Beginning in the late 1800s, chapels and missions were set up to accommodate the area’s growing Black populations. In 1911, the first Catholic Mission for African Americans was established in St. Mary’s Parish in Greektown. A year later it baptized its first child, Grayton Barksdale. In 1914, the mission was named for St. Peter Claver and moved into a new church home. The mission parish was both Black and culturally diverse with parishioners from Jamaica, Trinidad, Windsor, Ontario, Chile, Granada, Louisiana, Maryland, Kentucky, and Michigan. Staffed by Felician Sisters and Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers, an order dedicated to serving Black Catholics, these missions were established to give African American Catholics a place of respite from the racial harshness of the day, a place of belonging, prayer, religious education and hospitality. St. Peter Claver opened a school in 1936 and then moved into the previous German parish, Sacred Heart Church, in 1938 located in Eastern Market which remains today a personal African American parish for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
A second Black Parish was established on Detroit’s westside in 1927 – St. Benedict the Moor. A young man, Norman DuKette, who helped with St. Mary’s mission, was named its first priest. Fr. Norman DuKette was the first Black priest ordained for Detroit, incardinated in 1926 by Bishop Michael James Gallagher. A third Black mission, Holy Ghost, was opened in 1939 in northeast Detroit and given parish status in 1946; in 1943, a Black mission in the Detroit-Ferndale area, Our Lady of Victory, was established since Blacks were not permitted to attend nearby parishes, including Presentation Parish. A fifth and very successful Black mission, St. George Parish, was started in north-central Detroit. Nearly 1,000 African American Catholics were baptized there from 1949-1965. Sadly, St. George Church closed in 1965 to make way for freeway construction.
The Detroit Rebellion occurred in the summer of 1967 and was considered one of the most violent demonstrations in the U.S. of the 20th century. The Rebellion was due to tensions caused by a lack of educational opportunities, inadequate and segregated housing and unemployment. The Rebellion started at 12th street and made its way to the Boston-Edison neighborhood, adjacent to Sacred Heart Major Seminary (SHMS) in Detroit. An African American artist painted the face, hands and feet of the Sacred Heart of Jesus image that is in front of the seminary. A topic of controversy for many years, the Black painted Jesus has become a landmark and symbol of Jesus’ love for all races of people. Mary Massingale, a researcher for SHMS wrote for Detroit Catholic, “Bishop Boyea called the painting a ‘great blessing’ for the seminary: ‘It was a sign that we are not somehow immune to what takes place all around us, and it is a call to be engaged.’”
In 1970, the Archdiocese of Detroit established an Office of the Black Secretariat, one of the first offices in the nation to monitor relations between Blacks and Whites. In 1981, the Secretariat Office was closed and the Office of Black Catholic Affairs was established to address the spiritual, familial and social needs of the area’s Black Catholics. Today, there are 15-18 local Catholic parishes with a strong Black presence. The Affairs office is now the Office of Black Catholic Ministry which is in the Cultural Ministries Office within the Department of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
To celebrate Black Catholic History Month, or learn more about Detroit’s special place in Black Catholic History, here are a few resources:
With Gratitude for African Americans Catholics: MI Cath Conf
Detroit’s Special Place in Black Catholic History: Dr. Garibaldi, president of UDM
Sacred Heart played key role for peace 1943, 1967 tensions – Detroit Catholic
Seasons of Grace: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit