ENCORE: Sedalia mission was Catholic outreach to African Americans

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November is Black Catholic History Month, a time to remember and celebrate the long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics.

This is an updated version of an article originally published in the March 12, 2004, edition of The Catholic Missourian:

Sixty-seven years ago this spring, St. Joseph Catholic School in Sedalia sent its last class of African-American children off to high school.

The school was part of St. Joseph Catholic Mission, established by priests of the Missionary Society of the Precious Blood in the 1930s as an outreach to African Americans living in and around Sedalia.

Opened amid great enthusiasm and more than a little curiosity, the mission lasted until 1956 — just months before the Jefferson City diocese was established — when Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara of Kansas City, who had jurisdiction over the Sedalia parishes, declared that “people of one faith should worship under one roof.”

Precious Blood Father Christian Daniel, who was pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Sedalia from 1920-40, had the idea for a Catholic outreach to the city’s substantial African American population, according to a Jan. 29, 1939, article in the Sedalia Democrat.

The society sent Precious Blood Father Max Herber to serve African Americans in the community.

Following Fr. Herber was Precious Blood Father John Nels, who was serving when the society bought the Lots 1 and 2 in Block 17 of the original plat of Sedalia, on April 27, 1937.

That same year, Fr. Nels asked the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood from Dayton, Ohio, who already were serving at Sacred Heart School, to begin instructing African American children in the Catholic faith.

A house of prayer

Fr. Nels’s successor, Precious Blood Father Erasmus Gengler is listed as St. Joseph Mission’s first pastor.

With a $1,000 grant from the Catholic Extension Society of America and further funding from the Missionary Society of the Precious Blood, Fr. Gengler supervised the construction of a combination church, school and community center.

A sturdy, attractive building of concrete, yellow pine and oak timbers gradually rose at the corner at Johnson Street and Missouri Avenue, which was then the route of U.S. 65 through Sedalia — roughly 12 blocks from what is now St. Vincent de Paul Parish’s Sacred Heart Chapel.

Harold Dean — whose wife, Agnes, was a member of Sacred Heart Parish — was the general contractor, and August Meier of Sedalia excavated the foundation.

Ground was broken on Jan. 18, 1938.

“Bad weather held us back for about 12 days,” wrote Fr. Gengler to Precious Blood Father I.A. Wagner, provincial of the society, on Feb. 14, 1938. “The digging went along fine except for the last two feet where we struck heavy gravel which was just about like cement. I am certainly glad that the digging is finished for we all have blisters and sore muscles.”

Professional laborers and craftsmen finished the exterior, then volunteers went to work on the interior.

The school portion of the building was ready in time for 47 African American children in grades 1 through 8 to begin classes on Sept. 1.

That year, Precious Blood Sisters M. Basildis Spegele and M. Marcia Stock visited the homes of the children who planned to attend the new school.

“Everywhere, they found dire poverty,” according to a brief history of the school in the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood archives in Dayton. “While the children were greatly interested in learning to sing Mass, Benediction and church hymns, they were all still Protestant, but had a desire to be instructed in the Catholic religion.”

Work on the chapel portion of the building was completed early in 1939. The altar stood against the back wall of the sacristy, in an alcove, between statues of Jesus and Mary.

Fr. Gengler presided at the first Mass in the church on Feb. 5, 1939, with students from the school leading the singing.

Following a 10-day mission, Fr. Gengler continued further instructions for people who wished to be received into the Church, along with the 22 high-school students who were already receiving instructions.

He and his successors offered Mass and the sacraments at the mission church every Sunday.

“The work in Sedalia is not without its trials,” noted the Feb. 20, 1939, edition of The Gasparian, a newsletter of the Society of the Precious Blood. “Considerable bigotry has been shown, and Fr. Gengler has been opposed in his efforts by the non-Catholic ministers of the city. In spite of this, the work has gone on, and the future looks encouraging.”

His successors included Precious Blood Fathers August Zumberge, Lawrence Growney (who later served as pastor of Sedalia’s former Sacred Heart Parish), Edward Charek, Henry Balster and Charles Bricher from 1953-56.

In the school, Precious Blood Sisters M. Laurentine Lennartz, M. La Salette Hageman, M. Alarda Riffel, M. Leona Bucher, M. Crispina Neudeck, M. Marcia Stock, M. Chrysanthia Schoepper and M. Bertranda Fechter would succeed Sisters Spegele and Stock as teachers.

Letting go

Although there was room for up to 100 students, regular attendance settled to about 37 children in the school’s first year.

Similarly, the mission’s membership and activities peaked in the early 1940s, then tapered off.

The school closed in 1954; the mission closed in 1956.

Gospel strains have supplanted the chants of ages past. But the church remains a house of God.

