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'I do not feel welcome at all': One Black Catholic student's experience in a Colorado Springs Catholic high school

A high schooler in Colorado's second-largest city is facing an uphill battle against racism, but has recently entered the national Black Catholic consciousness as a young voice for truth.

Ashley Paul, 16, a junior at St. Mary's High School in Colorado Springs.

In the late 1870s, Colorado Springs became known as a destination for African Americans escaping segregation, after Gen. William Jackson Palmer decreed that segregation would have no place in the area’s schools.

Today, more than 140 years later, one Black family in the city is experiencing a shocking reversal of course, as their daughter faces racism at St. Mary’s High—the only Catholic high school in the city.

Ashley Paul, 16, is an incoming junior there, the daughter of a Haitian immigrant, Perpetua Zephirin, who arrived in Colorado in 1999. They attend Divine Redeemer Catholic Church, where they believe they are the only Black family. Paul is likewise one of the few Black students at St. Mary’s, which lists no Black faculty or staff on its website other than the facilities manager.

During her freshman year at the school, Paul says she was called a racial slur at school by a classmate.

“There was a boy that called me the N-word,” she told BCM last month.

She says the tepid response from school officials led to the alleged perpetrator bragging about the lack of discipline he received in the matter.

In another, more recent incident, occurring after the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, a classmate set the N-word as their username in an online game during a virtual class.

“I just left the meeting, which was very important, but I could not stay,” said Paul, who sent an email in response to school officials.

After a delay, her then-principal, Mike Biondini—who was also her school counselor—addressed the class on the incident, attempting to pin the issue at least partly on the fact that students had “been through a lot because of COVID”, according to Paul.

“That kind of made no sense,” she said.

Afterward, the vice-principal Brigid Jacques inflamed the issue further, albeit with good intentions, by writing the N-word on a whiteboard and asking students if they wanted to say it.

“Everybody in my class was speechless, but they were all looking at me,” Paul recalled, noting that she was not given advance notice of Jacques’ plan.

“I was in shock.”

As is often the case in matters of poorly addressed abuse, Paul was left with little recourse and even less motivation.

“After that, I didn't really go to my administration about issues that had to do with race,” she said.

Paul says she also experienced a teacher comparing abortion to slavery, and has recently faced opposition to the diversity and inclusion club at St Mary’s she helped to found—which the administration is seeking to forcibly merge with the school’s pro-life club to form a “Human Dignity Club”.

“I don't think the club is pro-life. I think it’s pro-birth,” she said, noting that she has also has had negative incidents with “full-out racists” from that club in particular.

“They don't do any work to show that anyone else's lives matter. They say one thing and do another.”

Paul noted that these more explicit incidents are something of a microcosm of the larger climate at the school, which she has found to be less than inviting. (For context, Colorado Springs is only ~7% Black and the diocese was at less than 3% in 2016. The share at St Mary’s is even less.)

“I do not feel welcome at all,” she said.

“I feel like a second-class citizen at my school.”

After the alleged verbal abuse incident, wherein Paul says she received support mainly from teachers rather than the administration, she created a presentation about her experience and about concrete steps that could be taken to address the issue.

St Mary’s leadership did not necessarily take well to the finished product.

“Every time they see what she wrote, they keep asking her to water it down,” said Zephirin, Ashley’s mother.

“I'm like, ‘Is she writing about her experience? Or does she have to keep watering it down until you guys look good and her voice is not heard?’”

Eventually, Paul sent her presentation to the higher-ups in place at the time, including Bishop Michael Sheridan and the superintendent of the diocese’s Catholic schools, Holly Goodwin.

Sheridan failed to respond at all, but Paul did secure a meeting with Goodwin, in the hopes of an overarching solution.

“If this is rude, I'm sorry, but that was a waste of my time,” Paul said.

“Nothing was done.”

She says Goodwin mentioned implementing diversity training, as many institutions have committed to—sometimes disingenuously—in the face of systemic racism, but the offer in this case apparently came to nothing, according to Paul.

Additionally, Goodwin allegedly attempted to compare her own experiences to Paul’s, citing her service as a White administrator in a majority-Black school in the past.

Dr. Valerie Lewis-Mosley, a nationally-known scholar and expert in youth ministry and women’s empowerment, says such comments are “hurtful” and “insulting”, echoing Paul’s lament that they minimized her experience.

