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St. Augustine's, first all-Black Catholic seminary in U.S., to celebrate centennial

The Mississippi school educated many of the nation's first Black Catholic priests, including several who would go on to become bishops.

St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (Coastal Mississippi)

St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, will celebrate 100 years later this month, marking its status as the first Catholic seminary in the United States dedicated to training African Americans.

The weekend ceremony will be held October 28-29 at the historic Gulf Coast campus. The school, closed for studies since the 1980s and now a retreat center, was opened by the Society of the Divine Word on September 16, 1923.

“It is hugely historic,” Fr Mike Somers, provincial emeritus of the SVD Southern Province, told Shoofly Magazine earlier this year.

“Let it be a city celebration. Let it be a state celebration. Let us invite anybody we can and everybody who should be here.” 

The festivities will include a Mass on Saturday, October 28, at 9am CT, followed by a historical exhibit and tours in the seminary chapel, where some of the nation’s first Black Catholic priests were ordained in 1934.

Food and entertainment will be provided throughout the day on the seminary grounds, and a raffle drawing will take place for two winners of $5,000.

Originally founded as Sacred Heart College in 1920 under Fr Matthew Christman, SVD, the seminary was first located in Greenville, Mississippi. (A centennial Mass was celebrated there earlier this year.) With the support of the Vatican, it was intended to educate Black men for the priesthood in an era when virtually all other U.S. Catholic seminaries admitted only Whites.

Racist opposition from local residents, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, contributed to the school’s relocation to a more urban (and Catholic) climate. Bay St. Louis in 1923 fit the bill, and with the move came the new patronage of Augustine of Hippo, the legendary African Doctor of the Church.

A recent issue of In a Word, the SVD Southern Province’s magazine—headquartered at St. Augustine’s—includes reproductions of documents marking the seminary’s opening in its new city, including the official acclamation from Pope Pius XI in Rome.

The magazine also commemorates the 50th ordination anniversary of Bishop Emeritus Curtis Guillory, SVD of Beaumont, one of several Black St. Augustine alumni who became prelates in the Church. These include Divine Word members Joseph O. Bowers in 1955 and Harold R. Perry in 1966—the first openly African-American Catholic bishop in history.

Another from that crop, Bishop Emeritus J. Terry Steib, SVD of Memphis, will celebrate a centennial Mass outdoors at the seminary on Sunday, October 29, at 10am. SVD Superior General Paulus Budi Kleden will deliver the homily. The liturgy will be preceded by a second line jazz parade from St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, the local Black parish.

After several decades serving as an all-Black institution, St. Augustine integrated during the Civil Rights Movement, as more seminaries in the United States began to accept Black men into formation. The major seminary closed for studies in 1967, with a high school seminary lasting 15 more years.

The property, which now hosts retreats and other events for various Catholic groups year-round, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010 as part of the Old Bay St. Louis Historic District.

This month’s event, an auspicious moment as tensions rise over the teaching of authentic Black history in several states (including Mississippi), is expected to draw a strong crowd to the city and has been celebrated by local officials.

“Through this event, we will welcome thousands of visitors to our area and give our city international recognition as a safe haven for educating African-American men for the priesthood,” said Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. 

“We literally changed lives and the history of the Catholic Church.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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