September 28th, 2008 by sashafaith
This past May 17, 2008 I was thrilled to attend the 150th Anniversary Celebration of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington DC. The story of how I came to be there is an interesting example of how the internet brings about real-life connections. In 1997, I attended the Carter-Wooling-Gwyn Family Reunion, my first time attending this reunion of my grandfather James Gwyn’s people. Grandpa’s sister Sarah married James Wooling, whose mother was a Carter – and the Carter-Wooling family has kept their ties strong by holding regular family reunions. I was determined to go, as I had recently (via the internet) located children of Grandpa’s brother David. David and his wife had gotten divorced, and their young children had been lost to the rest of the family for over 50 years.
At the reunion, one of my Wooling cousins showed me photographs of a man in priestly vestments, but no one there knew his name, only that he was a cousin of Aquila Greenleaf, my great grandmother, and that he was an early black priest in the United States. It wasn’t until August of 2005 that another cousin emailed me, saying that she found a shoebox with a copy of the priest photo labeled “Aquila Greenleaf’s first cousin Norman Duquette, the 8th black Catholic priest ordained (in the US?)”
Armed with a name, I went off in hot pursuit and was quickly rewarded with several finds in Google, one of which was the History of the Archdiocese of Detroit. In their history they wrote that in 1926, Father Norman Anthony DuKette was the first African American priest ordained in Detroit. The Archodiocese told me that Father DuKette had founded Christ the King Parish of Flint, MI. When I called to ask for information, I was put in touch with one of the elderly members of that congregation who was a companion of Father DuKette and cared for him before he passed away in 1980 at age 89. He sent me some biographical materials, including Father DuKette’s parents’ names: John H. F. Duckett and Letitia Greenleaf. Letitia (May 1850 – ?) was my Great Great Grandfather Tillman Greenleaf’s sister. (Norman had adopted the spelling DuKette, but his parents and the rest of his family used Duckett) I was also given the name of a niece in Washington DC, along the programs from the 50th and 75th Anniversary of Christ the King parish. Father DuKette was remembered as a no-nonsense, strict but loving man of God. (I’ll write more about him in a separate post…)
In February of this year, Dena Grant, one of the co-chairs of St. Augustine Centennial Celebration emailed me after finding a blog post I had written about Father DuKette. Father Norman was the first baby who was baptized in their congregation to go on to the priesthood. The church was planning to honor Father DuKette as a “Son of the Church” and was welcoming any relatives who wanted to attend their celebration. About a year prior I had located (via the internet) Father DuKette’s niece and her family, and when I called to tell them about the dinner they said they wanted to attend. It would have all been beyond my means, but my grandmother very generously bought the two $150 tickets for us to attend the Gala fundraising dinner. Then she footed the bill for our Amtrak train tickets. Two more cousins, Clayton & Juanita, the daughter of my grandfather’s sister Lola drove in from Jeffersonville, Indiana to attend the dinner. The greatest treat was that without ever having met us, one of my 4th cousins, Chip & his wife Flo offered all four of us a place to stay at their home in nearby Maryland. We were so grateful for their gracious hospitality, and stunned by the beauty of their home, where we each were given a gorgeous room and separate bath. Chip’s mom (and Father DuKette’s great-niece), Penny and I became fast friends. We first met at Union station in Washington, DC when she picked Grandma & me up. Then Penny took us for a quick driving tour of the Capitol, and kindly drove us around all weekend: visiting family, attending the Gala, going to Church services, a reception at the Washington Post Building, which was the original site of the magnificent brick church that the congregation had originally built, and finally back to the station when our visit was over.
Before attending the dinner, I was completely ignorant of all of the rich history of Black Catholics in our country, and afterwards I spent some time gathering some more information for this post. St. Augustine is known as “The Mother Church of African American Catholics in the Nation’s Capitol”. The original school was named for Blessed Martin de Porres who was born in 1579 in Lima Peru, the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman, Juan, and a young freed black slave, Anna Velasquez. He was beatified in 1873, and canonized in 1962.
A handful of women from Baltimore’s Haitian refugee colony begin to educate local children in their homes. With the support of the archbishop, in 1829 they create the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The first superior is Elizabeth Lange, born in Cuba of Haitian parents.
From the Celebration Program:
Saint Augustine Parish traces its heritage to 1858 and the efforts of a group of dedicated emancipated Black Catholics. Faced with a society that was not yet willing to put off the last vestiges of slavery and a Church that, at best tolerated the presence of Black people in its congregation, these men and women The Oblate Sisters of Provence) founded a Catholic school and chapel on 15th Street under the patronage of Blessed Martin de Porres. In what is perhaps a touch of historical irony, this school was operating four years before mandatory free public education of Black children became law in the Nation’s Capital.
St. Francis Xavier Church in East Baltimore was the first Catholic Church in the United States officially established for Negroes. The church was purchased on October 10, 1863 and dedicated February 21, 1864, with a group of Black San Domingo refugees, who were Catholic, and the Sulpician Fathers, who had fled the French Revolution and settled in Baltimore.
The Sulpician Fathers arrived in Baltimore in early 1790. Soon after the Sulpicians had settled at St. Mary’s Seminary on Pennsylvania Road (now Pennsylvania Avenue); there arrived in Baltimore a large number of Negro Catholic refugees. According to the Maryland Gazette, date: Thursday, July 11, 1791, the arrival in Baltimore at Fell’s Point, six ships, being a part of the French fleet which sailed from Cape Francois on June 23, 1793. Aboard the ships were between 500 and 1000 Negroes, slave and free. Most of the free Blacks were wealthy and educated. Whether slave or free, the refugees were Catholic and spoke fluent French.
The original St. Augustine Church was built in 1876 on the site of the current Washington Post newspaper.
In 1889, St. Augustine Catholic Church was the host of the 1st National Black Catholic Congress a meeting “to address the needs of Black Catholics. Distinguished Men of African descent came from all over the United State to participate in this historic event.”
The dinner was lovely, and included a marvelous history lesson and slide show, which is where I got the images I have included above.
From my 2008 Scrapbook – Clockwise from top left: BF & his Blue Notes Band, Penny’s with her sons and their wives, Mrs. Malloy with DuKette School Staff, Chip with Dena Grant- Co-Chair of the Anniversary Committee, Penny & me, the last dance, Gail Schneider-Negrinelli, Principal (seated) & Florence Kryglowski-Allen of DuKette Catholic School, Flint, MI, Cousin Juanita & me.)
The Gala Celebration program was full of support ads from the descendants of the founding members of the church, current members, alumni of the school, letters from their faith community, even the pope and the president! The principal and a school associate of the DuKette Catholic School flew in from Flint, MI. There were nuns who taught at the St. Augustine school, priests who served the parish, elders of the community, distant relatives like me, and the whole church family, and all of us were completely moved to be part of the celebration. The following morning we attended services at the church, my first Catholic service. I was intensely moved to imagine my ancestors taking part in a similar service, singing those songs, surrounded by a community of like minded people who did all they could to uplift their families and neighbors with education and worship. It was a beautiful service, and chills went down my arms as the music resonated through the sanctuary and through me. I will never forget this experience, and will especially treasure my new-found cousins for sharing with me so generously. At the Gala Celebration, when they called for one of Father DuKette’s family members to come up to receive a plaque in his memory, Cousin Penny waved for me to go. I was full of emotion standing up for our family, and brought the plaque straight to Penny’s mom, Mrs. Malloy, to honor her as an elder and Father DuKette’s closest living relative. I know our ancestors would have been very proud to see this day.