Making a Choice, Finding a Home

Posted: 3/15/2008

Four African-American women chose to convert to Catholicism decades ago in South Georgia. Today they celebrate the gift of their faith and they give thanks for the Glenmary mission communities who welcomed them with open arms.

Four African-American Women Converts to CatholicismBy Father Vic Subb

African Americans living in Claxton and Pembroke, Ga., during the 1960s, were not given many choices. There were segregation laws that told them which restrooms to use, which water fountains to drink from and which chairs to occupy in local cafes. But they could choose to become Catholic.

Glenmary Father George Mathis arrived in Claxton in 1960 as the first resident pastor of St. Christopher mission and Holy Cross mission in Pembroke. Little did he know that the small mission in Claxton would soon become the first integrated church in the Diocese of Savannah.

Father George remembers the congregations that made up these two South Georgia missions as being "really quite amazing. Considering the racial climate of that time period, the majority welcomed with open arms the African Americans who chose to enter the Church."

That's not to say there weren't some in the mission communities who objected to the integration, he says. But, curiously, the two persons in Claxton who objected the most, especially to having both white and black children in the same religious education classes, where not from Claxton—or even the South—but from New Jersey and Massachusetts!

In Father George's five-year pastorate, 13 African-Americans chose to convert to Catholicism. They made their choices for many reasons. Many, like Lue­retha Tillman, say that the welcoming environment they encountered and the example that Glenmary missioners set by their outreach to all people, no matter their color or denomination, drew them to Catholicism.

"In 1963 I was attending another church," Lueretha remembers. "But I began to feel called to something different."

She realized what that "something different" was after a visit with her Catholic cousin in the North. It was Catholicism. After returning home, she told her mother that she was going to check out that "white church." "Father George was as nice as he could be to me and my three young boys," she says. She was baptized in 1964 and says it's been a blessing ever since.

"St. Christopher Church helped me raise my kids-it's the backbone of my life," she says. And she's not shy about telling others about her faith and her faith community. "I just want to share with others the blessings I've received from my great church family," Lueretha says.

The warm welcome that Lue­retha talks about finding in Claxton is what Dorothy George found at Holy Cross mission in nearby Pembroke. She was the first African-American member of the mission when she joined in the 1970s.

When Dorothy first attended Mass at Holy Cross she says she felt immediately at home and knew that she had found "an everlasting home."

Raised in several other churches, she says she knew about Catholics and was impressed by the Glenmary priests she saw out in the community caring for others. "They cared about the sick, about people, period," she says. It was after she met Father Jim Wilmes that she decided to enter the Church.

For 30 years Dorothy ran The Clothes Basket, a local thrift store which sells second-hand clothing. The proceeds from the store help support the church. "I loved it," she says of working at the thrift store. "People who came in knew I was Catholic." And she let them know that "I'm proud to be Catholic."

Dorothy likes to say that the members of Holy Cross "are nothing special. We come in various colors. But we're growing and we continue to spread the news that we are here. Come and join us!"

Patricia Barbee, also a member of the Pembroke mission, became one of only 13 members-black and white-of the small mission when she joined in 1977. She visited the mission out of curiosity and met Father Bill Smith. "He gave me such a great welcome," she says. "I felt at home right away."

Father Bill became Patricia's beloved friend. She learned of his death while attending morning Mass last year. "I fainted," she says. "It was a shock realizing that this man who played such an important role in my journey was gone."

As a Catholic, she says, "I know I can worship in a Catholic Church anywhere in the world and know that I am welcomed."

Although Bertha Cobb, 85, isn't able to attend Mass as often as she would like, she continues to stay in touch with the St. Christopher community and they with her. She joined the Church in the late 1960s or early 1970s and says on "the day I professed my faith, I felt I was home."

She laughs, though, when describing what first attracted her to Catholicism. "I realized the service at the Catholic church was only one hour. At the other churches, you had to stay all day!"

"I love being Catholic," she says more seriously. She counts the Glenmary pastors of St. Christopher—Fathers Bill Smith, Ed Gorny, Larry Goulding, Ed Haggerty, Brian LaBurt and Bob Poandl—as treasures to her. "They have been so good to my family and me. They have a wonderful spirit."

Today, the Catholic communities continue their inclusive spirit. African Americans, Anglos and Hispanics worship together each week. Each weekend approximately 40 people attend the English Mass in Claxton and about 90 attend the Spanish Mass; approximately 75 attend an English Mass in Pembroke and about 20 attend the Spanish Mass.

At the Easter Vigil the newly baptized receive candles lit from the Easter candle as a reminder of the light of Christ that enlightened their lives at their baptism.

Lueretha, Dorothy, Patricia and Bertha celebrate that light each day and continue, according to the Easter Vigil, "to walk always as children of the light (keeping) the flame of faith alive in (their) hearts."

The story above first appeared in the Spring 2008 Glenmary Challenge.