New Black Catholic church with ‘big heart’ brings ‘a sign of hope’ in Kentucky

4 mins read
New Black Catholic Church
St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, the oldest Black Catholic parish in central Kentucky, is getting a new church and testifies to the importance that the Black Catholic spiritual and liturgical tradition offers all Catholics and brings to the church's missionary mandate. The church is seen in an undated photo under construction in Lexington. (OSV News photo/Nita Clarke)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (OSV News) — Nearly 2,000 years have passed since Jesus Christ told St. Peter the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church — but as the congregation of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Lexington knows too well, the effects of time, between age and weather, often tell a different story with respect to the buildings.

But on Sunday, March 19, the faithful in this diverse congregation are getting a new church for this oldest Black Catholic parish in central Kentucky — 75 years after the original building was dedicated Feb. 13,1948. Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, a Conventual Franciscan, will dedicate the new church.

“We are one of the oldest Catholic churches in the downtown area, and the oldest Black Catholic church in Central Kentucky,” Deacon James Weathers, the parish’s director of pastoral life, told OSV News.

St. Peter Claver is one of a number of Black Catholic churches that have undergone a transformation in recent years — from new buildings to restoration efforts — and testify to the importance that the Black Catholic spiritual and liturgical tradition offers all Catholics and brings to the Church’s missionary mandate.

St. Peter Claver’s congregation is majority African American, but also includes Catholics of other ethnic heritages as well: European, Asian, Filipino, Hispanic, Korean, including most recently, Congolese immigrants.

St. Peter Claver was established through a joint agreement in 1907 between the Josephites and the Covington Diocese (part of which became the Diocese of Lexington in 1988). St. Katharine Drexel gave $8,000 to help establish a school for both Catholic and non-Catholic African American children, and during its first five years of life, the school enrolled 200 children — most of whom were not Catholic — each year.

“Black Catholics attended Mass in the school’s chapel at that time, because due to segregation they were not allowed to worship with white Catholics,” said Deacon Weathers.

For nearly eight years, since the demolition of the original, nearly seven decades-old church began in 2015, the parish’s faithful have celebrated Mass in the St. Martin de Porres Education Center.

A large part of the new church’s fund-raising, said Deacon Weathers, “was accomplished by ourselves here at SPC, but we also received help from people outside of the diocese and people outside of the parish.”

He recalled how one woman driving by in her car, “was so impressed with the church — and our goal — that she simply sent in a donation, and there was a combination of everything, including word of mouth.”

Total cost of construction on St. Peter Claver’s new home was $3.2 million, with over $2 million of that figure already in hand at the start. The parish has set for itself a five-year goal for repaying what the Lexington diocese kicked in.

“We did have to do additional fundraising to purchase new pews and so forth, but every time a problem arose, something happened to help us overcome it, and I feel that we have been blessed,” said Deacon Weathers.

Nita Clarke is a two-time member of the St. Peter Claver congregation, having first belonged to the church from 1983 to 1988, serving then as choir director, and then rejoined the parish in 2009 after returning to the Lexington diocese.

“I can honestly say that there is a spirit here which — once you have tasted it — you don’t want to worship anywhere else,” said Clarke, who is the director of religious education and teaches the faith to people who want to become Catholic on Sundays at the parish.

“The people who come to church here are just fantastic and so spiritually grounded, and it reminds me of what I told my first RCIA class — and others since then,” she told OSV News. “‘If you think that you’ve chosen to be here, (you’re wrong) — God has chosen you to be here, and he doesn’t expect me to teach it, but do it himself through me.'”

She added, “The class makes me feel like I am learning as I am teaching.”

This Black Catholic parish’s witness and welcome has grown the congregation. Clarke noted that “the obvious growth in our parish size — and the first church’s age — made a new building necessary.”

The new sanctuary will seat around 450 people — an increase from the original building’s capacity of 240 people.

“Everybody’s been waiting for this,” she said. “We have been in this education building a long time, and people are going to absolutely love the new church.”

“We are building a new church, and with it a sign of hope,” Father Norman Fischer, St. Peter Claver’s pastor for the past 17 years, who is of Filipino and African American descent, told OSV News.

The priest is the chaplain at Lexington Catholic High School, the diocese’s only secondary learning institution, and many of his students are involved in “V Crew” clubs, whose goal is to help students consider a call to religious life.

“There has always been that spirit of diversity here, and the spirit of God’s love, because we are known as the little church with the big heart and people are drawn to us for our radical hospitality, preaching and gospel music with African drums,” Father Fischer added.

St. Peter Claver’s construction of a new building stands in contrast to a worrisome trend of closing Black Catholic churches or consolidating them with larger parishes — effectively depriving communities of these churches carrying out the church’s mission with the Black Catholic charism.

Darren Davis, professor at the University of Notre Dame professor and co-author of “Perseverance in the Parish?: Religious Attitudes from a Black Catholic Perspective,” told OSV News that he estimates the U.S. has anywhere from 200-400 parishes that reflect the Black Catholic identity in how they carry out their mission. But Black Catholic churches have tended to be closed based on financial criteria or size — “not usually because of their faith.”

“The church should be concerned about Black Catholic parishes,” Davis said, explaining that when Black Catholic parishes are closed due to their size or finances, the Church loses parishes that “tend to be more engaged spiritually and emotionally.”

Father Anthony Muthu, who celebrates St. Peter Claver’s afternoon Sunday Mass for Congolese parishioners — spoken in Swahili — told OSV News he is grateful for the parish, and for Bishop Stowe. The Congolese immigrants he ministers to attend that Mass, or one of the English Masses at the parish.

“He extended a great welcome to the Congolese immigrants,” Father Muthu said, “allowing them to gather as a community within St. Peter Claver.”

Robert Alan Glover writes for OSV News from Lexington, Kentucky.

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