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Historic Black parishes in Chicago on the chopping block

Several Chicago Black parishes will soon merge or close, with the parochial legacy of legendary Black priests falling victim to the bottom line.

After a period of lay input and deliberation, the Chicago archdiocese's “Renew My Church” parish reorganization plans are now final—and several historic Black parishes will soon be no more.

Cardinal Cupich made the announcements in a series of statements issued earlier this week.

St Dorothy parish—one-time home to Fr Rollins Lambert, the first Black priest ordained in Chicago—will be closed come July 1, along with St Clotilde. They will be merged into St Columbanus.

Four other Black parishes. St Ambrose, St Anselm, Corpus Christi, and St Elizabeth, will be merged into Holy Angels, the longtime home of Fr George Clements.

An older version of the archdiocese’s announcement notes that St Elizabeth, the oldest Black parish in Chicago, is slated to become the “Venerable Augustus Tolton Heritage Center”—and later a shrine if Tolton should be beatified. His parish, St Monica, was merged into St Elizabeth in 1924.

The Tolton Spirituality Center, a separate project meant to help parishes learn how to thrive under difficult circumstances, counts among its inaugural members St Anselm, but also St Thomas the Apostle, a parish that is not predominantly Black. It is also included in the grouping above but will retain its building and school.

Fr Clements initially sought the pastorship at St Dorothy in the late 60s, when (and because) Black pastors were still few and far between nationwide. Despite being the assistant pastor already, he was passed over by Cardinal John Cody for Lambert.

Protests and town halls ensued (involving Clements’ friends among the Protestants and Black Panthers), with Lambert himself eventually calling Cody “unconsciously racist”.

This led to a series of protest-liturgies known as “Black Unity Mass”, which foreshadowed the modern practice of Gospel Mass. The most notable one occurred in January 1969 at St Dorothy, involving an 80-voice gospel choir provided by Rev. Jesse Jackson and security provided by the Panthers.

Clements would soon be named pastor of Holy Angels, after which he added a shrine to the recently martyred Martin Luther King, Jr.

Naturally, Cardinal Cody did not approve.

Clements retorted that the cardinal could try to come remove the shrine himself, but that he couldn’t protect the cardinal from anyone—including Panthers—that might object. (The statue stayed.)

Not unlike the Civil Rights legacy then enshrined physically at Holy Angels, the parish itself now stands as one of few lasting monuments to Black Power Catholicism in Chicago.

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