Lewis-Mosley became acquainted with the Paul family earlier this year, during the Knights of Peter Claver & Ladies Auxiliary’s virtual town hall on racism, held in April.

Lewis-Mosley spoke at the event, and during the Q&A fielded a question from Paul on Eurocentric iconography, a topic about which she wrote a research paper for school—surprising classmates and even teachers who had apparently never thought about the topic before.

“There were hundreds of people on that webinar. I was not monitoring the chat. But I happened to go into the chat and look at [her] question,” Lewis-Mosley said.

“I was jumping up and down in my seat… I wanted people to see what this young woman had to say.”

Paul hadn’t been aware of national Black Catholic organizations like the Clavers before her negative experiences at St Mary’s, but in a way, they led her straight to them.

Her presentation in response to the incidents sparked a conversation with her theology teacher—one of her supporters at the school, along with her French teacher. The former suggested Paul look up the National Black Catholic Congress, and as it turned out, the organization was promoting the Clavers’ webinar on their website.

(Ironically enough, a minor controversy would erupt on social media a month after the webinar, concerning the Congress’ use of a White-skinned icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary in their email promoting devotions to her during the month of May.)

While Paul had to discover this larger national network in a roundabout way, her diocese does in fact have an African-American ministry: the Colorado Springs Council for Black Catholics.

Aisha Young, a member of the council, spoke with BCM this week.

“The council was actually founded in 1990,” she said.

“When they started, it was mostly to help provide scholarships for Black students in the Catholic schools here.”

She noted that there are no Black parishes in the diocese—the closest ones being 70 miles away in Denver—and that the possibility of facing racism in the area is “extreme”.

While the council is not directly involved in the area’s Catholic schools other than with its scholarship efforts, Young noted that during Catholic Schools Week, they gift the schools’ libraries culturally relevant books such as “Stamped With the Image of God” (edited by Sr Jamie Phelps, OP and the late Fr Cyprian Davis, OSB).

The council also donated a plaque of a Black saint to St Mary’s last year.

Their other activities include the St Martin de Porres Dinner, held annually near his feast day (November 3rd) at a different parish each year, and they also collaborate with Black Catholics in Denver whenever possible (including a retreat each year in late April).

Even so, Young notes that the advanced age of the average Black Catholic in Colorado Springs—save for various transient military members—can be a deterrent for more in-depth involvement with local Catholic schools, and with Black Catholic youths in the area such as Paul (whose family was unaware of the council).

Concerning Goodwin and Bishop Sheridan, Young’s comments were more suggestive of malice than incidental neglect. In neither case did she find them to be of much help for Black Catholic youths, either.

Concerning the bishop, under whom Young worked for 4 years in her position with the council, she says he expressed an aversion to children taking any sort of active role in (or even being heard) during Mass.

“People who have children did not really go to Mass if he was to celebrate,” she said.

“I just think he was a generally unfriendly person, but I’m not going to go so far as to say he’s racist.”

In any case, Goodwin and Sheridan both retired this year, so Young is hopeful for the future.

“There's an opportunity for, you know, some advancement,” she said, speaking highly of the incoming bishop James Golka for his apparent commitment to inculturation. The new superintendent is Sheila Whalen.

“In the positions of people who can do anything about [issues of racism], there are two brand new people, so I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Paul will also be dealing with a third new face, as St. Mary’s has a new principal this year, Robyn Cross (one of the officials behind the diversity club ordeal).

Meanwhile, at her theology teacher’s request, Paul has submitted a list of racist incidents she’s experienced to St. Mary’s board of directors.

“I don’t know what that’s been doing,” she said, adding that both Cross and Jacques have been in contact with “Black and brown” alumni in view of them having a meeting with Paul herself.

She remains unconvinced.

“[The administrators] do a lot of talking,” she said, “but there’s no action.”

She is nevertheless encouraged by her discovery of Black Catholics on the national scene who may be able to help her and others address racism with increasing efficiency, rather than in a silo with a heavy burden on victims.

“It's really nice to know that there are people out there, and when I went to that webinar, it was mind-blowing,” she said, contrasting that experience with her ongoing struggles in Colorado.

“Everybody here is asking me to create the solutions for everything. I don't have the answers.”

Answers or not, she has been contacted by the Clavers’ national office about being a panelist on a webinar later this year.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, in priesthood formation with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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