Our little coastal town has a very rich history. St. Augustine Seminary, the first seminary in the Unites States to train Catholic, African American priests, celebrates its 100th anniversary. The actual anniversary is September 16, but celebratory events will be held October 28 and 29.
- By Maurice Singleton
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A celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis is being planned for October 28 and 29, 2023, to commemorate the rich history of the first Catholic seminary in the United States to train African American men to become priests.
“It is a unique message. It is hugely historic,” said Fr. Mike Somers, Provincial of the Society of the Divine Word Southern Province. He added that the opening of St. Augustine Seminary has been referred to as “one of the most important events in Black Catholic History of the United States of the twentieth century.”
“Let it be a city celebration, let it be a state celebration. Let us invite anybody we can and everybody who should be here,” said Fr. Mike. “Thank God the city is on board. We have a wonderful lay committee. I’m so happy and pleased about that, and I hope we can change that part of the history also, in spreading the message.
“The message is as relevant today as it ever was,” continued Fr. Mike. “The message has not lost its importance. We should not be shoving it under the carpet or keeping it as a private celebration for ourselves.”
Bishop Terry Steib, S.V.D., Emeritus, has been invited to preside over the Sunday mass service on October 29, 2023. He was ordained into the priesthood at St. Augustine Seminary on January 6, 1967. The Superior General from the Vatican has been invited to give the homily.
The Sunday service will begin with a parade from St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church, led by a jazz band, followed by the Knights of St. Peter Claver, the Ladies Auxiliary and the Knights of Columbus.
On Saturday, guests will enjoy gospel, jazz and soulful music performances, tours of the historic grounds, and short video clips of the history of the seminary. Food will be available from three food trucks stationed at different locations across the property. Two drawings will be held, awarding $5,000 cash prizes to each winner. Raffle tickets are currently being sold by parishes across the Southern Province to help offset the expenses for the celebration.
“Through this event, we will welcome thousands of visitors to our area and give our city international recognition as a safe haven for educating African American men for the priesthood,” said Tish Williams, Hancock County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director. “We literally changed lives and the history of the Catholic Church.”
The actual anniversary date is September 16, 1923. However, because of established events in Bay St. Louis on this date, St. Augustine Seminary worked with the City of Bay St. Louis to come up with a date that would allow greater participation from the community.
There will be a celebration on the official anniversary as youth from parishes from across the region will be invited to Holy Ghost Parish in Opelousas, Louisiana, on September 16, 2023. Final plans for this event will be available later in April.
History of St. Augustine Seminary
It is indeed important to recognize the history and the various efforts and personalities that it took to get to the opening of St. Augustine Seminary in 1923. There was sacrifice and there was opposition and resistance. Much of the resistance came from Catholic priests and bishops in the United States.
The opposition to ordain African American men as Catholic priests was significant. It has been reported that American bishops demonstrated “prejudice and explicit racism” in their opposition, arguing that the African American male was not intellectually or morally equipped for the priesthood.
There were, however, persistent change-makers in the order of the Society of the Divine Word Missionaries, who had begun their work in Mississippi in 1905, establishing missions in Vicksburg, Jackson, Greenville and Meridian. Since the early days of the order, founded by Saint Arnold Janssen in 1875, its mission was to evangelize and to build faith leaders among the local communities.
They had Rome on their side, who could not understand why there was not a movement in the United States to train African American priests to lead African American Catholic communities.
One of the missionaries credited with changing opinions in the fight for ordaining African American priests was Fr. James Wendel, S.V.D. He edited The Colored Messenger, a magazine which is credited with changing whites’ attitudes towards African Americans as well as supporting a basis for a seminary to ordain African American priests.
Fr. Wendel was also known to be a determined and self-assured personality who didn’t back down from a dispute. One story has him confronting a white man in a Baptist church who was slandering the Catholic Church. He immediately stopped what he was doing, walked over to the church and demanded to be heard. After a robust counter to the man’s misrepresentations, some of the men attempted to remove him from the church. It is said that Fr. Wendel shouted at them, “I came freely and I'll leave God’s house freely.” Fr. Wendel died in February of 1920.
Another missionary who played a pivotal role in the opening of a seminary to train African American men to become priests was Fr. Matthias Christmann, S.V.D. He was a master of multi-tasking, serving as pastor in Greenville while teaching, securing financial support, as well as wearing other hats while working behind the scenes to start a class in the fall of 1920 for a small group of candidates he had gathered from New Orleans to train to become priests.
It is also important to mention the work of two priests, Fr. John Peil, S.V.D., and Fr. Aloysius Heick, S.V.D. Fr. Peil pushed hard for the Society of the Divine Word to get involved in the evangelization of blacks. Fr. Heick was the first S.V.D. priest to be assigned to Mississippi. He began his mission as pastor in Merigold, Mississippi, on July 15, 1905. There were no black Catholics in the area, and Protestants and the white population were intensely opposed to his mission. He was told to leave, and his life was threatened many times. Legend has it that he left town hidden in a coffin or a piano box to avoid being found by the KKK.
Despite the tough beginnings of the Society of the Divine Word in the early 1900s, St. Augustine Seminary would move to Bay St. Louis, officially opening on September 16, 1923. The first ordination at St. Augustine Seminary would take place in 1934 as Vincent Smith, Maurice Rousseve, Anthony Bourges and Francis Wade became the first African American priests trained in the United States. Fr. Francis Wade, S.V.D., served as pastor of St. Rose de Lima Catholic parish during the early 1960s.
Please join the celebration of this historical event. Additional information can be located HERE.
The Shoofly Magazine will post updated event information as it comes available.
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