175 Flashback: African American Catholics enjoy rich heritage
The strength and the beauty of Catholicism lies, in part, in the diversity of its followers. The notion of the Catholic Church as an immigrant church is well known. Lesser known are the stories and the contributions of African Americans to the faith. Here in Buffalo, African American Catholicism enjoys a rich heritage beginning very soon after the establishment of the diocese.
The Diocese of Buffalo was established in 1847, and first stirrings of an African American Catholic population came within a decade. Ministering out of the newly constructed St. Joseph Cathedral was Father Serge de Schonlepnikoff, who in 1856 was vicar general for the German and French of the diocese.
Father Schonlepnikoff, a political activist and fierce opponent of slavery, was reputed to have been involved in much of the underground railroad activity that was taking place in Buffalo at the time. With his own money and the encouragement of Bishop John Timon, first bishop of Buffalo, Father Schonlepnikoff rented a house on the city’s East Side for the purpose of providing a “social club” and a place of worship for Buffalo’s Black community. According to Msgr. Walter Kern, archivist for the diocese, Catholicism was, “welcoming them without putting too many strings on them until they were ready to go deeper into it.”
Within a year of its opening, the home known as St. Augustine’s Social Club was functioning as a chapel, catechetical center, and gathering spot. Father Schonlepnikoff was even able to secure $30 per month from the diocese for general expenses. It would seem that the first Catholic outreach in the local Black community was a success.
When Father Schonlepnikoff left Buffalo in 1858, diocesan financial support for St. Augustine’s ended. As a result, Blacks either left the Church or worshipped in segregated white parishes.
In 1912, another priest working out of the cathedral, began to actively reach out to the African American community. On Feb. 26, 1912, with the encouragement of Bishop Charles Colton, Father John Biden called a meeting to discuss the role of the Church with regard to evangelization in the African American population of Buffalo. The result of that meeting was the establishment of St. Augustine’s Catholic Club.
George Thompson, grandson of a former slave and a highly respected man of the community, was elected president of St. Augustine’s and the small congregation of about 100 was given use of the chapel adjoining St. Joseph Cathedral. It was from this that the desire to have a parish of their own grew. It was a desire that would soon be realized.
Unlike its predecessor, however, this St. Augustine’s would ultimately become a self-sustaining entity of the diocese.
On July 14, 1947, Bishop O’Hara announced the closing of Buffalo’s two Black missions – St. Augustine and St. Peter Claver. This made Buffalo the first diocese to abolish segregation.
Excerpted from “Diocese of Buffalo Through the Years,” published by the diocesan Office of Communications 2000.