Black Catholics: Harlem church closing illustrates changes, challenges

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) For nearly half a century, Jocelynn Williams attended Sunday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle, a predominantly black Roman Catholic church in Harlem. She received her First Communion and mourned at her mother's funeral there.

Now, Williams and other parishioners pray each Sunday outside the church, its doors padlocked. A ''No Trespassing'' sign is attached to the iron gate.

The Archdiocese of New York closed St. Thomas in August, a move propelled by a dwindling congregation and steep maintenance costs, a church spokesman said. Embittered parishioners have responded with their Sunday vigils and weekday protests outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, the seat of the archdiocese.

The closing illustrates the challenges facing the church as it tries to address the needs of black Catholics in America, a group that while still a vibrant presence in cities is also spreading into suburban congregations, according to church observers.


St. Thomas the Apostle church on 118th St. in Harlem is shown Sept. 3, 2003, in New York. The Archdiocese of New York closed St. Thomas in August, a move necessitated by a dwindling congregation and steep maintenance costs.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

''Many black Catholics are worried about the number of parishes and schools that are closing, because they have been such a strong source of support in the black community,'' said Sister Francesca Thompson, a Franciscan nun and assistant dean of undergraduates at Fordham University in the Bronx.

The proportion of blacks in the church has remained steady at least 3 percent of the 66 million U.S. Catholics.

Exact statistics are not kept, especially since ''black'' is not defined in a single way, said Jamie Phelps, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at New Orleans' Xavier University, the nation's only black Catholic college.

However, in the past decade or more, the number of black Catholics has increased by perhaps half a million with the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America, said Phelps, a Dominican nun. And there are still thriving urban black Catholic churches in cities such as New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, she said.


Gloria Flood, left, and Lorraine Flood join St. Thomas the Apostle parishioners in a prayer in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, after a demonstration protesting the closing of Harlem's St. Thomas the Apostle church, Sept. 3, 2003, in New York. The Archdiocese of New York closed St. Thomas in August, a move necessitated by a dwindling congregation and steep maintenance costs.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

But some established parishes have been shuttered as the congregants have moved out of the city.

''Inner-city congregations tend to be losing their Catholic concentration, as black Catholics assimilate in American culture and get a better education and better jobs. And African-American Catholics do what non-Catholics do: They move to the suburbs,'' said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. ''It's a matter of economics and demographics.''

Keeping the doors open at St. Thomas, a neo-Gothic edifice completed in 1907, would require $5 million in repairs, archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling said. Yet average Sunday attendance has shrunk to fewer than 200, from a high of several thousand in the church's heyday, he said.

''We understand that there are deep ties to a church building. But we have 413 parishes and we have to be concerned with all of them,'' he said.

If St. Thomas' parishioners are few, they are devoted. Bearing a sign proclaiming, ''Religion Before Real Estate,'' Williams and a dozen fellow parishioners protested outside St. Patrick's one recent afternoon, as they do on a regular basis.

''This is my church,'' Williams insisted, leaning on her cane on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk. ''Why should I go elsewhere?''

Initially serving an Irish community, St. Thomas was designed by the renowned church architect Thomas H. Poole. Its pipe organ and stained glass windows were made by European craftsmen.

The Irish immigrants who built their new house of worship wanted ''the most spectacular church,'' said Harlem architectural historian Michael Henry Adams. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger calls it ''one of the most unusual and special churches in all of New York City.''

But the Rev. Clarence Williams, a Detroit priest who directs a black Catholic ministry and produces television programs on black Catholicism, notes that Catholic churches in the United States were traditionally built by ''large, European ethnic groups.''

And those structures may not serve smaller, black parishes very well.

''How do you support these cathedral-like structures with a smaller congregation?'' he asked. ''The church is not deserting local communities. The issue is: Can we afford to maintain these old structures built for a much larger community?''

The future of the Catholic church in the black community depends on answering the question, ''How do we demonstrate our caring?'' Williams said, citing ongoing activities like food programs and ''warming centers'' for the homeless in winter.

At St. Thomas, it took decades for blacks to feel at home.

The Irish began moving out of Harlem in the 1920s, and blacks slowly gained acceptance in the church although in segregated pews at first. St. Thomas' grammar school later educated generations of Catholics in central Harlem, and in recent years, parishioners introduced music and vestments with black roots into the liturgy.

While it's unlikely St. Thomas will reopen as a Catholic church, the archdiocese has made no decision about what to do with the building, now covered in scaffolding to keep falling debris from raining on pedestrians.

Only one thing would satisfy St. Thomas' longtime parishioners the reopening of their church. Said Jocelynn Williams: ''We're angry. We're very angry that they had the nerve to close it.''

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