About two weeks after he was installed as the archbishop of Washington in May 2019, then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory came to St. Augustine Church in Washington to celebrate Mass at a parish that was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, including some who had been emancipated from slavery. When Archbishop Gregory – the first African American archbishop of Washington – appeared in the doorway of what is considered to be the mother church for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital, he was greeted with shouts of joy and a spontaneous standing ovation.
At the Mass, 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 January 2021, the Catholic Standard returned to that church for an interview with Father Patrick Smith, St. Augustine’s pastor, for its Black Catholic Voices series, which began last fall with an interview with Cardinal Gregory, who was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis, becoming the first African American cardinal in the United States.
So far, we’ve posted 10 interviews in the Black Catholic Voices series, all viewable through a link on the Catholic Standard’s website at cathstan.org . The interviews include videotapes produced by the Archdiocese of Washington’s multimedia team of Geoff Ros and Ron Bethke, with the text of the interviews transcribed by Claudia Cheek of the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Communications and photos by the Catholic Standard’s Andrew Biraj.
In an interview with journalist Al Roker that aired Feb. 15 on NBC’s TODAY show, Cardinal Gregory was asked how people can make progress on the issue of racial justice, and he said, “We have to listen to each other.”
The Catholic Standard’s Black Catholic Voices series, launched just before Black Catholic History Month in November 2020 and continuing beyond this February, Black History Month, has been a vehicle to do that, to listen to the voices of a variety of local Black Catholics, reflecting on their roots of faith, the racism that they’ve experienced in society and in the Catholic Church, their reaction to the nationwide protests for racial justice, their insights on what should be done to combat racism, and their reflections on how they’ve kept their faith over the years and what gives them hope for the future.
The Black Catholic Voices series also coincides with an effort announced by then-Archbishop Gregory in August 2020 at a Mass marking the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, an Archdiocese of Washington initiative titled “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” with pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.
Father Patrick Smith, an African American priest who has served as the pastor of St. Augustine Parish since 2004, began his interview for the Black Catholic Voices series by noting the witness of faith of his parents, the late Sara Ann and Deacon Anthony Smith.
“They practiced the faith. It was precious to them. It was important to them, so of course it was naturally important to us,” he said.
The priest was interviewed in front of the church’s sanctuary, not far from the altar where he celebrates Mass and the pulpit where he preaches his homilies, and he noted a sad irony, because he sat near a front pew of the church where his family experienced the evil of segregation that decades ago infected movie theaters, stores and even churches in the Washington area.
“We’re sitting in St. Augustine Catholic Church which was originally built as St. Paul’s Church,” he said. “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.”
St. Augustine Church, a stone structure built in a Gothic style, served as the church for Saints Paul and Augustine Parish when those two parishes were merged in 1961, and people worshiped at what had been St. Paul’s Church. In 1982, the parish and church became known as St. Augustine, retaining the name of the historic Black Catholic parish. Decades earlier, Black Catholics had either been told they were not welcome at St. Paul’s Church, which had a predominantly White congregation, or they were told to sit in the back of church and had to wait until the end of the Communion line, a situation experienced by Catholics of color in churches in the nation’s capital and Southern Maryland during times of segregation.
In the interview, Father Smith noted the passion his family members had for the faith, and how “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.”
Father Smith also reflected about how his own parents had been impacted by segregation in the Catholic Church.
“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,” he said. “…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.”
The priest explained that background has inspired him, as the pastor of St. Augustine, to do everything he can to keep providing children an education at his parish school.
“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,” he said.
Father Smith noted how the founders of St. Augustine first started a Catholic school for their children at a time when slavery was still going on and when it was not legal to have schools for Black children in the District of Columbia.
“It was imperative (to them) that we have to educate our children, we need to pass on the Catholic faith, and so they did,” he said.
That legacy of St. Augustine’s founders has inspired parishioners there over the years as they’ve faced challenges, Father Smith said, adding, “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.”
St. Augustine’s pastor, and the other local Black Catholics interviewed for the series, have spoken frankly about the sin of racism that they’ve even experienced in their own church. Father Robert Boxie III, the Catholic chaplain at Howard University, remembered how the seminarian in the room next to him at the North American College in Rome had a large Confederate flag on display. Sister Patricia Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur who served as the president of the National Black Sisters Conference, remembered times when she rang the doorbell and knocked at the door of convents, and sisters of her own order seemed hesitant to open the door, not knowing at first who that Black woman was. Msgr. Raymond East, the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Parish, said that when he came to Washington 45 years ago, some people seemed to avoid shaking his hand or greeting him at the sign of peace during Mass.
Father Smith noted, “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.”
The priest noted the witness of faith of his parents and other Black Catholics, who kept the faith and passed it on, despite the discrimination they sometimes experienced in their own Church.
“They learned about the truth of the Gospel, the Eucharist and believed in it,
Father Smith said, adding, “And so we know that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He’s a Good Shepherd. He’s faithful… 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.”
(Mark Zimmermann is the editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington.)