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A lonely prophet falls in Chicago


When Dorothy Day was “on pilgrimage,” as she liked to describe it, she visited the Catholic Worker house in Chicago, a city in which she had spent much of her youth. The details are sketchy, but sometime during one of these visits she injured her arm and was taken to a local Catholic hospital. The sisters who worked there were in a flutter over this icon who represented their most deeply felt values.

Day was asked if she had a private physician in the area that she wished to consult. She replied that she had. So, Dr. Arthur G. Falls was called to the hospital’s emergency room.

Falls came because Dorothy Day represented the Catholic faith as he envisioned it, but he was concerned.

When he arrived, the anxiety shifted to the sisters. Falls was black. No matter that he was a cradle Catholic who was instrumental in bringing the Catholic Worker movement to Chicago. This Catholic hospital, in common with all others in the vast archdiocese, did not allow African-American physicians.

“Colored doctors treated colored patients in colored hospitals,” Falls recalled in a 1991 interview I did with him for a book I was working on. “They were there, and we were here. Segregation was so simple that even a bigot could understand it.”

There was some nervous discussion. Eventually, Falls was allowed to treat Day, although a white physician had to admit her to the hospital.

After she left, Falls waited a decent interval and applied for staff status. It would mean that he could refer and treat patients at a Catholic hospital that had a crucifix in every room. He was turned down and so were his black patients. “I could get a white patient in,” he said. “But I had to get a white colleague to admit the patient and do the treatment.”

“The time is not opportune,” the official church used to say when confronted by these moral outrages. “The time was never opportune,” Dr. Falls recalled. “But let me tell you this: Segregation is always a conscious thing. It’s not just a way of life or a cultural thing. Those who were responsible always knew what they were doing. And that included church leaders.”

In mid-January, Dr. Arthur Falls was buried from St. John of the Cross Catholic Church in Western Springs, a Chicago suburb, where Falls had built a home years ago in a painful effort to integrate the suburb. He was 98 years old and had been living in a nursing home in Lawton, Mich. Only a handful of people were at the funeral. Many who remembered him thought he was already dead.

Arthur Falls suffered because he was a Catholic well ahead of his time. He was a forerunner of an ecclesiastical civil rights movement that would not flower until the ’60s. In Chicago, a corps of clergy and laity were pressing for reform since the late 1930s. But nothing really happened until the mid-1960s.

In his younger days, Falls was affiliated with the Federated Colored Catholics, a group formed from the ribs of the earlier Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics. “It should have been just ‘Catholics’,” he said to me over 50 years later, stressing his often repeated theme of catholic as a synonym for universal.

“This isn’t very Christian,” he continued, “but at one of our meetings, we discussed whether or not there was such a thing as a decent white man.” The question indicates the anger felt by “colored” Catholics who had been pressing their faces against the stained glass of church windows for decades.

The federation eventually evolved into the Catholic Interracial Council of New York, which spread to many other cities, including Chicago, where Falls tried to initiate a chapter. But he never quite succeeded in turning racial justice into a popular movement among Catholics.

Falls was the son of a post office employee and a dressmaker. His parents were Creole Catholics, people descended from or culturally related to the French settlers of the Southern United States, especially Louisiana, which has the largest number of black Catholics in the country.

Born in 1901, he attended public elementary and high school (no Catholic school would accept him). After junior college, he entered Northwestern University’s Medical School, where the professors in the gross anatomy lab would assure the students they needn’t be nervous about making mistakes. “Don’t worry about it,” they were told. “We can always go out on the street and get a nigger to dissect.”

Falls’ parish as a child was Our Lady of Solace. “There was very little solace,” he recalled. “Officially, we didn’t have to sit in a separate part of the church as in some parishes. But we had to go to the children’s Mass, although we couldn’t sit with the parish school children. On Saturdays, when we went to confession, whites had their confessions heard first. We had to keep going to the back of the line. Each parish had its way of telling you that you didn’t belong.”

Falls got his medical license in 1925. He established an office on Chicago’s South Side, near Provident Hospital, the only hospital that would accept black physicians. It was years before even one Catholic hospital would accept black patients.

“My practice was heavily obstetrical,” he recalled. “I was always careful to explain the church’s position on reproductive issues. I never did an abortion. I don’t believe in it.”

Yet Falls also objected to the church’s single-issue focus on abortion. “If the church had put as much energy into racial issues as it has on abortion, we would have held and increased the black Catholic population,” he said.

In 1934, Peter Maurin, cofounder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, invited himself to Falls’ house. He stayed a week and introduced Falls to a church he had never known before. “It was a church I believed in and waited for,” he said.

Later he wrote letters to The Catholic Worker, Day’s famous one-cent-a-copy newspaper. Eventually, Falls’ letters became a regular feature, under the caption “Letter from Chicago.” He also persuaded Dorothy to change the paper’s nameplate, which featured two white men clasping hands. One was replaced by a black man.

He began writing letters to the Chicago chancery office, asking them to integrate the professional staffs and to accept black patients in their hospitals. “I never tried to push myself,” he said. “But when you’re colored, you are always accused of being uppity.

“I learned a lesson,” he continued. “If I wrote a letter, it wasn’t answered. Their lack of response was an answer. I got a lot of non-answers.” He was never given an appointment with the archbishop. His effort to establish a Catholic Interracial group was viewed as an attempt to stir up trouble.

The archbishop for much of this period was Cardinal Samuel Stritch (1939-1958). Stritch had been preceded by Cardinal George Mundelein (1915-1939), who had segregated the Chicago church following the riots of 1919. Stritch’s constant answer was, “The time is not opportune.” Meanwhile, pastors who practiced blatant racism were never rebuked.

From 1946 to 1953, there were six race riots in Chicago. Stritch remained silent, saying only, “Give it more time.”

“This is very unchristian of me,” Falls said nearly 50 years later, “but Stritch was a bastard.”

Falls filed four lawsuits against individual Catholic hospitals. The word spread, and most of the other hospitals began to accept black physicians and patients.

Falls “was a leader in his own right,” his friend, Ed Marciniak, a renowned double agent for both the church and the lay movement, said. “He never became a card-carrying member of the civic or church establishment.”

But Arthur Falls was a stubborn man -- and proud of it. One friend, the late Msgr. Daniel Cantwell, confirmed the stubborn streak. Asked if an apology from the then-archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1982-1996), would mend past wounds, Cantwell said: “No, I don’t think Arthur would be impressed by that. He was a perfectionist, a lone fighter. He was just too stubborn.”

“I think he would qualify as a martyr,” said Msgr. John Hayes, an aged priest who had visited the Catholic Worker discussion center often. “He certainly has earned it.” Falls’ funeral was as quiet as it was small. His wife of over 60 years had died on Easter morning in 1988, never having become a Catholic. Chances are the African-American doctors and nurses in the now-integrated hospitals in which Falls never got to practice have never heard of him.

“This is an unchristian thought,” Falls said at the end of our interview at Lawton’s White Oak Retirement Home. “I hope to live to be a hundred. But when I die, I want to go to Heaven and sit next to St. Peter at the Last Judgment and listen to all those explanations about why the time was never ripe.”

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he practices levitation and bilocation. You may view him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2000