Black and Catholic in the U.S.

  • Written by Greg Magnoni
  • Published in NW Stories
Photo: Ray Meuse Photo: Ray Meuse

Local black Catholics are living witnesses to the church’s mixed record on race

Clayton Pitre recalls attending Mass as a child in a segregated parish in Louisiana. “I went to a church where we sat on one side of the church and the Cajuns sat on the other side of the church,” said Pitre, 91, a cradle Catholic and member of St. James Cathedral Parish. “We went to Communion on one side of the altar, and they went on the other side of the altar.”

Corliss Nesbitt-Reed of St. Anthony Parish in Renton also experienced racial segregation by Catholics. Reed grew up non-Catholic in the 1960s in Buffalo, New York, with a population of mostly Polish and Italian Catholics. “I felt the anger and the discrimination” from white Catholics, she said of those tense days when race riots flared in her hometown and across the country.

Se’Vera Dowe of Seattle’s Immaculate Conception Parish became Catholic in the 1970s, but when she first encountered the church, she “couldn’t understand what was going on. I really thought, the first few Sundays, this is not for me.”

For the better part of a hundred years following the Civil War, the church failed to distinguish itself from the secular culture and largely missed what the late Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis called “a golden opportunity for a harvest of souls.”

“We never produced clergy among the African-American community,” said Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry, postulator of the cause for sainthood of Father Augustus Tolton, the first American priest recognized as black. “That was a residual from the non-acceptance of blacks in seminaries and convents and other Catholic institutions. Consequently, the church gave the guise of itself being a white institution not terribly interested or ambivalent about its black membership.”

According to Father Davis’ book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States, beginning in the 19th century, a majority of African-Americans gravitated to black Protestant churches led by black ministers. Today, black Catholics represent just 3 million of the 36 million African-Americans in the U.S., according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

And while more than 20 percent of Americans identify as Catholic, just 3 percent of American Catholics are black, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It is estimated that perhaps 20,000 African-American Catholics practice their faith in the Archdiocese of Seattle, although nearly 70,000 would self-identify as Catholics.

From left: Clayton Pitre, Se’Vera Dowe, Cesar Patterson, and Deacon LaMar Reed and Corliss Nesbitt-Reed.
From left: Clayton Pitre, Se’Vera Dowe, Cesar Patterson, and Deacon LaMar Reed and Corliss Nesbitt-Reed. Photos: Stephen Brashear

‘Institutional racism permeated society’

In high school, Nesbitt-Reed’s best friend was Catholic. “I used to tell people, if I ever go to church, I’m going to be Catholic,” she said. But that desire didn’t always match up with her experiences. “I knew that I wanted to be a Catholic,” she said, “but I just couldn’t understand why people treated each other the way they did. Why do you call me those names?”

Integrating the church, Bishop Perry explained, “was hampered because of the institutional racism that permeated society in general.”

“No one could be countercultural in this regard,” he said, “without calculated suffering that came from that: losing financial support, benefactor support, image. All those kinds of things suffered if you were seen to go against the racial norm at that time.”

Father Davis’ history notes that white Catholics both before and after the Civil War exhibited attitudes all-too-similar to the white population at large. But he also acknowledged outstanding examples of Catholic laypeople, religious and clergy who “never dismissed black men and women in the United States as pathetic creatures without honor.”

By the middle of the last century, the church belatedly began to give voice to her social conscience on the issue of racism, both nationally and in the Archdiocese of Seattle (see below).

Church leaders emerged who were willing to openly reject racism and integrate church institutions, Bishop Perry said. “The effort of the desegregation of [Catholic] schools, I think, is a high point,” he said. “One of the highest. The bishops took courageous steps, including calling racism a sin and even excommunicating those who resisted desegregation. That is, I think, the highest point. That was courageous for that time.”

The public stance of the church and the private actions of Catholic people have borne fruit for many black Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Seattle today.

“I dearly love the church. And I’m proud of it,” said Nesbitt-Reed. She and her husband, Deacon LaMar Reed, entered the church together in 1995 at Immaculate Conception Parish. Like other black Catholics, their interactions with Catholic people left lasting impressions.

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‘Something was drawing me’

Before LaMar Reed began a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967, a Catholic friend wanted him to meet a priest friend, to receive a blessing. “So I went with him,” Deacon Reed said. “He was a very nice guy, a very nice priest. He blessed me and then took his rosary from around his neck and gave it to me. He said, ‘Take this with you to keep you safe.’”

Cesar Patterson, Dowe’s brother and a member of Immaculate Conception Parish, said his best friend in the Air Force was a Catholic he met while living in New York. Although “not terribly religious,” Patterson said, he decided to become Catholic before getting out of the service because of his friend.

“It was his parents,” Patterson explained. “Leaving Alabama and coming to New York, I had never encountered a white person as nice as his parents. I encountered nice people in Alabama, but not so much the way his parents were. Some people are just born with a good heart.”

