Black Catholic Voices
Black Catholic Voices: The legacy inspiring St. Augustine pastor’s support of Catholic education and racial justice
Feb 10, 2021
(Father Patrick Smith, the pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Washington, D.C., was interviewed for the Black Catholic Voices series on Jan. 12, 2021 by Mark Zimmermann, the Catholic Standard’s editor. Father Smith, a native of Washington, is the son of the late Sara Ann and Deacon Anthony Smith. He graduated from St. Francis Xavier School, Mackin Catholic High School in Washington, and Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg. As a seminarian at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, he devoted his thesis to a study of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990, Father Smith served as a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Takoma Park, Maryland and as pastor of St. Peter Claver in St. Inigoes, Maryland, and St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington before becoming the pastor of St. Augustine Parish in 2004. St. Augustine, regarded as the mother church for African American Catholics in the nation’s capital, was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including some people emancipated from slavery. This interview took place at St. Augustine Church.)
How would you summarize your faith journey as a Catholic who is African American?
Father Patrick Smith – “I guess the way I’d summarize my faith journey, first of all I’m a cradle Catholic. I’m from a Catholic family, and I’m one of eight kids, I’m six of eight. Being Catholic is all I’ve ever known. My parents were devout Catholics, and we went to church every Sunday. And so, it was just simply part of life. I went to Mass every Sunday, went to Catholic schools from first grade through high school and then college. So it was the lifeblood of our family. It was normal, We’d say grace before meals. We celebrated Advent and Lent, and so it was just a natural part of our family growing up, like many Catholic families.”
What have you learned from the witness of faith of other Black Catholics, how has that shaped your life?
Father Patrick Smith – “As a young person growing up, the witness was my parents. They practiced the faith. It was precious to them. It was important to them, so of course it was naturally important to us.
“I learned more about our history, the history of Catholicism, Black Catholics in particular, realizing the reality of segregation, even from not just the history books, but even from our family. We’re sitting in St. Augustine Catholic Church, which was originally built as St. Paul’s Church. Well, my uncle, this was the church that he was put out of, when he came and sat in the front pew and was asked to move and he refused to move, so they escorted him out of the church.
“And just knowing the passion of my own relatives, my uncles and aunts who love the faith, and yet they loved it so much that the reality of discrimination (and) segregation didn’t scare them away. They only seemed to double down, to insist that they’re going to practice the faith, and they’re going to pass the faith on to their children. And so, really (I was inspired by) the witness of my own family, even before learning the bigger story of how Catholics were heroically (practicing their faith). It was of an act of heroism to practice your faith as an African American, as a Black person, in this country.”
Father Patrick Smith says the example of his parents, and the legacy of St. Augustine Parish's founders, inspire his support of Catholic education there. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)
In January, we celebrate Catholic Schools Week, and I wanted to ask you about your experience in Catholic education, how that shaped you, and about the importance of St. Augustine Catholic School continuing the legacy of Catholic education that has been a central part of St. Augustine Parish since it was founded in 1858?
Father Patrick Smith – “I'm one of eight, six of eight, and my parents put us all through Catholic school, from first grade on. There was actually no kindergarten, so my one year in public school was kindergarten and then Catholic education, all after that. And one of the things that has played such an important part of my life, again, (has been) recognizing how passionate the Catholic faith of my parents was.
“My mother and father, I didn’t know this when I was younger, but I learned that they never went to Catholic school because Catholic schools were segregated. And so, they did not have the opportunity to go to Catholic school at all.
“However, they learned their faith. They said they went to Saturday school and learned their faith at their parish, Holy Redeemer. And that’s where they learned their faith, but clearly they insisted when they had children they were going to give their children the opportunity that they never had. And so, they made sure all eight of us went to Catholic schools from first grade on through high school and most of us through college. It’s really helped form me, I am a priest today because of my foundation, my Catholic foundation.
“So Catholic education, I’m passionate about it because of my own experience. Well, as a priest, of course, I don’t have my own family, a spouse and children, but I’m here at St. Augustine Catholic School. I have been here for 16 years, and these are my children.
