SOON and VERY SOON: African Americans Leave the Catholic Church

WEAA - 88.9FM [Baltimore MD]

January 20, 2024

By Tierra Stone

The Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic Church, one of many predominately African American churches, is located in the northwest part of Baltimore city within the heart of the Park Heights community. Despite the high number of Catholic churches in the city –27 black churches–the Saint Ambrose parish along with so many others, is losing parishioners. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is in the Seek The City To Come process of aiding Catholic churches, and their surrounding neighborhoods by 2024 to help keep some parishes thriving. Many Black churchgoers haven’t just left the Catholic church, they’ve left the faith all together.

The history of Catholicism and its relationship with African Americans is complex and dynamic. For example: sometime during the late 15th century, Catholicism was used as a tactic by the Spaniards to help enslaved Africans gain their freedom; and it was their new found freedom that created free black towns, that resided in certain parts of Los Angeles, Florida, and Maryland. The Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic church has seen a small decline, but it still maintains the majority of its congregation.

The church has existed in the Park Heights community since 1907 when it consisted of mostly white parishioners. African Americans from the south during the Great Migration were overwhelmingly Southern Baptist, Lutheran, or Protestant; but some were attracted to the Catholic church and subsequently, joined African American Catholic parishes when they arrived in Baltimore.

The 1960’s were a time when people were fighting against racism and oppression which caused social unrest throughout the nation. African Americans were slowly moving into the Park Heights neighborhood; and Father Henry Zerhusen who was pastorate at this time, believed in integration and wanted to break the shackles of racism at Saint Ambrose.

Rosalita Stone, who has been a resident of the Park Heights community since 1961, recalled her experience when her family joined the church. Integration and new housing laws upended segregation in the city, allowing blacks to move into formerly white neighborhoods. The Stone family moved a lot, changing parishes with each move.

“My family went to Saint Pius, and from there we went to Saint Peter Clavers, and then we ended up at Saint Ambrose,” she said. “When we first started going to Saint Ambrose the environment was stand-offish, because at that time it was an all-white church.”

Father Henry’s ideals ultimately won the fight against segregation, although by that time, most of the white parishioners had left the inner-city churches for the suburbs. Saint Ambrose had become one of the most predominately African American Catholic churches within the city. The parish is now under the leadership of Father Paul Zaborowski, who has been the pastor of Saint Ambrose for eighteen years.

The beauty of African American culture is one of the driving forces behind Saint Ambrose’s welcoming and enriching environment. Visitors entering the church see the murals, statues, and paintings that depict African American saints and martyrs. The Oblate Sisters of Providence are also an integral part of the parish’s children’s ministry.

The Oblate Sisters of Providence is an African American religious order that was founded by Mother Elizabeth Lange in 1829. Sister Mary Stephen Beauford, who has been with the Saint Ambrose parish since 2009, recalled the significance of how important it is for African Americans to see themselves reflected in the Catholic Church.

“When I was growing up I never saw black statues or black nuns, my first time seeing a black nun I was eighteen years old” She said. “When I first saw a Black nun I was stunned, they were all different shades of brown and it was a beautiful sight to see. I believe that it’s important for our children to see that, because it let’s them believe that they can do this too.”

Despite the number of Catholic churches that had been foreclosed, or have been merged because they don’t have as many parishioners as they used too. The archdiocese is currently foregoing the Seek The City to Come process, which had given churches within the city the opportunity to not only voice their opinion on the future of their churches. It’s also an opportunity for them to discuss the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Adrienne Curry, who has worked for the Archdiocese of Baltimore as the Director of Black Catholic Ministries since July 2022, said that it have been going through a three year process about church finances, the church buildings, as well as the strength and weaknesses of each parish.

“We’re almost done with the listening phase and in the summer we’ll be starting the envisioning phase,” said Curry. She said that the archdiocese will have a “religious ceremony” in June where all the parishes are invited.

The Pew Research Center studies have shown that although there are only three million African American Catholics in the U.S. only 25 percent of African Americans worship in predominately African American Catholic churches. Only four percent of Black Catholics left the church altogether. Some of the reasons why Black Catholics are leaving the faith is mostly because of racism, and the after effects of the pandemic. On the other hand some parishioners have blamed the recent sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic church for decades.

Adrienne Curry had plenty to say about racism within the Catholic church but more importantly, she also responded to parishioners that chose to leave because of the recent sex abuse scandals that have happened throughout Catholic churches in the U.S.

“Racism is just engrained within the United States, a lot of people may leave the Catholic church and go to a Protestant church,” said Curry. She said that if they go to a predominately white protestant church they may face the same issue of racism encountered in the Catholic Church.

News about the sex abuse scandals by priest were exposed and kept under wraps by the archdiocese since 1966, but the Maryland Attorney General released the names of the accused that go as far back as the 1940’s. Ultimately Father Henry was one of the names on the list of abusers, but Father Paul has made it his mission to always give reverence to the abused through the church’s intercessory prayers. The intercessory prayers are a part of the mass celebration that is offered by the church on behalf of someone in need of peace, and healing.

“As far as the sex abuse that happens everywhere it’s not just a Catholic issue, and the Archdiocese of Baltimore hasn’t had an active sex abuse case in thirty years. So if that’s your reason that’s a weak excuse, I’m not condoning what happened; but it happens everywhere, even in people’s homes” said Curry.

Another reason why Black Catholics have left the church is because of the lack of young parishioners, and although there a three million Black Catholics in the U.S. only 29%of them are between the ages of 18 and 29.

Alphonsus Butler, who is ninety six years old, has been a parishioner of Saint Ambrose since 2004.

“A lot of the churches have died off because there aren’t any young people” Mr. Butler said. “The one thing the church needs to learn is to make people feel comfortable.”

Despite challenges, the Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic church has stood tall albeit with the loss of parishioners because of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the loss of parishioners that moved from the inner-city to the suburbs. Parishioners and visitors alike have coined the phrase when they describe Saint Ambrose as “not the usual Catholic church.”

“What I love about Saint Ambrose is that we’ve grown to become a church family” Rosalita said. “We’re concerned and care about each other as a church family should.”

Saint Ambrose has continued to evangelize in the surrounding neighborhood with several outreach programs such as the Saint Vincent De Paul Ministry, the Saint Anthony’s Clothing Closet, and the Street Disciples Ministry. Each of these ministries have assisted many people in need of food, clothing, and hygiene products.

Ms. Curry agreed and she noted that the kind of celebrations like mass on the grass, have continued to keep Saint Ambrose engaged with the Park Heights community.

“I remember when I first came here for the mass on the grass and Father Pauls’ outreach and the concern that he has with the community has helped plenty. Throughout the Seek The City to Come process he’s been engaged, and it also helps that you have two good deacons too.”

Pope John Paul II also engaged African Americans Catholics in a letter he wrote in September of 1987.

He said, “In a real way the Church needs you just as you need the Church, for you are a part of the Church and the Church is a part of you.”

Contributions: EWTN Global Catholic Network, The Archdiocese of Baltimore