SPIRIT OF ST. KATHARINE DREXEL CAN FUEL CHURCH’S OUTREACH TO BLACKS
February 7, 2020
by Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register
Just as St. Katharine Drexel saw the need for Catholic missionaries to serve and educate Native Americans and African-Americans in the early 20th century, Deacon Bill Hill of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Nashville sees the need today to expand access and opportunity to African-Americans who want to attend Catholic schools.
With the newly established Spirit of St. Katharine Drexel memorial scholarship at his alma mater, Father Ryan High School, “I’m trying to do a small piece” of what she did, said Deacon Hill, and he hopes it will lead to greater efforts to increase diversity in the diocese’s Catholic schools.
By founding the scholarship at Father Ryan and opening it up to all African-American students, Catholic or not, Deacon Hill is bringing St. Katharine Drexel’s mission of serving marginalized populations forward into the 21st century.
“She helped me get through St. Vincent and Father Ryan,” Deacon Hill said of St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), the wealthy heiress who went on to found the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a missionary order of nuns who worked primarily in the American West and urban South.
“Katharine Drexel had a bigger influence on the Black community than anybody,” funding and staffing Catholic schools that provided essential academic opportunities to African-Americans in Nashville and many other cities, said Deacon Hill. St. Katharine Drexel personally visited Nashville several times as she was scouting property and again to spend time with students at St. Vincent de Paul School, which operated from 1932-2009.
Her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, along with the Josephite priests, “nurtured, built, and sustained” the community during the Jim Crow era of segregation, he said.
Immaculate Mother Academy, Holy Family and St. Vincent de Paul schools were a point of pride in the Black Catholic community of Nashville and served minority children from the neighborhood and beyond, poor and middle class alike, regardless of their religious background.
Many of the students who enrolled in these schools did not come from Catholic families, but rather from Protestant families in the larger community who were seeking a higher quality, Christian-based alternative to the local, segregated public schools.
“If the mission of St. Vincent’s was only to serve Catholics, I would not be Catholic,” said Deacon Hill, a self-described “poor black kid from the projects” and convert to the faith who graduated from St. Vincent in 1963 and went on to graduate from Father Ryan in 1967 and attend Vanderbilt University Law School.
Deacon Hill’s mother, a member of a Missionary Baptist church, “didn’t really like Catholics,” he said, “but she wanted us to have a good education.” So she sent her son to St. Vincent, which at that time had the reputation as the best school in the city for Black students.
It was also fertile ground for evangelization and led to Deacon Hill’s conversion to the Catholic faith. “The nuns did a job on me,” he said.
Between the Catholic education he received at the school, attending daily Mass with his classmates, and receiving instruction from his parish priest, Hill was prepared to make a formal commitment to the Catholic Church and was baptized at age 14.
Local Church leaders, especially Bishop Thomas Byrne, who led the diocese from 1894 to 1923, viewed schools serving the African-American community as an important evangelization tool to draw more families into the Church, and souls to heaven. And for a time, it worked.
It was not uncommon to have multiple baptisms at Sunday services; according to parish records, St. Vincent welcomed hundreds of converts into the Catholic Church between 1956 and 1964 alone.
But the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Black community has always been a complicated one. For example, Bishop Byrne welcomed St. Katharine Drexel’s ministry to African-Americans, but he refused to accept a Black priest to serve in his diocese or sponsor any young Black man to study in the seminary for his diocese, which at that time encompassed the entire state of Tennessee.
And when a handful of Catholic high schools became the first in the state to integrate in 1954, they did not allow Black students to play on varsity sports teams or fully participate in social or extracurricular activities, leading to a sense of isolation among the new students.
And yet, for Black Catholics like Deacon Hill, the Catholic faith transcends the history of racial inequality of the Church.
“We can argue about all that other stuff,” Deacon Hill said, but in the end, “It always comes back to the belief in Jesus Christ … and the goal to get to heaven.”
Despite the Catholic Church’s ministry of presence in the Black community that led to conversions and positively impacted many lives, the diocese made the decision after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 to close Holy Family and Immaculate Mother and sell the property. Black students could attend St. Vincent or the newly de-segregated Father Ryan or Cathedral high schools.
It was a tough transition for students and families, having their close-knit community disrupted, and feeling less than fully welcomed at predominately white parishes and schools. Like elsewhere in the South, integration of Catholic institutions in Tennessee was a long, slow and uneven process.
Many Black Catholics today in the diocese remain members of St. Vincent, bound to the parish by history and culture, even though most no longer live in the changing North Nashville neighborhood where the church is located. Black Catholics remain a small minority of the overall population in the Diocese of Nashville’s parishes and schools.
African-American Catholic and non-Catholic students “can get a good education in a whole lot of other places” in Nashville now, but Deacon Hill hopes that the Spirit of St. Katharine Drexel scholarship at Father Ryan can help recruit more Black students to the diocesan high school and “help people experience what I experienced,” a solid education rooted in faith.
For more information or to donate to the Spirit of St. Katharine Drexel Memorial Scholarship at Father Ryan High School, please contact Deacon Bill Hill at 615-496-5797 or email@example.com.