Edmundites reflect on church-racism discussion

February 14, 2018
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

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In light of last month’s discussions about race and privilege on the Saint Michael’s College campus during mid-January’s Annual MLK Week, members of the Society of Saint Edmund, the College’s founding religious order, recently brought to wider campus attention an article from National Catholic Reporter that addresses the Catholic church’s response to racism — both through U.S. history and more recently in a fast-changing national social and political climate.

The NCR article by reporter Heidi Schlumpf, titled “Bishop lays out plans for ‘eradicating this plague’ of racism,” pivots on a strongly worded early-February address in our nation’s capital to Catholics involved in social ministry by Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio – who, Schlumpf reports, traced the history of Catholic attitudes toward slavery, race and African-Americans. Murray, chair of the bishops’ new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, charged that American Catholics have shown a “lack of moral consciousness on the issue of race” and urged bold action by the church to “break the silent complicity with the social evil of racism that has marred the past and continues to mar the present.”

Fr. Stanley Deresienski, SSE ’74 of the resident campus Edmundite community at Saint Michael’s, who worked many years in the Edmundite Southern Missions, took initiative to share the NCR piece with several Saint Michael’s community members last week in hopes of raising more campus awareness about the issues raised in the article. Fr. Stan said that for him, the news in the article was cause for hope that such issues are now more squarely being brought to light by the U.S. Bishops.

Very Rev. Stephen Hornat, Edmundite superior general – who, like Fr. Stan, worked many years in the SSE Southern Missions – had this to say about the timely issues raised in the NCR article:

“The Edmundites have been taking a stand against racism since 1937 when we committed to work in the Black communities of the South. Our men experienced discrimination and threats on their lives as they faced the evil of racism.  Fr. Ouellette had the courage to be the first white person in Selma, AL, to open up his facilities to Martin Luther King and the voting rights movement.  Their courage is required of us today. In the face of the raising white supremacy movement that is infecting our country, we Edmundites need to be clear where we stand in the face of this evil. Being on the sidelines is not an option for those working for justice.”

In a letter to the Communications Office for sharing with the wider College community Monday, Fr. Deresienski wrote that he was “happy to read that the new chair of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism is breathing new life into the Church’s fight against racism.

“Having worked in our Southern Missions in Alabama (Director of Pastoral Care for the Edmundite Southern Missions and the Director and Pastor of the City of St. Jude and the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Tuskegee) and in Louisiana (Xavier University Director of Campus Ministry and Instructor in the Graduate School and the Director of Housing) I have experienced firsthand the Church’s need to be proactive in addressing the evils of racism that still exist in our community,” Fr. Deresienski wrote.

“When my mainly African American parishes would hold dinners, events, Parish Missions and we would invite the whole deanery to join us to give the greater community a visible sign of our solidarity (White and People of Color Together, members of the same Church),” he said. “Very rarely would the mainly white parishes show up.  Another example of this divide was when a mainly African American Parish Pastorate became vacant.  It was really a challenge to find a diocesan priest willing to take that assignment. This was in part due to the racial wealth gap. Parishes that were mainly composed of people of color in the South struggled financially.  It was also due to the different liturgical styles that are part of the African American Catholic experience. This assignment would require the priest to grow into the liturgical experience.  Thus, it would require more effort than other assignments. It was also due to a lack of experience in living in the African American Community. Lack of experience can easily translate into a fear of the unknown.  Most often the parish would be assigned a religious priest like me, an Edmundite.”

“I don’t believe that these two examples demonstrate a malicious intent on the part of the white Catholic community but they do suggest a lack of moral consciousness on the issue of race.” Fr. Deresienski wrote in his letter. “We have a moral obligation to confront the moral evil of racism. If the community doesn’t step up and speak up to break the silent complicity of the social evil of racism, the community becomes part of the problem.

“I believe we face the same challenge here at Saint Michael’s. As the Ad Hoc Committee against Racism gathers people and promotes a national conversation on race in parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions, it is my hope that we will follow suit and join this national conversation. Saint. Michael’s is my alma mater and it is a great school. It will become stronger as we tackle this challenge.”

Fr. Deresienski currently is Chaplain to the Sisters of Mercies of the Americas with Residence in Nicolle Hall on the Saint Michael’s Campus.

Fr. David J. Théroux, SSE, director of the Edmundite Center for Faith and Culture/Peace and Justice, said: “it is a great sadness for me that Catholics continue to remain silent about racism in the church as well as in our nation.  It is difficult to gauge where Catholics are in the struggle of African-Americans to achieve true dignity and justice in our nation.”

“So many in the church remain silent — silent in their prayers and silent in their actions. But, the silence is perhaps telling,” Fr. Theroux said. “Too many in the church do nothing in the belief that it is someone else’s problem and not their own.  From my time in New Orleans, I was amazed that black Catholics in almost exclusively black churches welcomed with open arms white people who worshipped with them.  I cannot say that this was true of white Catholic churches where no such welcome was evident or expressed.”

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