“And so, having the opportunity, I can see that just as my parents were passionate about seeing that their children got a Catholic education, I’ve had the opportunity to impact the lives of hundreds of children in these past 16 years by making sure that a Catholic education was available to them. So doing everything we could to make the cost of tuition not a barrier, but of course having a strong Catholic identity (for the school), I did bring the religious sisters back to St. Augustine.
“So it’s been a way, a proud way for me to continue a legacy of my parents in a little different way, but in a way that, because they invested in me and my brothers and sisters, I’ve been able to invest in hundreds of children as a pastor at St. Augustine, seeing that they receive a great Catholic education like I did.
In a 2016 photo, Father Patrick Smith visits a classroom at St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)
“Being pastor of St. Augustine Parish, back in 2004, just knowing the history here, it started in 1858, as a community of faith, it was basically living out of the basement of St. Matthew’s as a chapel. The first building they built, they didn’t build a church, the first thing they built was a school... So, you can't tell the story of St. Augustine Catholic Church in D.C. without beginning with Catholic education, Catholic schools.
“Remember think of the day, 1858. Slavery ended 1865. Slavery was still going on (when St. Augustine’s began). There was no education for Black children, as a matter of fact, it was not legal to have schools for Black children (in the District of Columbia). That did not deter the founders of St. Augustine Church. Their first priority was, ‘We are going to educate our children.’ Even at whatever risk that would be, but it was simply something they were so convicted (about), so it was imperative (to them) that we have to educate our children, we need to pass on the Catholic faith, and so they did.
“And so, whenever we face challenges, over the past almost 170 years, we always have to look back at our ancestors who had an even more difficult time when slavery was still going on, with all the obstacles of racism and discrimination, that they still endured, that their passion for the Catholic faith was so strong. and particularly their passion in passing it on, they were so committed to do that, that the obstacles were not going to deter them.
“That continues to be today a great source of encouragement and faith, to know that what we have in common with our ancestors was that they put their faith in God, in the same God that supported them and gave them what they needed to do. That same God is with us, a God who will always give us everything we need, to do everything He requires.”
In January, we also celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy of working for racial justice and fighting racism, and I wanted to ask you if there are instances of racism that you have experienced in society or the Catholic Church that remain painful memories?
Father Patrick Smith – “First of all, Dr. King himself, obviously not a Catholic but a Baptist minister, has always been (an inspiration to me), even in my early years – he was killed in 1968, I was born in 1963 – I have memories of the household being different, with the news of his assassination and just how that impacted our families and the country. All remember his speech, at the time, the night before he died, about going up to the mountaintop, and (him saying) ‘I want to do God’s will.’ And seemingly just his courage, knowing he was killed the next day, realizing he had gotten death threats.
“So as a man of faith he really impacted me, that this is a person with real faith, he wasn’t scared away even by the threats to his life. Not just as a Black Catholic, but as a Black American… that has continued to inspire me and encourage me, living my life out as a priest.
“One of the things that Dr. King said was the early church was like a thermostat to society, but today it seems more like a thermometer. If you think about (that), a thermostat sets the standards, sets the temperature, in a sense challenges the environment to come up to the standard. Of course, a thermometer just reflects what is. If it’s hot, it says it’s hot. If it’s unjust and racist, then it just reflects it.
“And I think that part of reality is, too often as a Church, and over history, rather than being a thermostat to challenge (society by) the standard of the Gospel, set the standard, and challenge the environment to come up to it, there are too many cases (and) situations where instead of doing that, we just reflect it. So, public schools are segregated, Catholic schools are segregated. Again, my own parents couldn’t get a Catholic education because Catholic schools would not permit them because of the color of their skin.
“The reality is that today, many times if we see Catholic schools close en masse across the country, many times it’s not necessarily a deliberate intent to simply disenfranchise Black children, but the reality is that I do think the Church has a responsibility to know the history and realize that for a long, long time Church leaders deliberately, intentionally, strategically kept Black children from getting a Catholic education. And with that kind of history, there is, I think, a greater obligation to see to it that we do everything we can to make sure that we do give them the education that had been deprived.
