The leafy neighborhood surrounding Holy Comforter Saint-Cyprian Roman Catholic Church has transformed in recent years. Longtime parishioners have watched as the African American families who found a home at this church for more than a century left for more affordable housing in the suburbs, and young white families moved into the newly renovated townhouses surrounding the District’s Lincoln Park, east of Capitol Hill.
So when Judy Rodney, a stalwart attendee at Holy Comforter, went to visit her son in a similarly gentrifying neighborhood in Atlanta, she expected to find tension in the Catholic parish similar to the unease she sometimes witnesses between white newcomers and black residents at home.
Instead, she was awed by what she saw. “I was shocked to see this church. It was very diverse, and it was standing room only. We had to get there half an hour early to get a seat for Mass,” Rodney told her fellow Bible study attendees at Holy Comforter, all of them African American, after her trip.
She credits Atlanta’s archbishop, Wilton Gregory, for fostering a church culture that made that inclusiveness possible. And this week, Gregory will leave Atlanta to become the first African American archbishop of Washington. “It may make a positive change for us, too,” Rodney said to her Bible study group.
As the longtime cleric officially assumes his appointment by Pope Francis to one of the most prominent leadership roles in the American Catholic Church on Tuesday, Washington’s black Catholics are watching his first steps with pride and excitement — and with hope that Gregory can address the needs of their community.
Black Catholics are a small segment of the Catholic population nationwide, about 3 percent. But in Washington, the community has always been significantly larger (15 percent, by the Pew Research Center’s count in 2014) and a wellspring of civic involvement. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a list of the nation’s historically black parishes, it included more in the Archdiocese of Washington than any other diocese in the country except Lafayette, La.
The District’s four most recent mayors — Muriel E. Bowser, Vincent C. Gray, Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams — are all African American Catholics or were educated in Catholic schools.
Karl A. Racine, the District’s attorney general, fondly recalls his roots in the city’s predominantly African American parishes and boasts of the nuns and priests who are among his relatives. He said that when he heard Gregory would be the next Washington archbishop, he asked friends in Atlanta about Gregory’s involvement in black community issues and was pleased by what he heard.
“I’m sure you’re going to see this is a city with a high percentage of black folks who are going to be supportive of him, that need him. . . . There’s always been a difficult relationship, at least what I’ve observed, between African Americans and Caribbeans and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church,” he said. “The Catholic Church does a lot in the community, but obviously scandal, as well as instances of timidity on issues of race, sometimes cause members like me to want more out of leadership.”
Racine is one of well more than a dozen attorneys general nationwide investigating sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy. He said that his inquiry will continue after the departure of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who retired early because of revelations about his supervision of abusive priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh. And Racine also proposed other agenda items that he hopes the new archbishop takes up with regard to race.
“In the District of Columbia, there is too great a disparity in income and opportunity [between those west and east of the Anacostia River]. Those issues that relate to long-standing trauma and violence should be addressed by the church. The church can be an important convener,” Racine said. He also pointed to students at Georgetown University who have recently advocated for the school to more deeply address its history as a slaveholding institution, and said he hopes Gregory will further that effort. “Locally, we really need to have a reckoning, a deep conversation, that leads to positive action in regard to the impact of slavery and institutional racism. I would hope that he would bring the voice of peace and redemption and forgiveness, and the call for action,” Racine said.
Bishop Roy Campbell, the auxiliary bishop of Washington, said that he has found that parishioners are hungering for African American leadership in the Catholic Church. “It will be a definite change here in the Archdiocese of Washington,” he said. “Hopefully . . . our black Catholics will see that they are as relevant as any other Catholics in the community. Sometimes you can feel that you might be not heard as much as others.”
Campbell said that as a black bishop himself, “you can understand the feelings of people who have experienced, whether it is subtle or overt, instances of racism, even when it’s not intentional, because I have experienced the same thing. I can understand where they’re coming from and help them in how to address that. . . . Here we have an archbishop that I think has experienced the same thing.”
In recent memory, many of the city’s black Catholics were most hurt by the archdiocese’s attitude when it came to parish schools. The archdiocese proposed in 2008 closing eight of its 28 schools in the District, many of them attended predominantly by students of color, and then handing the buildings over to house nonreligious public charter schools.
Some parishes, including St. Augustine, a church near 14th Street NW known as the “mother church of African American Catholics,” successfully fought the idea and kept their schools operating. But others, including Holy Comforter, had their schools turned to charters. As Gregory arrives in Washington more than a decade later, that still rankles.
“They just forgot about us. There was nobody fighting to keep our school here,” Helen Pruce said mournfully at Holy Comforter’s Bible study on Wednesday. She sent her daughter to the parish school. Others at the study session agreed, complaining that it seemed at the time that the archdiocese specifically picked majority-black schools for closure.
Last year, 52 percent of students at the archdiocese’s 92 schools in the District and Maryland were white, and 28 percent were black.
It’s a common concern for black Catholics nationwide. “Hispanics, African Americans — if those populations are very small in [some bishops’] dioceses and those aren’t big donors, they tend to be underserved,” said Grant Jones, executive director of the Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver, a historically black fraternal organization. The Knights focus not only on providing a social community for black Catholics but also on fostering church efforts to combat systemic racism, promote criminal justice reform and support victims of domestic violence. “Ethnic ministries are closed. When there’s budget cuts, those are the first churches closed,” Jones said.
Gregory, who has been a member of the Knights of Peter Claver since 1984, according to Jones, is more likely to listen to minority members’ concerns for their parishes, Jones said. “I think he’s very aware of that. He will look past the bottom line and say, ‘No, this is important’,” he said.
Many in Washington’s parishes will be watching eagerly — starting at Gregory’s installation ceremony. At Holy Comforter, that’s what all the buzz has been about this week, with churchgoers swapping tips about secret places to park and boasting of their plans to arrive five hours early, with plenty of snacks. When Washington’s first black archbishop takes his place, they want to make sure they have a spot.