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Blacks built a church of their own in 1945

NCR Staff
Arlington, Va.

Thaddenia West takes joy in Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, which she helped found 55 years ago. At 86, she's the sole surviving member of the 16 founding black Catholic families who built a church of their own in Arlington, Va., because they weren't welcome at the white Catholic parish up the road.

Rather than look back too much, West prefers to keep busy and look at the parish activities around her. Last year she founded the parish's Seasoned Christians group for seniors.

But she hasn't forgotten the symbolism in that white parish. The rear pew, the one that could be used by African-Americans, had a little chain linked across the opening. The chain was to keep the black Catholics in place until the white Catholics had taken Communion. Then the chain was released and the African-Americans were allowed to receive.

“It was difficult if not impossible to be a community of faith in such a setting,” West recalls.

Arlington’s few black Catholics, in the early 1940s, in what were then the northern reaches of the Richmond, Va., diocese (now the Arlington diocese), decided to do something about it. Sixteen black families contacted the bishop and asked if they could form a parish of their own.

White, black or polka dot

Two distinct forces were at work galvanizing this handful of people. World War II had not yet ended. Black men had for years been fighting in Europe and the Pacific for other people’s freedoms. African-Americans understood the irony and were pressing for their own freedoms and equality at home. Unwelcome in some churches, they built a church founded on such a welcome.

“Many of us had white friends,” said West. “We wanted everyone, white, black, gray, green -- or polka dot, as the minister from Mount Zion said.” Mount Zion is the neighboring African Methodist Episcopal church. Its pastor shared Martin Luther King Day services at Queen of Peace Church. “Polka dot” isn't far off. At the spring festival, parishioners staffing food booths offered fare from their native Haiti and El Salvador, Asia and the Philippines, Africa and the United States, while the Sheehy family mariachi band -- Mom, Pop and two young sons -- entertained.

More than a half century ago, the final force pushing toward a black parish was the needs of the children. West, the youngest member of the founding families, had three. She knew, as the other families did, that they needed what now is called “a faith community,” with emphasis on community.

There was a church that welcomed black Catholics: St. Joseph's in Alexandria. That’s where the West children were baptized. They went to St. Joseph’s to Mass, to Sunday school, to parish activities.

Trouble was it took three buses, and much standing in rain or snow, in cold or blistering heat to get there from Arlington's Nauk section. Sometimes a crowded-to-capacity auto was available for the return trip, sometimes not.

“The children never complained,” said West, “they were dedicated. And it was some sacrifice for [black] families to get to Alexandria, or into Washington, D.C., to churches there.”

West was a Washington native herself. Six years ago, at 80, after 57-and-a-half years of service, she retired from Washington’s premier (now merged out of existence) department store, “Woodies” -- Woodward and Lothrop. Her husband's family ran Hayes Ice and Coal from Capitol Hill.

She was a teenager when her father -- “He was a baptized Catholic. At that time, I was not” -- moved the family to then rural Arlington because one daughter had asthma.

“My family didn't know whether they were black, white or what. They were run out of black schools because black schools thought they were white, and white schools when they found out they were black. But that was part of the times. It was so terribly bad. It's sort of hard to even talk about it.”

West wed but raised her three children pretty much as a single mother, making sure the children were brought up Catholic.

And then, in early1945, few in number but closely knit, Arlington’s black Catholics finally gathered in the Second Street home of Edward and Alice Moorman to meet with Bishop Peter Ireton's representative.

Subsequently the bishop said yes to the parish. When contacted, the Holy Ghost Fathers said yes to staffing it. The families said, “Yes, we'll build it.” And then began the saga of almost every little church ever built in America by a fledgling congregation. Services in peoples’ homes. Then the rented room. And the bake sales and used clothing sales, and scouting around for land at a price they could afford.

Pentecost community

The first pastor, Fr. Joseph Hackett, said Mass in the recreation room at the Dunbar Homes project. The founders, with bundles of donated used clothing, would take the bus into the poorer parts of Washington to sell their wares.

“We had lawn parties. We had everything you can think of to raise money,” said West. “A big collection those days was $40 for the week. Those who could afford it put in a dollar, which was big money.”

Founding family member Clarence Brown, who died in 1993 at 98, worked through a local realtor to acquire for $14,000 the 1.7-acre tract on South 19th St. The Holy Ghost Fathers guaranteed the money.

“Mrs. Moorman -- the church would never have been built without her -- and Fr. Hackett turned the first shovels of earth,” said West. “We became a Pentecost community.” The first Mass for the homeless parish was in a parishioner's home on Pentecost 1945. The church was blessed by Bishop Ireton on Pentecost 1947.

Frosted glass. No stained glass windows.

In 1948, Fr. Michael Kanda succeeded Hackett, becoming the second of the parish’s seven pastors to date. Kanda “was the best pastor we ever had,” said West, “except for Fr. Jeff (Duaime, current pastor). He's so young and he's done such a wonderful job with us in five years. So pastoral.

“These priests have always lived poor themselves. Wonderful workers. Fr. Kanda's shoes were always falling apart. He never had any food in the house. He'd knock on the door, sometimes 11 o'clock at night, bless us all, and my mother and father would bring out something for him to eat.

“He was a young and a very, very busy person. He visited every black family in the community. The children loved him. Some much so,” said West. “He brought a lot of black converts. Many of us were going to church and baptized later. Black people were bringing their children because they really wanted to come.”

Kanda started the altar boys. West’s son, Clifton Norris West Jr., was the first. Her daughter, Beverly West Goode, had the first formal wedding in Queen of Peace. “There were a few less formal weddings because the priest had to regularize” existing unions, West said.

And daughter Raquel West Hall’s was the second formal wedding.

The next difficult issue for the parish's black community, she said, began about a quarter-century ago as the trend began that changed it from a traditional black parish to one in which African-Americans are these days perhaps 15 percent of the community.

“We felt awful. We felt terrible, we really did,” said West. “On the other hand, we knew these were our friends, and it has been wonderful coming together. We certainly pray and act as if we are together. In my senior meetings, there's so much love.”

There was much love Sunday, Sept. 9, in Bluemont Park when the parish gathered under the trees for its annual bilingual Mass. Scores of parishioners on folding chairs, kids on blankets, the babies in strollers, the music sung in English, Spanish and African languages.

Varied ethnic foods (the parish provided the hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and soft drinks), varying shades of the world's people of color, snatches of many accents. Among the hymns (alternating English and Spanish verses), was “Amazing Grace.”

Franciscan Fr. Joe Nangle and Fr. Jeff concelebrated. Off in the distance, a large Muslim family occasionally turned from its charcoal grill to gaze at what was going on. At the other fringe of the parish crowd, people came along and stood to watch, or join in the singing. In her folding chair, surrounded by friends and parish family, Thaddenia West sat near the front. The last survivor of a little group of courageous black Catholics who opened up their tiny cinderblock church with no stained-glass windows to the world.

Amazing grace, indeed.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000