“Now maybe today it’s more because of cost and economics, but I think we owe something. It’s called repairing, repairing what we have done, to make every effort we can to make sure that the very people who were denied intentionally a Catholic education, that we do everything we can, and see ourselves as having an obligation to make sure that they get that education today.
“And I personally believe that’s why I’ve worked so hard to make sure that while schools have closed all across the country, including in this diocese, that St. Augustine continue, that we still do everything we can to make sure that children today get the great Catholic education that my parents made sure I had, so that they, too, can make a profound impact on society that they go out to when they graduate from here.”
In a 2019 photo, Father Patrick Smith greets a mother and child after a Mass at St. Augustine Church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
What is your reaction to the nationwide demonstrations for racial justice that have happened since this spring in the wake of unarmed men and women of color being killed by police?
Father Patrick Smith – “My reaction to the nationwide protests since March or even before, many sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, (when I saw) the horrific eight minutes and 46-seconds that was seen around the world, I lost my appetite. I couldn’t eat for 24-hours. It was so horrific, and I think that it was obviously a sense of, this is just intolerable. This cannot continue. Of course, there have been many other cases of deaths of African Americans, men and women, who are unarmed.
“So, I think that as a pastor, part of my responsibility when I see my parishioners also agonizing over (something) and frustrated and angry, I'm always trying to help guide them, (about) what is God doing to help us, not just cope with (this)… but how are we called to respond?
“We know that the Lord calls us, obviously to charity and forgiveness, but also calls us to justice… I try to provide opportunities for our parishioners to talk about and see how we can respond. We joined when the Archdiocese of Washington encouraged Catholic leaders and Catholic parishioners to march down near the White House, to really make it known that we’re standing up for the lives of all people, including Black lives.
“It’s so important that we not just talk about it, preach about it, write about it, but we knew we actually had to take action and do something. Here at St. Augustine we organized a forum, basically a virtual town hall meeting, to talk about racial injustice. We entitled it ‘Racial Injustice and Injustice and Disparity, and from Catholic Social Teaching to Catholic Social Action and to Catholic Moral Action.’ And so, I think that, so we a community have tried to continue to do our part in addressing the issue.
“Part of that presentation of the virtual town hall meeting was also to encourage our call as Catholic leaders (about) how we as a Church cannot get blindsided or muted by partisan politics, but simply look at the reality. When we say that the lives of Black people matter, it is a simple fact that is completely backed up by our faith.
“If there’s any group that feels the need to scream, ‘Hey, my life matters,’ rather than being suspicious, we should say, ‘Well, why? Why are they screaming?’ Because if I’m a person who believes, like we profess in our faith, (in) the dignity of all human life, if any group is not being shown that dignity, they’re going to scream out.
“So every January, one of the things that we’ve been doing for almost 30 years in Washington, is there is an Unborn Lives Matter march. That’s what I’m calling it, UBM, Unborn Lives Matter. And why do we feel the need, if we believe all lives matter, why do we feel it, because we have to have a march or speak out. It’s the same with Black lives or elderly lives or disabled people’s lives. If they’re being neglected, then of course, they’re going to scream out. And I think our attitude should be to listen, to show empathy and to respond.
“We know this, the Scripture is clear; the Lord hears the cry of the poor, all of them. There is no politician that does. So, it’s not about partisanship. … Whoever we vote for, well there’s some lives that they’re not going to hear, and I feel we have a moral obligation to speak up for the lives that they don’t hear, on either side. A part of my concern is that, especially when it comes to race and racism, that we get caught up in that, if we take a side of partisan politics, that we basically fully embrace and join someone who is ignoring some people’s lives. And so, on either side, I think it’s so important that we remember, Jesus is not Democrat or Republican. He called Himself the Truth. And whatever is true, we need to hold up, especially the truth of the dignity of all human lives. Whatever their race or age or location, or whatever it is, we need to stand up for them all.”
Catholic priests and bishops, joined by laypeople and women religious, march for racial justice and against police brutality on June 8, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)
People of color – African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans – have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. What does this say about our country, and what should our country do about this? And as a follow-up, what is your advice to people of color about receiving the coronavirus vaccine?
