This week’s edition of the Catholic Standard newspaper includes an article about a Mass at Holy Family Church in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland, to celebrate November as Black Catholic History Month. And to mark that month, we have a story about a recent celebration for the 125th anniversary of St. Cyprian, an historic African American Catholic parish in Washington, D.C.
In 1966, St. Cyprian Parish was merged with the nearby Holy Comforter Parish to become Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish. The combined parish community then worshipped together in what had been Holy Comforter Church. Even though they did not feel welcomed by some of their new fellow parishioners, the former St. Cyprian members began going to Mass there, and many became longtime faithful parishioners there.
Five years later, the buildings for the former St. Cyprian Church and School were torn down, and later a marker was placed there to remember that parish’s legacy of faith. When I joined the Catholic Standard newspaper staff in the mid-1980s, I interviewed a former St. Cyprian’s parishioner who told me that her father had been among that parish’s founders who pitched in to help build the church, and now when she passed the spot where the church once stood, she would make the sign of the cross.
The story of St. Cyprian Parish was prayerfully remembered on Sept. 15, when present-day members of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian gathered for a Mass marking the closing of a year-long commemoration of the 125th anniversary of St. Cyprian’s founding in 1893.
Then after the Mass, about 350 people gathered for a banquet to celebrate St. Cyprian Parish’s legacy. A speaker noted how the founders endured racism at a nearby Catholic church, even having to enter the church through separate doors, and later had the faith to establish a parish and school that thrived for seven decades.
But as I try to do when covering stories, I didn’t want to focus just on the speakers, so I interviewed some of the guests about what St. Cyprian Parish meant to them.
Deborah McFarland, who grew up in St. Luke’s Parish in Washington, has been a parishioner at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian since 1992 and sings in the gospel choir there. “It’s important to keep the history alive. If we don’t, it will be swept aside,” she said. “This is a parish where we celebrate our ancestors, our cloud of witnesses. We will continue to do that, because it’s important to pass on this history to the next generations to come. Our history is part of the patchwork history of this country and the Catholic Church.”
Speaking of those who founded St. Cyprian’s and supported it, McFarland said, “Their perseverance served them well. When you want something, especially when it’s in the name of Jesus, you will persevere.”
She added, “This church family is a fabric of the Catholic Church as a whole. When we celebrate the African American experience, that experience should be cherished by all. We couldn’t do this ourselves. We had people who believed so strongly in our heritage, they felt it was worth acknowledging and celebrating, and that’s what we’re doing today.”
Carolyn Lancaster, 78, noted that her grandparents, Mary and George Foster, helped build St. Cyprian’s along with other families. She said the parish was warm and loving. “Everybody was embraced as family. Everybody knew everybody else,” said Lancaster. She was baptized at St. Cyprian’s, then her parents moved the family when she was 6 or 7, then she returned when she was 14.
“All of us did a little of everything,” said Lancaster, noting that she played CYO basketball and helped her mother clean the altar.
St. Cyprian’s founders were “amazing people,” she said, noting they endured segregation in society and even in the Catholic Church. “I think that’s the most amazing thing I heard in my life. They wanted to build their own church to worship the same God,” said Lancaster, who said she tried to teach her own four children what their ancestors have done for them.
Later Lancaster was married at St. Cyprian Church, where two of her children were baptized, and the other two were baptized at the combined Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church, following the merger of the parishes in 1966.
“Everyone was not happy” after the merger, she said, remembering that some of the white parishioners of the former Holy Comforter Parish offered unfriendly looks to the former St. Cyprian parishioners who began worshipping with them in what had been Holy Comforter Church and was now Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church.
Then when the former St. Cyprian Church was torn down, “that was a very tearful time for my family,” she said. She remembered how beautiful that church was, with its marble altar cared for by members of the parish.
“I think we need to remember it,” Lancaster said. “I impress on my children the importance of knowing where they came from.”
What we can learn from the story of St. Cyprian Parish, and from the faith of Black Catholics, was summarized in a letter that Msgr. Charles Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, sent to parishioners to mark the anniversary of that historic parish.
“I cannot tell you how grateful and amazed I am at such faith,” Msgr. Pope wrote, noting how his parishioners have continued to keep the faith amid the Church’s recent scandals, just as their ancestors kept the faith when they endured racism in their own church.
The priest noted, “Somehow you are still able to find Jesus. For this, I am grateful and humbled.”
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