St. Peter Claver Church has served black Catholics in Minnesota’s state capital for nearly 125 years, but the archbishop who established the parish wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do.
Archbishop John Ireland, the legendary leader of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, was ahead of the curve when it came to racial equality, preaching that blacks were just as much children of God as were whites.
He acted on what he preached as well.
As St. Paul’s first archbishop (1884 to 1918), he was the first American bishop to allow a black man to study at the diocesan seminary — the St. Paul Seminary — and be ordained a diocesan priest in the United States. Father Stephen Theobald was ordained in 1910 and served at the Cathedral of St. Paul before being named pastor of St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul.
Archbishop Ireland’s vision was that there should be no “race problem,” that the United States should be an integrated society. Daniel Rudd, the editor of a widely read black Catholic newspaper of the time, the American Catholic Tribune (circulation 10,000), saw in the archbishop an ally in his own vision that the Catholic Church was the best hope for racial justice and equality for black people in America.
Rudd was a sought-after lecturer, and in 1890, through a series of benefit speeches, he raised funds to build the first permanent church for St. Paul’s St. Peter Claver Parish. Archbishop Ireland had founded St. Peter Claver as a parish for “Colored Catholics” two years earlier and named it after the Spanish Jesuit who ministered to slaves in New Spain. But it wasn’t until 1892 that St. Peter Claver Church was built.
Historian Gary B. Agee, writing in the just-released biography of Rudd, said the black Catholic newspaperman and the archbishop both heard the demand from black Catholics for their own parishes, just as other ethnic groups had theirs, but they had trouble with that line of thinking.
Here’s an excerpt from “A Cry of Justice: Daniel Rudd and His Life in Black Catholicism, Journalism and Activism, 1854-1933” (University of Arkansas Press):
“Rudd’s position on the existence of separate black parishes seems to have paralleled that of Archbishop Ireland. For example, when Ireland dedicated a new black parish in the city of St. Paul in 1892, the prelate expressed some ambivalence over the matter. He stated the establishment of a separate church for African American Catholics was only a temporary measure designed to benefit blacks. Further, Ireland desired all races to worship together. He also emphasized the fact that blacks were free to attend any of the city’s parishes.”
In his newspaper, Daniel Rudd echoed much the same sentiment, again excerpting from Agee’s book:
“If every so-called Colored Catholic church in the world was done away with instantly the Colored Catholics would be at home in any other Catholic church beneath the Sun.”
Obviously, given the racial history of our country and our church, both Archbishop Ireland and Daniel Rudd were ahead of their time in their vision.