Father Patrick Smith – “Part of the impact of racism across the board is where certain people are again – if you look at so many elements that affect our society – they’re often disproportionately represented in people of color, who disproportionally represent the poor and the lower economic side of things. And so when it comes to anything, when it comes to income, employment, or certainly health care, well obviously with the advent of the coronavirus, that is no surprise that people of color are impacted, (that) the impact is more great on them as far as sickness and death.
“If (their) health care was already poor, then certainly battling a pandemic, they are going to be more disproportionately impacted. Besides health care, also the fact that people of color are more represented among the essential workers, folks who cannot shelter in place and work from home and online. No, they have to go in to work, they have to interact with people. And so, not surprisingly, their lives have been put at more risk than the lives of many others in the different positions. So we see how even the reality of racism and discrimination have impacted the lives of those who’ve been affected by the coronavirus.
“I can tell you as a pastor here in Washington, D.C., if there’s anyone out there still thinking that the coronavirus is a hoax, I can tell you from the beginning I see the concrete reality. I look at all the funerals that I’ve had to do, all the parishioners I’ve lost, lifelong parishioners, active parishioners, not just the elderly, who are no longer here. And I’m just one pastor, with one church, and I can tell you many lives have been impacted through contracting the virus, and then, sadly, and in so many cases dying from the virus. So I see how just this one community has been impacted.
“And so if you multiply that by hundreds of thousands of communities around the country, that there’s been a disproportionate impact in Black communities. So, that’s a true reality that we’ve had to deal with, and as always, really invoking our faith in our God to help us to not be discouraged, to not fall into despair, but also to do what we can.
“We’ve also had forums to talk about the impact of the coronavirus and how we can respond, just as we’re seeing some hopeful developments with vaccines. There’s a history of this country among Black Americans where there’s a suspicion when it comes to things like government medical care, or government vaccines. And, you know, we’ve had the infamous Tuskegee experiments, where Black people were sort of used as guinea pigs, as lab rats, just to test things... So, there’s a suspicion.
“But I think the biggest antidote to fear is facts, is truth, so we do our part and I encourage our leaders do their part. Also with informing folks about how vaccines were developed and just the information they need to know, that it is safe. And so, we’re encouraging (vaccinations), precisely because it’s so needed in our community. We certainly don't want our folks to be hesitant to taking advantage as those vaccines are made available, we’re definitely encouraging them to take advantage of it. And again, our main way of doing that is really battling the fear with facts.”
Father Patrick Smith speaks during interview for the Black Catholic Voices series. (CS screen capture/Andrew Biraj)
Cardinal Gregory has noted that while the nation confronts the coronavirus, it must also address the virus of racism. What do you think the Catholic Church should do as an institution to combat racism, and what do you think individual Catholics should do?
Father Patrick Smith – “Cardinal Gregory has talked about, not only the pandemic of the coronavirus, but also the pandemic of racism. As a Church, I mentioned it’s so important that we don’t get caught up in partisan politics. We need to be, first of all, teaching our faith and practicing our faith. We have our teaching, whether it’s Catholic social teaching, the teaching about the dignity of all humans beings. We are called to be that thermostat that sets the standard. We’ve always existed with the call to society to evangelize, to go to every nation and in this nation. And, many times, again, we get caught up in our own partisan politics and ignore the cries of the poor.
“As a teaching Church, first of all (we need) to acknowledge the reality of racism. I think that many times we may talk about it, we have many documents that say racism is a sin, it’s contrary to the teaching on human dignity, but that is simply not enough. First of all, those cases were stating the obvious. So, sometimes I think rather than just focusing on racism, we need to talk more about racial justice.
“Justice, when we get into morality, justice tends to be about, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing that’s either disenfranchising people, and discriminating, or what are you doing to counteract it?’
“Because many times we’ll say racism is bad, we shouldn’t do that, that’s not what we’re about, amen, but not acknowledging when we do see it, what do we do to counteract it? Things like whether we’re talking about providing opportunities for education for all people and making that available, (and) being aware and acknowledging even within our own community, whether it comes to hiring practices, do we favor certain people over other people?
