On Sept. 8, 1920, despite racial prejudice and resistance from many, the Society of the Divine Word established the first seminary for the training of African-American men for the Roman Catholic priesthood and religious brothers in the south.
It was located at Greenville, Mississippi and Fr. Matthew Christmman, SVD was the founding rector of this seminary. After a couple of attempts, he was able to succeed.
“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 cordial cooperation with white priests may meet with great obstacles,” Christmman wrote.
After continuous struggles and threats from the local people, the Society of the Divine Word had to move the seminary to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in 1923.
On May 23, 1934, the first African-American priests namely Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Vincent Smith and Francis Wade were ordained. But, even after their ordination, the resistance continued, the local church authorities struggled to assign them until finally the four of them began serving at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Lafayette as associate pastors.
In 1938, Notre Dame Church in St. Martinville opened up its doors to Frs. Rousseve and Fr. Bourges to be its pioneering African-American pastors. This is what makes this church historical in the landscape of African American Catholicism in this country.
Because of this, vocations of priesthood and religious life sprung up in the African-American community. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has ordained 10 African-American Bishops, more than 100 priests, and consecrated religious brothers, and nuns.
Now, since the Society of the Divine Word could not celebrate this milestone at Greenville, Mississippi, it rather suggested celebrating it in the local parishes where their priests and brothers do missionary works. Consequently, the Notre Dame Church at St. Martinville, staffed by them, celebrated this great milestone on Sept. 8, 2020 at their 6 p.m. novena mass.
They could not let the COVID-19 pandemic stop them from celebrating and giving thanks to God for this great milestone of the Holy Catholic Church especially in this country segregated by race.
The hope is that may the racial divide in this country find healing, unity, and peace.