The Precious Blood Fathers sold the church and rectory to the Columbus Home Association, the real-estate holding arm of Knights of Columbus Council 831 in Sedalia, in October 1956.

The association sold it to Sacred Heart parishioners Bernard J. and Margaret Bahner the following January.

Mr. Bahner found a buyer for the rectory in April, and listed the property with lifelong Sacred Heart parishioner Jim Keck, who as an agent for Border Real Estate Co., on Sept. 2, 1958.

He sold it to the trustees of the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which had been founded in 1878.

The congregation moved to what author-historian Hazel N. Lang called “the modern and beautiful church located at 512 W. Johnson” on Sept. 28 of that year.

Some remodeling has taken place over the years, but the church looks much as it did when it was Catholic.

The late Precious Blood Father “Jack” Behen, a Sedalia native, once toured the building and said it would be easy to celebrate Mass in the church with its present sanctuary fixtures.

Happy memories

As a tool for Catholic evangelization, St. Joseph Mission was probably as successful as its founders might have hoped. In fact, one priest remembers that in the mission’s later days, more white communicants were on hand for Sunday Mass than African Americans.

The school, however, was another story.

Betty Overton, a member of Quinn Chapel AME Church who went to St. Joseph School from first through fifth grade, spoke fondly of those days in a 2004 interview.

“I’m happy I went there,” she stated, “and I had two brothers who went there. I remember all their talk about it when I was growing up. When I got there, and they were grown, all the talk was about Fr. Growney and Sr. Laurentine. We all loved them.”

“Sr. Laurentine was really nice,” said Mrs. Overton. “She was a great lady.”

The students attended Mass in Latin each Sunday at the church.

“It was quite an experience to speak Latin,” Mrs. Overton recalled. “It wasn’t really hard. They taught us the basics. It was really nice.”

When the weather was nice, students played on a vacant lot near Lincoln Park (now Hubbard Park), located across the street.

For music class, Sr. Laurentine taught the students how to play the harmonica.

Mrs. Overton also has pleasant memories of Precious Blood Father Lawrence Growney, who was pastor when she was there.

“He was really nice,” she said. “They were good to the kids. If they had favoritism, they didn’t let it show in front of the other kids. They tried to treat all the kids the same. Everybody liked them. We were crazy about them.”

Mrs. Overton, in recollections shared in 2004 with Ron Jennings, now deceased, a longtime reporter for the Sedalia Democrat newspaper, noted that all eight grades at St. Joseph School met together in a single large room off the church sanctuary.

She and Sedalia native Ida Shobe, who also attended the school, spoke kindly of Fr. Growney, who was assigned to the mission from 1943-49.

“I really loved him,” Mrs. Shobe told Mr. Jennings. “Maybe it was because I didn’t have a father-figure in my life, but I thought the world of him. I wasn’t Catholic, but I wanted to be a nun when I grew up.”

Both women said they enjoyed the closeness of the single-room format.

Mrs. Shobe said she learned a lot just by listening to the teacher instruct children in higher grades.

Mrs. Overton transferred to Hubbard School — Sedalia’s public school for African-American children in the days of school segregation — after fifth grade, hoping to be closer to her friends and be a majorette in the school band.

She remained in touch with Sr. Laurentine for several years.

Mrs. Overton’s happiest memory of St. Joseph School was “just going there, and everybody getting along,” she said.

“It was a really nice school,” she added. “After I started at Hubbard in sixth grade, I remember thinking a lot of times, I wish I had stayed (at St. Joseph) until eighth grade.

“Just about everybody I remember (from St. Joseph School) has either moved out of town or is deceased,” she added.

Lessons learned

Sedalia native Fr. Behen, now deceased, had his own memories of St. Joseph Mission and its school. He once met with a Protestant minister in Sedalia who had graduated from St. Joseph School.

“The school had one teacher when he was there: Sister Marsha Stock from Dayton,” said Fr. Behen. “This man was just filled with enthusiasm for the school and the sister. He received his whole elementary education there.”

The priest noted that St. Joseph Mission was one of several African American missions the Precious Blood Fathers had set up around the country.

“Just about all of them went out of commission in fairly short order,” he said. “Looking back, for whatever reasons, it does seem to have served the cause of segregation. I think the thinking of the time was that this was what the Black people wanted, and that we’d make more converts that way.

“I’m not sure either was true,” he said. “We certainly didn’t have many converts in Sedalia. It was clear we could have accommodated the few black Catholics at Sacred Heart rather than build another church.”

“I can’t tell you of a single family who transferred to Sacred Heart after St. Joseph closed,” he said. “But I think the intentions were certainly good, and maybe we need to judge it by the different attitudes of those times.”

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