“ …As a Church we have a greater and higher responsibility, and we have a history. You think about many times in the past, we’ve confused colonization with evangelization, where we pass on a culture in missionary work, but when that becomes more important then the actual message of the Gospel.
“I think even today, we live in a society (where) whatever our backgrounds are, it’s so important (to know), one key thing is that all of us who’ve taken American history in this country, got a heavily redacted version, meaning so much of the history of, whether the history of slavery, the history of Jim Crow, the history of Reconstruction, we just were never taught.
“And so we have often times, looked at the reality of racism today and acts of injustice and violence, police brutality, discrimination in other forms, or mass incarceration, and just because we don’t know our history, we just conclude, ‘Well, I guess Black people are more prone to criminality, and so I guess that’s why there’s so many in jail.’
“But if you know the history, you realize that there’s a whole history between the police and Black people, that the first police, in many ways, were slave catchers. When you look at how did they continue this amazing economic institution called slavery, of free labor, how did they keep that going after the Emancipation? And so, just knowing the history of that, for example, how basically the collaboration that I call the diabolical collaboration of police, the courts, and big business, that’s how they kept free labor going. Since it was illegal to enslave people, there was the exception in the 13th amendment – unless they’ve committed a crime.
“So, if you simply read the history you'll see how, especially in the South where there were mass arrests of people of color after slavery, often at peculiar times like harvest season, mass arrests.
“Why was that? Because again, what they would do is they’d be arrested for misdemeanors. You can go to court records today, it wasn’t murder, it wasn’t rape, it wasn’t a horrible crime, it was spitting on the sidewalk, talking to a white woman, loitering. And you have mass arrests happening, and what would happen was they were misdemeanors.
“Some would be charged a fine, a $5 fine. (They’d say) ‘I don’t have $5,’ but guess who else would be in the courtroom? You’d have the business owner saying, ‘I’ll pay the $5. You’ve got to work for me,’ and literally it was an ingenious, clever, diabolical scheme, but it worked. So that’s just a little short lesson in history.
“We have responsibilities as leaders, especially as Church, (to) know the history, because otherwise it would be very easy to demonize a group of people, (and think) ‘they have mass arrests today because they must be prone to a criminality.’ If you know the history, then you realize how the criminal justice system was often acting in a criminal way, and how it was used actually to disenfranchise a certain group of people, Black people, for economic use. And so, that’s not a new phenomenon.
“If you know the history, that’s just one example. There are many other examples of how even the government and our policies, people so often don’t like affirmative action, but affirmative action was a normal thing exclusively for white Americans and citizens. The Homestead Act, the GI Bill, the New Deal, where these are opportunities that were given by the government to give people a boost, whether you're coming out from from the war or whether you need money to buy land, but because of discrimination, people of color were excluded.
“And so here you had the government giving handouts exclusively to white people, and it made all the difference in the world. They needed it. They got money for education, for getting a home loan, for being able to buy a home, to get a loan from the bank. Many opportunities that African Americans simply never had. So today you have economic disparities that you can trace back to many of those policies that intentionally kept people of color at a disadvantage, and many of those disadvantages still exist today.”
How have you kept the faith, both your Catholic faith and your faith for our country, over the years, despite this “virus” of racism that has infected both, and what gives you hope for a better future for our Church and our country?
Father Patrick Smith – “How have I kept my faith as a Black Catholic? First of all, the critical distinction between the content of our faith, and those who are delivering it. You know, the difference between the message and the messenger.
“Clearly what I’ve seen, and I’m always inspired by, is when I look at the history of Catholicism, particularly in this country (the history) of Black Catholics… like the first (Black) priests who were ordained in this country, and our religious sisters, if you read their stories, it reads like a martyrology. Martyrs, people who despite discrimination, despite violence, despite the threat of violence and death threats, they continued to practice the faith.
“They (Black Catholics) continued to go to church when they had to sit in the back of the church. They could go to Mass, but they had to go to Communion last, or they had to sit in the balcony. So even in the face of these forms of discrimination, the refusal to ordain Black priests, you know they wouldn’t allow them in the seminaries.
