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First African-American parish here founded 100 years ago

By LINDA BEHRENS
Contributing Writer

Oct. 2, 2021, marked the 100th anniversary of the first Mass at St. Augustine Colored Mission in East St. Louis.

This first African-American parish in southern Illinois was located at 14th and Broadway Ave. The school opened in 1922.

Part of the heritage of the St. Augustine Mission is the involvement of a saint. Saint Katharine Drexel was an American heiress, philanthropist, religious sister and educator. She was the second person born in what is now the United States to be canonized as a saint and the first one born a U.S. citizen.

Saint Katharine founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to minister primarily to Native Americans and African-Americans in the United States. She provided financial support and sent the first two Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve at the St. Augustine Mission school.

The Mission was closed in 1960 when segregation came to an end and the buildings were located in an area needed for the construction of Interstate 64.

In 2006, four parishes merged – St. Joseph, St. Patrick, St. Philip and Regis – to form St. Augustine of Hippo, named in honor of the original St. Augustine Colored Mission and Saint Augustine, a theologian and philosopher who lived from 354 to 430 and was the bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia, Roman North Africa.

Although no official celebrations are planned for this centennial anniversary, the fact that this history was made 100 years ago in East St. Louis deserves recognition, says Retired Judge Milton Wharton.

Judge Wharton has had a personal interest in the history of St. Augustine Colored Mission. He has compiled a brief accounting of that history, although he feels others may have more information. Excerpts from that compilation are shared here.

The Mission’s history
In 1920, the provincial of the Irish Province of the Society of African Missions (SMA) decided to evangelize and establish missions among African-Americans. Expecting violent opposition in a racially volatile America, the SMAs selected Father Peter Harrington to spearhead the effort.

Father Peter Harrington was born at Kilkilleen, County Cork, Ireland in the diocese of Ross, on Feb. 23, 1888. He was ordained in 1912 and sent to Liberia, Africa. Described as having a “strong and fiery personality,” he often clashed with superiors.

Father Harrington volunteered as a chaplain to Allied Forces in WWI and served with distinction in Greece, Turkey, North Africa and Egypt.

Father Harrington came to America and, after, considering possible sites on the eastern seaboard, settled on East St. Louis. This was just a few short years after the deadly 1917 East St. Louis racial killings.

There were only about one dozen practicing black Catholics in East St. Louis when he arrived. They were allowed to attend white Catholic churches, but seats were reserved for them in the rear.

Most East St. Louis black Catholics worshiped at St. Elizabeth’s in St. Louis. St. Elizabeth’s was established in 1873 as the only Catholic Church open to African-Americans in St. Louis. White Catholics could attend St. Elizabeth’s, but they were prohibited from receiving Sacraments.

St. Elizabeth’s remained segregated until 1947 when Cardinal Joseph Ritter and the Archdiocese of St. Louis ended segregation in Catholic parishes by ordering all Catholics, regardless of race, to attend the Catholic church and school closest to their homes.

Father Harrington met with Bishop Henry Althoff of the Diocese of Belleville concerning the establishment of a black mission in East St. Louis. Bishop Althoff appointed a committee of prominent priests who were favorable to the effort.

Some questioned whether this support was a result of the priests wishing to avoid integrating their churches and schools. However, other white parishes did financially support St. Augustine.

On May 28, 1921, Father Harrington purchased a beer distribution center building from the Obert Brewing Company at 14th and Broadway Ave. (the current location of Macedonia Baptist Church) for $18,000.

Mother (now Saint) Katharine Drexel was dedicated to improving the lives of black and indigenous Americans. She provided moral and financial support and is believed to have visited the parish on several occasions.

On the first Sunday in October 1921, the first Mass at St. Augustine’s was celebrated.

St. Augustine was unique. Most black Catholic parishes were former Irish or German parishes, which became black as a result of the loss of the white population. St. Augustine, however, began as an African-American parish.

Mother Katharine was unable to open a convent in East St. Louis, but in 1922, she offered to send two sisters to teach at the newly established school.

The first two Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS), Sister M. Richard and Sister M. Sabina, initiated this work from St. Elizabeth Convent, St. Louis. Their ministry included settlement work and a kindergarten.

“Early each morning they [SBS] went over to East St. Louis in the streetcar, spending the forenoon in visitations; the afternoon in kindergarten, sewing classes for women and other activities for the smaller children. This commuting continued, with great danger and many risks were taken in this travel.” – from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament St. Louis Convent Annals.

In 1924, Father Harrington noted that the new school had 135 students and in April of 1928, the first graduation was held.

However, it was a proverbial “dead end street” because the Catholic high school was segregated. Christmas parties and other activities were held to keep the graduates together who could not go to a Catholic high school.
The Diocese of Belleville paid tuition for some black students to attend high school in St. Louis.

In 1937, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Ill., replaced the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

In 1946, Father Harrington was elected provincial and replaced by Father Jim Stanley. In 1949, Father Taylor, who is buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Belleville, took over.

In 1949, the school moved into the previously closed St. Mary’s School at 4th and Brady Avenue.

To provide a Catholic high school experience to African-American students denied entry in the Central Catholic High School, the sisters established St. Mary’s Catholic High School.

The Dominican Sisters and the Society of African Missions served at St. Mary’s Church and School at this location until the buildings were demolished by the federal government to make way for Interstate 64.