Baptized in a Baptist church, Dowe was received into the Catholic Church in Detroit after attending services in the parish where her son was enrolled in Catholic school. Despite her initial misgivings, she said, a Catholic woman “sort of took me under her wings. And she explained to me why we were doing what we were doing, why we were saying what we were saying. And so then when I went through the classes, I understood it better.” Dowe entered the Lay Carmelites in 2011 and hopes to take her vows in September 2016.

Deacon Reed said his mother wanted him to attend a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles, but the school filled its quota of non-Catholic students before he was able to enroll. He also had childhood friends who were Catholic and said he liked to go to Mass, partly because it was much shorter than the Baptist church service.

“Something was drawing me to the Catholic Church,” he said, “every step of the way — somebody Catholic, or almost going to Catholic schools, the rosary, friends that were Catholic.” He was ordained a deacon in 2012.

Pitre, who grew up in an era when the races were legally separated in the South, said the priests he encountered in his childhood “had dedicated themselves to serving the black people, and there was no question about them looking after your interests. So I felt that Catholics were that way,” he said. He also had good experiences with Catholics he met in the military.

“I grew up with the faith that Catholic people were good people,” Pitre said.

‘The first link in a long chain’

Father Tolton prayer card
In September 2014, documents supporting the cause for the canonization of Father Augustus John Tolton were sent to the Vatican. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Born a slave to a Catholic mother and father in 1854, Augustus Tolton was the first Catholic priest in the U.S. recognized as black.

After escaping to freedom, his mother initially could not find a Catholic school in Illinois that would enroll Augustus. Martha Tolton persisted and her son eventually received a Catholic education. Young Augustus harbored an enduring desire to become a priest. He was ordained in Rome in 1886, where he studied for the priesthood because his race kept him from being admitted to a seminary in the U.S.

Father Tolton’s brother priests in the United States did not befriend him. Despite the urgings of his Vatican mentor — Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni — Father Tolton’s “special mission” to evangelize black people in the U.S. received scant support from his U.S. superiors. St. Katharine Drexel was likely his most generous benefactor.

In the face of indifference and opposition, Father Tolton persevered and built a loyal following among Catholics both black and white, engendering jealousy among some neighboring pastors. When he left his original assignment in Quincy, Illinois, for Chicago in 1889, 19 members of his congregation made the trip with him.

Father Tolton’s short life — he died at the age of 43 — was emblematic of the black Catholic experience in the U.S. He was confronted with rejection, isolation and opposition, and yet his faith and ministry were marked by courage and perseverance.

Some stood tall

1964 march photo
On March 7, 1964, Father John Lynch and ministers of other Seattle churches led an estimated 1,500 people in a march to support fair housing. Courtesy Archdiocese of Seattle Archives, VR1200-00120

Providence Sister Mary Clare Boland, a lifelong civil rights activist, served two Seattle bishops who demonstrated their commitment to integration of the races in the church.

Seattle Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy (1933–1950) created the St. Peter Claver Center — a shelter, community center and recreation center for youth — in 1941 to promote a Catholic apostolate among minorities living in Seattle, especially African-Americans. Named for the patron of African missions, the center was staffed by Providence sisters and open to all denominations. Shaughnessy was also known for his statements against discrimination toward Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Sister Clare first served at the Peter Claver Center when she was a Catholic high school student in West Seattle. She remembers Bishop Shaughnessy as “pastoral and kindly.” She described his successor, Archbishop Thomas A. Connolly (1950–1975) as a strong, vocal advocate for integration, open housing and voting rights.

“He wanted interracial work done,” she said, “and things were bad in Bishop Connolly’s time.”

Archbishop Connolly believed that changing public opinion was the key to changing laws that segregated the races, and he urged Catholics to become personally involved in peaceful civil rights demonstrations.

In 1964, Seattle and Tacoma were poised to vote on ordinances to desegregate housing. Archbishop Connolly wrote letters to parishes in support of the ordinances that included pledges that Catholics were urged to sign, promising they would not move away when people of color purchased homes in their neighborhoods.

“We know,” he wrote, “that we cannot honor God in truth and dishonor those whom he created in his image and likeness.” Archbishop Connolly became a life member of the NAACP in 1965, although his membership card and pin were delayed three years as the $500 cost forced him to make payments in installments.

In a Feb. 8, 1968, letter to Archbishop Connolly after an interfaith civil rights banquet for equal housing opportunity, Alfred E. Cowles, executive secretary of the Washington State Board Against Discrimination, wrote: “It was inspiring to know that there are spiritual leaders of your caliber who will not abdicate their responsibility, but instead are speaking out in a forceful manner to bring to bear the moral imperative of ‘Justice for all!’”

Learn More

November is Black Catholic History Month. To learn more, visit the National Black Catholic Congress website, For more resources, visit

The Struggle

Fifty years ago, the Selma march set off a series of civil rights demonstrations that altered the national perception of the struggle for racial equality forever. Read "Black Catholics recall the civil rights struggle" to hear from local black Catholics what it was like to be African-American during the last half of the 20th century.

This story ran under the title "Black and Catholic" in the November 2015 print edition of Northwest Catholic.