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Weekly Mass returning to Texas Southern University after three-year hiatus

Regular Sunday Masses will return to Houston's second-largest HBCU this month at the school's longstanding Newman Center, which has faced various challenges in recent years.

Fr Rodney Armstrong, SSJ distributes ashes during Mass earlier this year at Texas Southern University in Houston. (James Ramos/Texas Catholic Herald)

HOUSTON — Weekly Sunday Masses will return to the Texas Southern University Newman Center on September 18, ending a roughly three-year drought first brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was shared this week by Doris Barrow III, who was recently promoted to full-time status as TSU’s Catholic campus minister after several years on the job.

Mass (Hallelujah) will return to the Newman Center on Sunday, September 18th at 5 pm followed by dinner. Join us!

Posted by TSU Newman Center on Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Mass will be celebrated at 5pm CT, and liturgies will be followed by dinner each week—a longstanding part of the center’s outreach, which dates back to its founding in the 1960s.

In years past, the facility had hosted weekly Masses under the leadership of a variety of priests, including the Josephites, who serve African Americans specifically and originally helped start the ministry at TSU.

Priest shortages heavily affected TSU’s Newman outreach more recently, however, as did the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In lieu of weekly Masses on campus, virtual events began for the students in 2020, including a Rosary against racism hosted weekly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd (himself a Houstonian).

Barrow says this fall will kick off a five-year plan for the ministry, including the return of regular liturgies, increased outreach to Catholic students and faculty, and a development campaign for the Newman Center’s footprint. Within the latter project are upgrades to the property’s meeting areas and a community garden planned for a backyard green space.

The developments are a welcome sign for Catholic presence at an HBCU, where Catholics are often overlooked by school administrators and sometimes by the Church’s as well.

The TSU Newman Center, part of a national network of campus ministries at non-Catholic colleges and universities, is one of the few at a historically Black school, joining those at the Atlanta University Consortium, Southern University in Baton Rouge, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, and Howard University in Washington, DC.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently highlighted a few by way of an article last year in their Catholic News Service, where Howard’s Fr Robert Boxie III noted some of the challenges.

“Being Black and Catholic, you’re sort of a double minority,” he said.

“Your coming in as Catholic is very different. People see that as odd: ‘How are you Catholic? How does that happen?’ There are a lot of students who struggle.”

TSU is also one of the HBCU Newman Centers that operate out of their own facility. (Howard’s is scheduled to move into a newly acquired facility sometime next year.) Located in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, Barrow’s post is hard to miss with its larger-than-life outdoor mural of Black Catholic art focused on the Church’s social teaching. It was completed in 2019 and features a life-sized depiction of St Peter Claver.

The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, the historic fraternal order founded under Claver's patronage to serve African-American Catholics, happen to be another one of Barrow’s upcoming projects. The order currently has only one collegiate unit, at Xavier University of Louisiana—the nation’s Catholic HBCU—but that could soon change. TSU is now one of several schools where the order is expected to establish a new unit.

On the hierarchy’s end, the USCCB is newly partnering with the OSV Institute this academic year to discern and address Catholic campus ministry concerns at HBCUs, with the aim of “foster[ing] growth in engagement and disciple multiplication.”

That initiative is expected to gain steam over the next six months, and—for ministries like Barrow’s in Houston—not a moment too soon.

“[He] helps lead a unique ministry within the Catholic Church: offering spiritual care, working with nearby clergy, and ensuring the academic success of Catholics attending the school, especially African Americans and the university’s growing Latino population,” wrote James Ramos in the Texas Catholic Herald in 2020.

“They look forward to the day when they can fill the Newman Center with students like they used to.”

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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