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Black Catholic school in Mississippi closes doors after sex abuse scandal

A historic Black Catholic school in Mississippi is no more, just one month after the conclusion of a sex abuse trial for a former teacher and friar.

(Empower Mississippi)

GREENWOOD, Miss. — On the heels of a sex abuse scandal, a historic Black Catholic elementary school in the Deep South abruptly announced its closure earlier this month, ending more than 70 years of Franciscan education in the small Mississippi city of Greenwood.

St Francis of Assisi Catholic School, run by the Wisconsin-based Friars of the Assumption, cited unrelated financial woes as the cause, despite the conviction of a former friar and St Francis teacher last month after years of litigation.

The decision to close the school went into effect on Friday, May 20th.

“We friars are saddened and disappointed to close down an institution that has been vital to the education and faith development of thousands of students in our Greenwood community,” said Fr James Gannon, OFM, head of the order’s local province, in a statement.

“Our assessment to close the school was a painfully difficult, yet necessary decision.”

St Francis was founded in 1951 by the friars’ Blessed Virgin Mary Province, as an outreach to the poor, providing an alternative for Black students in an era of Jim Crow segregation and underserved Black public schools. The city was known at one point as the “cotton capital of the world”.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the school in March 1968 as part of the Greenwood Movement boycott, and the school’s affiliated church and community center were targets of the Ku Klux Klan and other local White Supremacists.

Today, well over a quarter of the Greenwood population lives below the poverty line, with the number reaching nearly 40% in recent years, and the county was recently noted as having one of the worst public school systems in the country.

The friars noted that financial issues began to emerge at St Francis in recent years, with a budget deficit of nearly $100,000 for the recently concluded academic session, after operating on a year-to-year basis since at least 2018.

Enrollment fell under 100 in 2017 for the first time in 50 years, and only 41 were registered for 2022-23.

“It’s human nature to lay blame, but no one is at fault,” Gannon said.

“This decision is the result of conditions beyond everyone’s control.”

News broke in 2019 that the Assumption Friars had paid two sex abuse victims paltry settlements of roughly $15,000 that same year. Both victims, cousins La Jarvis and Joshua Love, are African American and were abused by Brs Paul A. West and Donald Lucas while students at St Francis.

Members of Greenwood’s disproportionately poor Black community, La Jarvis and Joshua say they were also not afforded the benefit of a lawyer during their negotiations—and were made to sign non-disclosure agreements.

The friars have maintained that the similarly disproportionate settlement amounts were unrelated to the race of the victims, despite White abuse victims in the region being paid an average of $250,000.

Joshua’s younger brother Raphael, currently incarcerated in Tennessee for a homicide committed as a juvenile, has also alleged abused by West and filed a federal suit against the friars last summer for racial discrimination. His attorney, Phillip Aaron, died in November and the case does not appear to have had further updates.

Lucas died in 1999, but West returned from Wisconsin to Mississippi in 2020 to face charges and was convicted of sexual battery and gratification of lust last month. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison, and La Jarvis Love was present for the verdict.

St Francis School, at the center of the controversy, now joins the growing number of predominantly (or significantly) Black Catholic schools closed in the past year-plus across the country.

Among them are Bishop Maginn High School in Albany, New York; St Rita Catholic School in New Orleans; McDevitt High in Wyncote, Pennsylvania; Christ Our Savior in South Holland, Illinois; Trinity Catholic High in St Louis; St Thomas the Apostle in West Hempstead, New York; St Christopher in Baldwin, New York; St Pius X and Our Lady of Victory in Baltimore.

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

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