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First Black Parish In St. Louis Was Founded 100 Years Ago

First Black Parish In St. Louis Was Founded 100 Years Ago

The school opened a year later in 1922!

The first Black parish in St. Louis was founded 100 years ago, The Messenger reports. On October 2nd, 1921, St. Augustine Colored Mission in East St. Louis held its first Mass. The parish was established by a group of prominent priests in the St. Louis area, including Father Peter Harrington who was appointed by the Society of African Missions (SMA) to “evangelize and establish missions among African-Americans.”

Saint Katharine Drexel, an heiress, philanthropist and founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament also lent her support to the new parish. Saint Katharine was known for her work as a minister dealing primarily with Native Americans and Black populations. The second person born in the U.S. to be canonized as a saint, Katharine’s support of the parish and its school helped cement its legacy. 

Prior to the founding of St. Augustine, most Black Catholics in St. Louis worshiped at St. Elizabeth’s, a Catholic Church established in 1873 that was open only to Black people. St. Elizabeth’s remained segregated until about 1947 when Cardinal Joseph Ritter integrated all Catholic parishes. 

The parish was housed in an old beer distribution center building purchased by Father Harrington for around $18,000. Unlike most Black parishes at the time, which began as Irish or German, then became Black as the result of losing its white attendees, St. Augustine was established solely as a Black parish. In 1922 when the school opened, Saint Katharine was the one who sent two sisters, Sister M. Richard and Sister M. Sabina, to teach at the school.

“Early each morning [the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS)] went over to East St. Louis in the streetcar, spending the forenoon in visitations; the afternoon in kindergarten, sewing classes for women and other activities for the smaller children. This commuting continued, with great danger and many risks were taken in this travel,” an excerpt from the SBS St. Louis Convent Annals reads. 

By 1924, Father Harrington had reported 135 students enrolled at the St. Augustine school, holding the first graduation in 1928. Still, Catholic high schools remained segregated and while The Diocese of Belleville supported by paying tuition for some Black students to attend high school, for many Black Catholic students, the experience stopped after middle school.

In 1937, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois replaced the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and in 1949, the school moved into the building that previously housed St. Mary’s School. To give Black students denied entry into Central Catholic High School a place to learn, the sisters ended up establishing St. Mary’s Catholic High School. The sisters continued to serve the students until 1960 when the St. Augustine Mission school was closed after segregation ended and the buildings needed to be demolished to make way for the construction of Interstate 64. 

Still, the work of St. Augustine’s parish and school lives on, paving the way for many more parishes to come and in celebration of its centennial anniversary.

Because of them, we can!

Photo Courtesy of Archdiocese of St. Louis