“But the perseverance (they showed), and clearly it wasn’t because of the faith in this particular bishop, or that particular leader, with that particular pastor, it’s because, thanks be to God, they really did get the faith. They learned about the truth of the Gospel, the Eucharist and believed in it.
“That’s why my parents passed it on. Remember my parents were denied a Catholic school education, but they did everything they could, and made every sacrifice and made sure that their children got that same Catholic education. It wasn’t because of their faith in simply the leaders. It was their faith in the Gospel and the faith in the message, the message of the Gospel.
“And so we know that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He’s a Good Shepherd. He’s faithful. He’s a faithful one, and we fell in love with Him and with this, in the life-saving message. And so, despite even when the Church leaders failed, we knew God would never fail.
“And that is still the same faith that sustains me. My faith is in Him, and He’s the one that called me to be a priest, to stand in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). So I’m in love with the Mass and in Christ who’s present. So I believe in Him, and I believe He’s present.
“And He promised never to leave us or forsake us, that He walks with us. He’s a good shepherd. Any good shepherd does at least three things: a good shepherd will feed you, give you what you need; a good shepherd will lead and guide you so you don't go astray or get lost; and a good shepherd will watch over and protect you.
“So I think that that’s been really key to many Black Catholics, who despite the adversity, have continued to really maintain the faith. It’s really because we’ve made a distinction between, as I think we all do, and I hope that people do that with me, that I am a messenger, but I’m not the message. If I fall and fail, I don’t want you to fall and fail because of me. St. Francis de Sales said that whenever a person causes scandal, a priest or religious leader causes scandal, they’re guilty of spiritual homicide, but he said, don’t you let that be a reason for you to commit spiritual suicide.
“I think that the greatest scandal for Black Catholics has been racism… There’s been nothing greater than racism that has been the scandal to keep people from the faith, and there was not a day in my ministry, of over 30 years, that I am not trying to counteract that particular scandal so the people do not deprive themselves of the life-saving message of Christ, of the Blessed Sacrament, of the Catholic faith, because of the scandal of racism.”
Then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory, about two weeks after he was installed as the new archbishop of Washington, celebrated a June 2019 Mass at St. Augustine Parish, the mother church for African American Catholics in the nation's capital, where he was greeted by Father Patrick Smith, the pastor, who said he had “the privilege and honor to welcome you as the first African American archbishop of Washington.” Then-Archbishop Gregory said, “I stand on holy ground, as do all of you when you gather each Sunday for the Eucharist…Today a son of the African diaspora stands in your midst as the shepherd of the entire family of faith that is the Archdiocese of Washington.” In the photo below, the archbishop and pastor celebrate that Mass at St. Augustine Church. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
What is your reaction to Pope Francis elevating Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory to the College of Cardinals, making him the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States – what does that mean to you, and what do you think it means to the nation’s Black Catholics?
Father Patrick Smith – “When I heard the news that Pope Francis had appointed Archbishop Gregory to Washington, first of all being the first (Black Catholic) archbishop over the capital of the nation, that was certainly a source of great encouragement and great celebration within the Black Catholic community. When he also then elevated Archbishop Gregory to cardinal, again, being the first Black American cardinal in the history of the United States, honestly I would tell you I had two feelings. One, that it was certainly something that was very positive, very good and very important…
“By the action of the pope appointing Archbishop Gregory a cardinal, it made a statement that… while the reality of racism has always been an obstacle to Black Americans being leaders in the Church, meaning that they had all the qualifications, but because they were Black, they didn’t get appointed. Whether it was Blacks couldn’t go to seminaries, Black women could not join certain religious orders, the only reason was because they were Black. Pope Francis by appointing Cardinal Gregory, has said and made it explicitly clear that the color of his skin will not be a reason, will no longer be a deterrent or a disqualifying reality for him serving in the Church.
“But I said in the beginning, I had a mixed reaction, because certainly the other reaction was, why in the world did it take so long? Again, the Church is supposed to have different standards. We’re not supposed to simply reflect society, but to challenge society to a higher standard. And I’m glad it happened, but I’m sorry it took so, so long for the Church to do what it should have done a long time ago.”