Blacks, Haitians Decry Closings of South Florida Catholic Churches

Jaweed Kaleem, Miami Herald, August 17, 2009

When Katrenia Reeves drives from her West Kendall home for weekly services at St. Philip Neri, she hears hymns dating to when her ancestors were slaves–Go Tell It on the Mountain and Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door–set to a background of drums and trumpets.

But the sounds of St. Philip Neri, built in 1952 by and for black parishioners, will be lost when the church shuts its doors next month as the Archdiocese of Miami closes 13 financially struggling congregations.

The archdiocese is encouraging the 141 members of St. Philip Neri to attend services at St. Monica, a Miami Gardens church where Ave Maria and the sounds of the organ may be more familiar.

“It’s the tradition, it’s culture, it’s the whole atmosphere we’re losing,” said Reeves, 60.

When Archbishop John C. Favalora said Sunday that he will close the churches, many of which serve minorities, he added that it is time for Catholics of different backgrounds to come together under bigger, more diverse churches.

But many parishioners of the black and Haitian churches facing closure say they see their congregations as an essential part of their spiritual lives.

“In a better world, we might all worship in one space equally . . . but I’m not expecting any kind of multicultural worship to happen,” said the Rev. John Cox, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Overtown, another black church that will close.

Come October, St. Francis Xavier’s 114 members were told to attend Gesu in downtown Miami, the oldest Catholic church, but many members dislike the idea.

“Our people left Gesu in the age of segregation,” Cox said. “They had to sit in the colored-only pews in the back; they had to have First Communion after white people. We still have people alive who remember those days . . . that wouldn’t necessarily be the case today, but those memories are deep.”

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“Our aim is to be a place in the black community that is aware of the black story and aware of social issues that continue to prevail in black neighborhoods in order to have a strong sense of social justice,” Cox said.

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“We prefer to have our own church,” said 46-year-old Herold Eugene, who joined St. Joseph 25 years ago when he immigrated from Haiti. “We sing in Creole, we do worship dances. Our services are longer, up to two hours.”

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Catholic dioceses around the country have proposed dozens of church closures in recent months. Minority churches have been hard hit by closures, said Sister Jamie T. Phelps, director of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.

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