African American Church history retold

Rev Dr Edmund Hogan, SMA Irish Provincial Archivist and Historian, launched his recently-completed work, Development of the African American Catholic Church in the United States of America, 1906-1946 on 7 September last at the American Provincial Headquarters in Tenafly, New Jersey.

In his remarks at the book launch he first of all expressed his gratitude to the SMA American Province for “giving me the opportunity to research and write about its history. In particular I want to thank Ted Hayden and Mike Moran  for their interest and encouragement. This book would never have been written or published without their interest and commitment.

The book is a work of history. It is not a promotional book although there is certainly much inspiration and indeed heroism in the story of the American SMA’s. But this is a book which follows strictly the historical discipline: it seeks without fear or favour  to find out what actually happened, how it happened and why it happened.

On one level it is a work of biographical history. It is the story of Ignace Lissner: a man  called to labour on America’s turbulent racial frontier, a man etched out of rock. 

The book also belongs to Institutional History – it is the history of the Society of African Missions in America.

Finally the book  also belongs  to the category of social history and specifically the history of race relations. For the SMA’s  struggle was part of a wider movement which sought to bring a beleaguered African American population into the mainstream of America’s multi-faceted national life’.

Why did the SMA come to the United States in 1906?

The Society came to America because not nearly enough was being done by the Catholic Church for its African American community especially in the Southern States.  It must be said that the South was not a very comfortable place for Catholics.  The Southern ethos was predominantly Protestant and anti-Catholic. The Catholic Church was impoverished and unpopular and, indeed,  pre-occupied with survival. Sometimes that is the reason given for its neglect of the African Americans and there is a lot of truth in it. But that was not the full story. There were also serious doubts as to whether that Church had the desire or will to cater for African-Americans. It has to be said, regrettably, that racial prejudice among White Catholics, clergy and laity alike, was a powerful negative factor in the situation..

However, there were some leading Churchmen – a small minority be it said –  who wanted to do something for the African American community  – men such as John Ireland (Bishop of Charleston, North Carolina), Peter Kenrick (Bishop of St. Louis), Augustine Verot (Bishop of Savannah), Martin John Spalding (Archbishop of Baltimore) and Cardinal James Gibbons (Archbishop of Baltimore).

More importantly Rome wanted to do something. America at this time came under the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome.  Whatever we might say about Rome in other respects – the Cardinals of Propaganda Fide, were not prepared to stand idly by on this issue and, having consulted those bishops with an interest in doing something for African Americans, and principally Archbishop Spalding, they took the decision to introduce to America missionary congregations of men and women who had been founded in Europe to evangelise Africans. And so it was that the SMA (along with the Mill Hill Fathers and Sisters  [Josephites], Congregation of the Holy Ghost (Spiritains), the Society of the Divine Word, (SVD) – a little like the cavalry – were introduced to America.

Of course the SMA was happy to come. America was seen as a place where SMA missionaries no longer able to work in West Africa because of health problems, might live fruitful lives – engaging in the African-American apostolate. America was seen too as a place which in the long term  might yield vocations to the Society. And finally, and not least, America was also seen as a place where badly needed funds might be raised for the Society.  Indeed in 1906 it already had  fund-raisers on the ground there, one of whom was Ignace Lissner.

Ignace Lissner SMA

He had been  in America since 1897 raising funds for the Society’s debt-ridden seminary in France. And it was this same Fr Lissner, who was asked by the Society’s General Council, to set about making an American foundation. The principal purpose of this foundation would be to work among the neglected African Americans of  the South.

Fr. Lissner, who hailed from Alsace, was 40 years when he was given the job. In appearance he looked more like a rabbi than a priest. In fact his father was a convert from Judaism. The young Fr Lissner had had a colorful career in West Africa – taken hostage by the king of Dahomey and given up for dead, many Masses said for the repose of his soul, then surprising everybody by surfacing several months later. Subsequently he was to travel as a chaplain with Kitchener’s famous (or infamous) expedition to the Sudan (he kept a diary). And now on the orders of the Society’s General Council he was instructed seek out Southern dioceses prepared to give work among Blacks to SMA missionaries unable to return to West Africa.

He set about this work with energy and enthusiasm and he needed both in large measure such were the difficulties confronting him. However he was not alone. He had the strong backing of Propaganda Fide’s Cardinal Gotti,  and of Cardinal Gibbons (leader  of the American Church), and also the saintly, resourceful and influential Katherine Drexel. Eventually he was admitted to the diocese of Savannah-Georgia by Bishop Benjamin Keiley. That diocese had been targeted by Rome as especially neglectful of its African Americans Catholics. And so, strengthened by the arrival of other SMA missionaries  to assist him, during the next seven years (1907-1914)  he founded six African American parishes in the diocese (Savannah, Augusta, Atlanta). He did this in the face of widespread indifference and even opposition from within white Catholic lay and clerical ranks, and in defiance of some vicious attempts at intimidation from elements of the wider community (Ku Klux Klan).

Later the SMA was to establish four additional parishes, in the dioceses of Savannah, Belville, Los Angeles and Tucson:
– In the diocese of SavannahAtlanta: St. Benedict’s, St. Mary’s, St. Anthony’s, St. Peter Claver’s, Our Lady of Lourdes, and the Immaculate Conception.
– In the diocese of Belville: St. Augustines, and St. Columba’s.
– In the archdiocese of Los Angeles: St. Odilia’s.
– In the diocese of Tucson: St. Martin de Porres.

