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A diverse church can provide not a racial divide but ‘an open door,’ say parish priests

Father Emmanuel Udoh, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Hopkinsville, Ky., is pictured in an undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Diocese of Owensboro)

OWENSBORO, Ky. (OSV News) — When it comes to observing racial diversity — or even the existence of racial division within the church — parish priests have a unique perspective.

Father Emmanuel Udoh arrived in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to begin his new assignment at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church on June 13, after leaving a five-year term as the parish priest for Rosary Chapel, a primarily Black Catholic parish in Paducah, Kentucky.

Sts. Peter and Paul, which also serves the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell, Father Udoh explained, “has a diverse range of families registered with the parish.”

The parish school covers pre-K through 8th grade, and this academic year has actually seen its enrollment increase by 151 students.

“Prior to my ministry at Rosary Chapel, I was at Blessed Mother Catholic Church (in Owensboro) — which is primarily Caucasian Catholic — for two years,” Father Udoh, a native of Nigeria, told OSV News.

Well-versed in the Catholic history of the region, Father Udoh explained that “Rosary Chapel was begun as (an) African-American parish in 1947. Back then, Reverend Albert Thompson, the pastor of St. Francis De Sales (the mother church down the street where Black Catholics had worshipped), felt that Black Catholics lacked a sense of identity and needed their own place to worship.”

“They were treated as second-class citizens and restricted to the back three rows of the church,” Father Udoh said. He noted, “St. Francis De Sales is still active today and the two churches are within walking distance of each other.”

As to a racial divide persisting within the church, the priest said, “I can only speak from my personal experience. Although western Kentucky is very Caucasian, I have not noticed a divide, but instead an open door,” explaining that while they are within walking distance of each other “Blessed Sacrament is a mission church to St. Stephen (Cathedral) which cannot support itself financially.”

But Blessed Sacrament Chapel with its “Afro-centric focus” underscores the importance of having Catholic churches that reflect the spiritual richness of Black Catholics — and Father Udoh gave his perspective on what Black Catholic Ministry means to the church.

“What this means to me is when we let other Black Catholics (who might be from different countries) approach God and worship, because it comes from their — and my — heritage. We bring in our cultural heritage; our songs, our music, and the way we worship in our native culture,” Father Udoh said.

“I was raised Catholic in Nigeria, and the only difference between celebrating Mass here and celebrating it there is that in my homeland, it is longer,” Father Udoh said.

He added that “people walk miles to get there (to church) and then walk miles to go back home.”

Father John Thomas, the pastor of St. Stephen Cathedral in Owensboro, told OSV News he has served in many diverse parishes since being ordained a priest in 1993.

Asked about the racial make-up of Blessed Sacrament and St. Stephen Cathedral, Father Thomas, who is white, said “at Blessed Sacrament attendance at our 10 a.m. Sunday Mass is about half and half (50% white, and 50% Black and other racial-ethnic groups), with an uplifting liturgy, extremely warm welcome greeting and a little less formality.”

By comparison, St. Stephen’s cathedral community, the rector noted, is mostly white and “more formal.”

Working with Catholics from different cultures — including most recently from Myanmar — is a very humbling experience, he said. The priest said that when he had served at Sts. Peter and Paul in Hopkinsville, he did not speak Spanish upon his arrival.

A Hispanic layperson tutored him twice weekly for an hour each time.

“After I learned the language, I was able to offer the sacraments in Spanish at two additional Masses on the weekend,” Father Thomas said.

“Regarding a racial divide (if any) in the church,” he said, “I feel that people prefer to attend churches in their neighborhood, and I have worked in parishes that are diverse, and not diverse.”

– – –
Robert Alan Glover writes for OSV News from Kentucky.

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