Mid-1960s in the South—A Black History Month Remembrance

By Sister Marietta Russell, MHSH

Our first posting in February—Black History Month—recalled the founding of the Mission Helpers Community in post-Civil War Baltimore, where we held  Sunday School classes outside of the church for black children who weren’t welcomed  inside.

I’m not quite old enough to have been a part of that bold move, but I was in the South when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.  I served in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, from 1958 to 1966.  Mission Helpers had been called to set up formal religious education programs for the first time.

Here we were, almost 100 years after the Civil War, and the races did not mix at all.  In the religion classes, the white children sat in the front rows.  Then there was a separation—a row where the chairs had been removed—and then there were the black children.  We couldn’t do things differently because segregation was the law of the land.

In the churches, blacks had to sit in the balconies.  If a church had a choir loft up in the balcony, curtains were hung to separate the white choir from the black parishioners.

The Civil Rights Act changed the law, but real change didn’t happen right away, even though the children were ready for it.  Watching a group of fifth graders trying to make sense of it all was a beautiful process.  We told them that black and white didn’t matter, that real beauty was inside.  They understood this and talked about it among themselves.

I left South Carolina in 1966—and things hadn’t changed much.  But, when I returned to visit several years later, everything was different; it was like segregation had never happened.  The Catholic people welcomed black people into their churches, and that made me feel very good.  Everyone was ready to heal.  The black people had remained faithful through suffering; they knew they hadn’t been deserted by God.

I think Black History Month is a time for us to look back into our past and see that God was there all along.  He has brought us to where we are today and will show us where we are to go tomorrow.

A Book Review – By Sister Joanne Frey, MHSH

THE GLASS CASTLE – By Jeannette Walls

A glass castle? Is this someone’s dream? Yes, it was a dream, but more, it was a “promise” by Rex Walls to his children.  A glass castle!  He would build it.  They all would build it.  They would live in it!

This Irishman was a compelling story teller, one who won the hearts of his children, especially that of Jeannette (whose mother put extra “N’s” and “O’s” into her name to make her special).  To her Dad, whom she adored, she was always his “mountain goat,” always able to care for herself and all others in need.

Now, if you ever thought your family a bit dysfunctional, The Glass Castle is a must read memoir.  From it you’ll learn what a real dysfunctional family is all about.  There is such intellectual brilliance that you’ll be blinded at times; there is love among siblings that will tear at your heart strings as it keeps them bonded through impossible situations.

If this Memoir had just been about the “homes” they inhabited (never the glass castle) we readers would have been fascinated, but there is so much more.

From the open deserts of Arizona to the rugged hollows of West Virginia to New York City and San Francisco, this memoir is truly fascinating and astonishing.  Shall I tell you that Mom and Dad are homeless, street people, that the ‘mountain goat’ graduates from Barnard College?  But, no more, you must read for yourself, The Glass Castle.

Centering Our Hearts for Valentine’s Day

As our thoughts turn to Valentine’s Day, the Mission Helpers invite you to join us in a prayer for new hearts, courageous hearts, sensitive hearts that replace the hardness of hearts steeped in war, violence, hatred and prejudice. We pray that we will be able to communicate with our brothers and sisters in the language of the heart in order to solve the problems of difference and rejoice in our diversity.

Heart of Jesus, we celebrate the depths of the love of your heart

for us—a love that longs for a generous response.

You revealed to Saint Margaret Mary your regret that so many

refuse your love and turn from you.

We, your people, stand before you and the world.

In your name we reach out to those who need you.

In prayer and service we come before you to offer a return

and be a voice for those who cannot or do not respond.

Endow us with your vision and empower us with your spirit to minister—heart

touching heart—to the poor, the broken, the alienated ones of this world.

Heal our own hearts to be responsive to you and effective in your mission.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Your Kingdom Come!  Amen.

–A Prayer of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart

Mission Helpers Celebrate Black History Month

The Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart was founded in post-Civil War Baltimore more than 120 years ago.  Thousands of freed slaves had headed north; many settled in Baltimore in the late 1800s.  A book titled “The Catholic Church and the American Negro” describes the black community at the time: “It is now generally agreed that while the emancipation [of the slaves] was in one sense a great boon to the colored people, the manner in which the majority of them were thrown into an entirely different mode of life caused great evils…”

In Baltimore, Mary Frances Cunningham—later Mother Demetrias—was dismayed that the black children in the neighborhood of St. Martin’s Parish could not participate in religious education classes inside the church.  She began teaching them on the church steps and later obtained permission to hold Sunday School classes for them in the church basement.

She visited the homes of the Sunday School children and the homes of other black children, getting to know the families and learning about their needs and their hopes.  She set about finding solutions to the problems of these families. 

She soon met three other women who were doing similar work elsewhere in Baltimore, and in August of 1890 they held a retreat to discern the will of God for their work.  Afterward, they felt that “God willed the foundation of an institute devoted to the religious instruction of black people and that He willed that they should found it.”

Baltimore’s James Cardinal Gibbons—the first American Cardinal—was an early and staunch supporter of religious education for black children and was committed to forming a religious community “to take up the work for black people.”  He accepted and approved the decision of the small band of women to form a congregation; a small house was rented and the first postulants were accepted for membership.   

And so began the ministry of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.