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'An epoch-making time': Centennial Mass for first Black Catholic seminary draws thousands to Bay St. Louis

A celebratory weekend at St. Augustine Seminary culminated in a once-in-a-lifetime liturgy attended by beaucoup bishops and Black Catholics alike.

The Ladies Auxiliary of Peter Claver watches on as Gulf Coast bishops and members of the Society of the Divine Word celebrate a centennial Mass on Sunday, October 29, at St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (Nate Tinner-Williams)

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — It hasn’t hosted students in roughly 50 years, but St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis is likely the most important training ground in the history of Black Catholicism, having raised scores of men to holy orders—the vast majority of them African American.

More than a thousand supporters packed the campus grounds on Sunday for the centennial Mass celebrating the school, originally spearheaded in 1920 by the Society of the Divine Word. Among them were two episcopal alumni, Bishops Emeritus Terry Steib, SVD of Memphis and Curtis Guillory, SVD of Beaumont.

“We celebrate and we praise God for this epoch-making time,” said Steib, who celebrated the Mass and gave a reflection before the Liturgy of the Word.

“We give thanks for [a building] where high school seminarians lived and studied, where African-American students were trained and formed as they discerned a call to be priests and Divine Word Missionaries despite the odds.”

Steib, ordained in 1967 during a boom in Black Catholic vocations in the United States, spoke of his alma mater’s centennial as a “red-letter day,” echoing the words of the seminary’s founders in 1923, when they moved the school from Greenville, Mississippi, following growth in the student population and in terroristic threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

On that day one hundred years ago, a parade of Divine Word priests, Black Catholics, and allies from around the country marched through Bay St. Louis, celebrating what was then a novelty. Previous attempts to ordain African Americans for the Catholic priesthood had proved abortive, with groups such as the Josephites having neither the internal fortitude nor the assent from the U.S. bishops to accept such men as full participants in seminary, at the altar, or in public Catholic life. 

The bishops had refused to allow Black men into their own seminaries, making it nigh impossible for a Black American to be ordained unless he found favor with an episcopal sponsor to study overseas. (Some, like Venerable Augustus Tolton, were successful in this route.)

Another group of religious, the Society of African Missions, openly desired to train Black men in a domestic seminary, but faced institutional hurdles related to funding, provincial rivalry, and the familiar episcopal resistance. The SMA community, which did eventually open the second Catholic seminary for African Americans, helped sponsor this weekend’s celebration at St. Augustine’s, paying tribute to the one that started it all.

On the Gulf Coast, the SVDs found not only a home for their school, but also a prelate willing to employ their Black graduates, Bishop Jules Jeanmard of Lafayette. He was one of several figures emblazoned on historical material this weekend on campus.

His current successor, Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel, was part of a who’s who of the Southern episcopacy present on the altar for Sunday’s liturgy. The laity on the ground were no less noteworthy, including the Supreme Knight and Supreme Lady of the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, several such emeriti, and the Sisters of the Holy Family’s superior general with several members of the congregation.

Seated prominently were other KPC members, who headlined a commemorative pre-Mass jazz parade to the seminary from the local Black parish, St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church—recreating the auspicious second-line scene from 1923.

Reflecting the many changes wrought in the Catholic world since the seminary first broke ground, the St. Rose choir sang a Gospel Mass for the history books, brought by loudspeaker to the swollen crowd in sweltering Mississippi heat.

A cadre of SVD provincials also traveled for the occasion, as did the global superior, Fr Paulus Budi Kleden, from his post at the generalate in Rome.

“Our religious congregation…  stands as a living testament to cultural and national diversity. We live and work side by side, as confreres, as brothers, hailing from various cultural, ethnic, and national backgrounds,” Kleden said during his homily.

“Hence, it would be a lamentable loss for us for the Church and the world if the richness of members from specific cultural backgrounds were to diminish.”

As it is, the representation of African Americans in the Catholic priesthood and in religious brotherhood—which St. Augustine’s also provided—have indeed diminished, with vocations numbers remaining low in most all dioceses and religious communities. The total number of U.S.-born Black Catholic seminarians, while not tracked officially, is estimated at less than three dozen in the 2023-24 academic year.

The SVDs, however, remain steady, with several such men currently in formation and a number of others recently ordained. Their veteran priests include African-American prelates, pastors, organizers, and academics, and their deceased men constitute many of the “firsts” in Black Catholic history—from U.S. seminary graduates to military chaplaincy to the episcopacy itself.

Though now “just” a retreat center, St. Augustine Seminary remains a beacon of light on the Mississippi coast, with its historic chapel and Agony Grotto hosting tourists and church(wo)men alike throughout the year. Its cemetery, too, pays concrete homage to a hundred years of local history, without which the U.S. Catholic story would be incomplete.

“The centennial celebration of St. Augustine Seminary is not just a commemoration,” Fr Kleden told the people as he preached.

“It is an inspiration, igniting our creativity to find innovative ways to foster vocations dedicated to the mission of God and entrusted to the Church.”

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

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