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The Society of the Divine Word: Ahead of its Time on Civil Rights

Len UhalFrom its earliest days, the Society of the Divine Word (SVD)-the largest Catholic missionary order in the world-has welcomed people from other cultures to sit with them at the table of Christ as equals. This willingness to engage with people of other races, creeds and ethnic origins was never more evident than when the society opened the first seminary for African Americans. Not only was the seminary established decades before the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but it was established in the Deep South where racial segregation ran the hottest.

Nearly 90 years ago, the SVD opened St. Augustine Seminary at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. For decades, it was the only place an African American man could study for the priesthood.

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First Four African American SVDs
Click image to see larger picture.

This milestone in race relations did not come easily or quickly. There was resistance within church hierarchy as well as the society to the acceptance of African Americans to the priesthood. But there were many champions for this move to educate and ordain black Americans.

The Society of the Divine Word was founded in 1875 by St. Arnold Janssen, a German priest working in the Diocese of Muenster, who felt that the church needed missionaries to preach the Gospel to people in other parts of the world. The German government at the time sought to repress the church, so St. Arnold went across the border to Steyl, Holland to create a missionary training center. His budding society quickly grew. Within four years, the first Divine Word Missionaries were sent to China. In 1895, the SVD came to America and by the early years of the new century had established missions in the South, where there were few Catholics.

"In 1910, while there were ten million African-Americans in the United States, only 150,000 of them were Catholic. At the service of their spiritual needs were only about thirty priests," said the late-Fr. Joe Simon, SVD, in a talk he gave in 1995. "Perhaps this was a predicament that Americans, mired in the American tradition of segregation and prejudice could not solve. Outsiders were needed."

Rev. Curtis Guillory, Bishop of Beaumont
Rev. Curtis Guillory
Bishop of Beaumont

The outsiders were members of the SVD who came to the U.S. from Europe. In his book, "In the Light of the Word - Divine Word Missionaries of North America," Ernest Brandewie chronicles their work in a chapter he dedicates to the history the first seminary for African Americans.

In 1905, Divine Word Missionaries began work in African American parishes in Mississippi. In those early years Fr. James Wendel, SVD, the first pastor of a parish in Meridian, Mississippi, was one of the strongest proponents for a seminary to train African American priests. He and others recognized that they would be needed to attract African Americans to the Catholic faith. Opposition came from those who questioned where black priests would be assigned. There were many in the church that opposed the idea of locating them within dioceses because of the racial tension they would generate.

In 1913, the SVD finally was able to open a boarding school for boys in Greenville, Mississippi. In 1919, Fr. Matthew Christman was assigned pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Greenville and worked with the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Spirit (SSpS)-an order also founded by St. Arnold-to develop the school into a well-rounded high school, creating a spring board for a seminary.

In the fall of 1920, the SVD was granted approval to open a seminary in Greenville. Enrollment grew quickly and it wasn't long before the decision was made to purchase property at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to accommodate that growth. Before the move, Pope Pius XI sent a letter of support to the superior general of the society, Fr. Wilhelm Gier.

Rev. J.Terry Steib, SVD, Bishop of Memphis
Click image to see larger picture.

"In your new undertaking you are following the very principle which, in so far as circumstances allowed, has always guided the Catholic Church," the pope wrote.

St. Augustine's opened in 1923 and Fr. Christman was the first rector. He was a strong supporter of the young men who wanted to become priests, as well as religious brothers, under his care. He recognized that opening the school was one thing. Quite another was where the newly ordained priests would work. Opposition still lingered over assigning them for diocesan duty or within the SVD as missionaries.

"It must be clear to everyone that it is surely a grave injustice to exclude a whole race from the priesthood, principally because prejudice will greatly hamper them in their religious activities, or a cordial cooperation with white priests may meet with great obstacles," Fr. Christman said in 1926. "Such an injustice is bound to work havoc and bring down heavy vengeance upon him who becomes guilty of it."

It takes approximately 12 years for a priesthood candidate to go from minor seminary to ordination, and the question over assignments remained an undercurrent as the first ordinations were set to occur in 1934. A number of the early champions for the ordination of African American priests-Fathers Wendel, Christman and Aloysius Heick-had passed away when the discussion was renewed in 1930.

Meanwhile, at St. Augustine's, the African American priesthood candidates were pragmatically making their own case for their right to enter the priesthood. As Brandewie states, "…the black seminarians had successfully passed through all the training and spiritual exercises that their white confreres had to follow."

Finally, in 1932, the governing body for the SVD in America, based in Techny, Illinois, re-affirmed its position that African Americans should be ordained and welcomed as full members of the Society of the Divine Word.

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On March 23, 1934, Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Francis Wade and Vincent Smith took their perpetual vows and became members of the SVD.

Though finding assignments for the four would continue to face opposition; their ordination was a major milestone. When offered the opportunity by the SVD, these four young men proved their commitment to the priesthood by successfully meeting the demands of academic and spiritual training. Eyes were opened and gradually others realized the potential that African Americans offered to the church.

At one point in time, approximately 40-percent of African American clergy ordained in the United States had been educated by the SVD, including nine SVD bishops.

Over time, things changed at St. Augustine's. In 1967, the seminary closed and in 1982, the high school followed suit. Today, "The Bay" is a highly regarded retreat center and mission center for the SVD Southern Province, but its legacy remains as a point of pride for the Society of the Divine Word.

"It is clear that Bay St. Louis had an immense impact on breaking the barrier to the ordination of blacks in the United States," Brandewie wrote "Because of the pioneering work…other seminaries and religious orders began to accept and even actively recruit candidates from the African-American community."

Mr. Len Uhal is the National Vocation Director for the Divine Word Missionaries in the USA. For information about the SVD, please visit www.svdvocations.org or e-mail Len at luhal@dwci.edu.

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