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles Creed and the Act of Contrition… Then on Sunday nights was the rosary,” McDougald said. “…We went to Catholic school…that’s  all we knew.” 

She noted how one of her grandfather’s brothers had two daughters who became Sisters of the Holy Family, the historic order for African American women religious founded by Venerable Henriette Delille, whose cause for sainthood is under consideration.

Hilda Mae McDougald (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Asked if she experienced racism in the Catholic Church, McDougald said, “I remember we had to wait until all the Whites went to Communion first… And of course, Confession was the same way.”

When she was about 12, “they built the church for the Black people,” Our Lady of Prompt Succor, also in Mansura, and she sang in the choir there,  and she remembered how ladies in the parish cared for the altar and cleaned the church on weekends.

During World War II, she was among the workers who came to Washington to work for the government.

“We came from all over the United States. Every state had so many people to come here to D.C. to work in 1943,” she said.

She worked in the annex of the Treasury Department, verifying checks. Meanwhile, her future husband, Frank McDougald served in the Army during World War II, at Fort Washington and then overseas.

The couple married in 1944 at Holy Redeemer Church in Washington, near where she had been rooming at that time.

“Even when we got married, my husband was not Catholic, but I told him that we had to marry Catholic, and of course, he agreed,” she said, adding that he became Catholic two years later. 

After his military service, Frank McDougald worked at St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, caring for patients there, and she worked at the Veterans Administration. They had three children, and later three grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Her husband died in 2011.

Before they raised their family in Incarnation and then at St. Luke’s, McDougald remembered attending Mass and prayer services at St. Mary Mother of God Church in Washington, at a time when the city “was very segregated.” And she added, “the churches were very, they were very segregated.”

“The usher would tell you where to sit, and it would always be in the back,” she said.

She remembered how at one point, “somebody came and said that the priest said that he wished that the Black people would stop coming to church (there).”

McDougald said a group of the Black Catholic ladies faithfully attended the Miraculous Medal Novenas there on Monday evenings after work, and they approached the priest to ask him about that.

“He said, ‘I never said that,’” and also said he had never told the ushers to tell Black people where to sit, she remembered. “He said, ‘You all, when you come into this church, you sit anywhere you want to.’”

At Incarnation Parish, in addition to singing in the choir, McDougald also helped prepare chicken dinners to raise money for that church.

During the interview, Hilda Mae McDougald, who is 100, offered a simple explanation for her longevity. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

For more than six decades, St. Luke’s Parish has been a central part of her life. When asked what St. Luke’s means to her, she said, “Oh Lord, I love it. That’s my church!”

McDougald, who lives in that area, was a longtime choir member at St. Luke’s, and over the years, she has also supported a scholarship program there for students. In addition to faithfully attending Mass in person there, she also participates in weekly conference calls, where parishioners pray the rosary together.

“I was so happy, I was really happy to come back” to church when public Masses resumed after the coronavirus shutdown, she said.

The centenarian who kept her Catholic faith despite even experiencing segregation in her own Church said she supported the nationwide movement for racial justice, “because we are all God’s people,” and she added that “we (Catholics) should get out there and march, just like the others.”

When asked what she thinks about Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory, who became the nation’s first African American cardinal during a Nov. 28 Consistory in Rome, McDougald said, “I admire him, I really do. In fact, I admire all of our priests. All (of them),” she added.

McDougald was also asked about what advice she would offer to today’s Catholics, and she said, “To pray. Pray. Pray.”

She added, “Be kind to everybody. Respect everybody. And don’t be gossiping about nobody.”

And after she was asked one last question, about how she lived to be 100, what was her secret, McDougald said again, “Be kind to everybody.”