Integrating Parishes: Greensboro

“To work at ending racism, we need to engage the world and encounter others—to see, maybe for the first time, those who are on the peripheries of our own limited view. Knowing that the Lord has taken the divine initiative by loving us first, we can boldly go forward, reaching out to others. We must invite into dialogue those we ordinarily would not seek out. We must work to form relationships with those we might regularly try to avoid.” (23)

“So many of our parishes are richly diverse, composed of people from various cultures and ethnic groups, such that they can be a model for the whole Church and for the country.” (27)

Open Wide Our Hearts:  The Enduring Call to Love a Pastoral Letter against Racism by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

In 1953, Bishop Vincent Waters of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina ordered all Catholic churches desegregated in the Diocese, followed shortly afterward, in 1955, by the desegregation of Catholic schools.  Over the course of the next twenty years, the impact of desegregation on the Church and the schools was felt across North Carolina.

Since 1928, the Daughters of Charity taught at St. Mary’s School in Greensboro, North Carolina.  In 1949, the school changed its name to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a parish school designated to serve African-American children.  When desegregation began, students started to attend St. Pius X School, leading to a drop in numbers at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal School.

In 1972, the difficult decision was made to close the school due to declining enrollment, and the Daughters began to re-examine how best to serve the parish community of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal.  That same year, four Daughters arrived at the parish to tackle this challenge.

Letter from Father Robert Clifford, C.M. of Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Parish

The first step taken was to reconnect the parish to its roots and change the name back to St. Mary’s.  The next step, in the spirit of Vatican II and the recommendations for lay involvement in the life of a parish, was to create a Parish Council.  This would prove to be even more important in the coming years as the process of desegregation continued within the church and throughout the city.

In 1974, the Diocese of Charlotte, of which the parish was now a part, ended the designation as the African-American parish.  Instead, the parish was to have a defined territory just like all the others in the parish.  The surrounding territory brought together people of different social classes and incomes, as well as brought white and black neighborhoods together for the first time in the parish.

The Daughters of Charity now served at St. Mary’s Center, the social outreach arm of the parish.  Sisters served on the Council, as social workers, directing programs of the Parish, visiting the aged and sick, and working with returning citizens.

First Parish Council meeting, October 3, 1972

According to Sister Agnes Silvestro’s report in 1975, the purpose of the Daughters’ ministries at the parish was defined as follows: 

“St. Mary’s is an integrated parish where staff and parishioners [sic] are working together to become a people pleasing to the Father, a ‘single people,’ a FAITH COMMUNITY.”

She also wrote about the need to balance competing claims to the ownership of the Parish from white and Black members.  African-American members outnumbered white members, yet, according to Sister Agnes, ”whites for the most part [were] more vocal.”

Nonetheless, the Sisters, assisted by the Vincentian priests who ministered to the parish, persisted in their work.  Although the Daughters departed in 1980, they laid out plans for a long-lasting and successful parish.  The interior of the church today has been modernized, but essentially looks much as it did almost 90 years.  From the 1970s to the 1990s, the Parish incorporated even more changes into its community life as immigrant communities from Africa, Asia, and Latin America arrived in the community.

Interior of St. Mary’s Parish today (Source: https://stmarysgreensboro.org/)
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish, 1938

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