But establishing parishes was only part of Fr. Lissner’s contribution. He was responsible for founding a seminary for African Americans (1921) and for founding the wonderful congregation of African-American Sisters, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary (1916). The Handmaids were founded when it seemed likely the State Legislature would pass a law prohibiting White nuns from teaching African American children. In both these ventures he received encouragement and practical support from the great Katherine Drexel. But  he encountered much opposition and in the end many of his hopes had to be abandoned. Eventually, after six years,  the Handmaids, who were led by a remarkable and saintly woman, Elizabeth Williams, were compelled (largely by prejudice) to leave Savannah for the East, for New York, where they subsequently thrived and continue to thrive.

What of the seminary? The seminary in which Fr Lissner hoped to form African American Priests, was unable to open its doors in the South (again through prejudice), and instead had to be located in the East, here in Tenafly. It was  a particularly brave venture, but fell victim to lack of support and commitment from many quarters, and closed in 1926. The failure of the Seminary project was not a surprise, given the abortive attempted by others such as the Josephites, to develop an indigenous African American clergy. But its closure in 1926 caused Fr Lissner real heartbreak, as did the fact that the Sisterhood he founded was compelled to move from the South.

The heartbreak over the seminary closure touched him deeply and he wrote about it much later. Shortly after the seminary had opened in two African Americans had applied and were accepted.  One was a Joseph A. John and the other a  William E. Floyd, both of whom already had spent a number of years studying philosophy and theology in Baltimore but had failed to find a bishop willing to ordain them.

They were to be the only two black candidates to come to the seminary. After it closed in 1926 Fr Lissner did his best to get them to ordination. Eventually Fr. Joseph John was ordained by Bishop Collins, S.J., in New York, with the consent of the Cardinal there (but on the understanding he would work in the South). In the event no Southern diocese would accept him. Eventually he took up work in the diocese of PortofSpain (Trinidad). Likewise William Floyd, also ordained, could find no work in America and served in the Archdiocese of PortofSpain. Both were incardinated into that archdiocese and had distinguished ministries there.  Above all else, Lissner’ attributed the failure of the seminary to the refusal of the Southern Bishops to accept African-American priests into their dioceses.   Many years later he wrote the following:

‘At the time I had the first Colored priest, Rev. Joseph A. John, the Bishop of Savannah …  misunderstood the great importance to make a start with Colored priests working for Colored people … I could produce scores of letters too from other U.S. bishops refusing to accept his services and that of the other African-American priest …  in any section of their dioceses… If the bishops had then been willing to accept Colored priests for Colored work in their dioceses I am sure that we would have a good many by this time and the old prejudice would have been broken;  whereas, after long years of inactivity, the work must be started again with a loss of many opportunities.´

Fr Lissner had other battles to fight, and none greater than one with his own Society. Early on in his leadership he realized that his work would be greatly facilitated if his little group of missionaries was organized as a full Province of the Society – with the status and freedom of action that would bring.  As a Provincial Superior Lissner would have the status of a senior Churchman, and would have to be listened to by the American Church and by the leadership of his own Society. It would be easier to raise funds, to recruit, in a word to fulfill the mission given him.

However there was a problem. The SMA’s American branch, especially in its early years, was composed entirely of missionaries from the Society’s Alsace Province. But the Alsace Province seemed always to be in financial difficulties and from the beginning it placed a tax on Fr Lissner’s American branch for each member sent. The last thing the Alsace Province wanted was an independent American Province. If that was created it would lose a vital source of income.

Since the 1920’s the Irish Province also began to send missionaries to America and they were soon integrated into Lissner’s organization. The Irish Province saw great opportunities in the USA for fund-raising within the Irish-American community,  and wanted to retain a measure of control over its members there. This they could do as long as there was no independent American Province.

What of the Society’s General Leadership in France (later in Rome)? It was weak on the issue – afraid to ruffle the feathers of the Alsatian and Irish Provinces – and so nothing was done for very many years. Lissner tried everything – went to Rome, to Society Assemblies – but without success. Eventually it took a tough Superior General, to knock heads together and establish the Province, which was done in 1941. There was a cost to this dilatoriness. The Introduction to the book contains the following sentence which sums up what I am saying: ‘The lengthy delays were to injure the prospects of making the type of contribution to the African American apostolate and to missions in Africa which Lissner had envisaged’.

At the same time the contribution to both Africa and America was considerable. The contribution of the American Province to the Liberian Mission has been and continues to be central to the growth of the Church in that country. It has been (and continues to be) a contribution made with courage, bravery, resilience and self-sacrifice. I am presently working on a history of the Catholic Church during the Liberian Civil War – and I never cease to be amazed at the manner in which my American confreres,  members and  associates – remained steadfast with their people through those dark years.

As for the contribution to the African American Apostolate, the work in the ten mission parishes speaks for itself. In addition Fr Lissner’s powerful advocacy for African Americans, centered on his firm conviction that an African-American clergy (and indeed African-American sisterhoods) was the key to the future, placed him up there with other great champions of the African-American cause, such as Katherine Drexel, and may I say, Elizabeth Williams, the co-Founder of the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.

What do I hope for with this book?

It would be my wish that this book may create a greater awareness of the American SMA’s contribution to the African American Apostolate. For this to happen it must be read, especially by the younger generations. In particular I hope it will get into libraries, where students of the US’s turbulent racial history, may see and acknowledge the contribution of Fr Lissner and his colleagues. 

Furthermore, I hope it may inspire scholars and writers to tell the untold elements of the SMA’s story. By ‘untold’, I mean that the history of each of the ten parishes needs to be told: to be properly researched and written. This book is a commission to do just this. Students doing dissertations, writers seeking projects, might well set about researching, and bringing under the spotlight the history of each of those parishes – and this is a matter of some urgency given that each year vital witnesses in these parishes go to their eternal reward.

It is the responsibility of the American Catholic Church to ensure that its history is written, fairly and without fear, and I hope that it will discharge this responsibility in relation to the work of SMA missionaries among African Americans

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