When St. Malachy parish was founded in 1860, the Mill Creek neighborhood in which it was located was largely Irish. By the early 20th century, the neighborhood formed the heart of a major African American neighborhood of St. Louis, with successful small businesses, churches, and a music scene helmed as the home base of Scott Joplin and Josephine Baker.
In 1941, the Archdiocese of St. Louis turned operation of the parish over to the Jesuit Fathers. By this point, redlining and segregation had eroded the neighborhood, with the city neglecting to care for water, electricity, or deteriorating buildings. It was in this environment that the Jesuits invited the Daughters of Charity, long established in the St. Louis area, to open a school.
The school operated from 1941 to 1959, although enrollment began to decline after 1947 when Archbishop Joseph Ritter enacted desegregation throughout the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese. Prior to desegregation, the accounts in the collection written by Daughters of Charity depict a group of sisters trying their hardest under highly restricted circumstances, teaching in a substandard building with secondhand supplies and minimal assistance.
Archbishop Ritter had advocated integration in the schools before the Supreme Court Brown v. Board decision, and the end of segregated schooling offered a happy ending for the children and their educations. A 1957 account in the collection attested that “because the children of our families are now permitted to attend white schools, their families are moving into better neighborhoods.” This did not mean that the old neighborhood saw an end to its neglect, however. Whether it was described as “slum clearing” or “urban renewal,” the effect was the same when, in 1959, almost 20,000 residents were removed and much of the neighborhood – including St. Malachy Parish – was demolished. https://news.stlpublicradio.org/show/st-louis-on-the-air/2018-03-01/remembering-mill-creek-valley-once-home-to-20-000-black-st-louisans
The St. Malachy School collection is not large, just half an archival box that stacks three or four inches high. The Daughters’ accounts reflect the challenges of the times in which they lived and served. They show a strong awareness that their students were being shortchanged, both by the poverty of their neighborhood and the way in which their schools had been neglected for resources. There is evident regret that they were unable to do more for their students:
Sister Aurelia [Hogan] had trained her summer school catachumens well, and the neophtes [sic] followed suit. The older boys brought out saw-horses on which they placed boards, making two long tables, while benches and chairs were quickly hauled forward. The children, smaller ones first, formed in a single line leading toward the counter, at which seven W.P.A. [Works Progress Administration] colored workers dished up a steaming hot dinner. We marveled at the order maintained, for though each child received his portion and immediately walked to his place, not one touched a morsel until the entire table – about fifty children had been seated. Then, with heads reverently bowed, they said Grace in unison, and ate dinner. Poor hungry children! Father informed us that this was the only “square” meal some of them got all day. It was furnished in part by the W.P.A. surplus commodity program, while Father supplied the rest with whatever financial assistance he was able to procure from charitable benefactors.
Of classroom equipment there was none – no text-books, no blackboards nor chalk, no paper nor pencils. So, with a fervent “Veni Sancte” in our hearts, we read and sang – anything to quell disorder, — until Father McHattie arrived to perform what was probably the hardest duty of his new position. How his big, compassionate heart must have hurt as he quietly explained to the children that as we could accommodate only two hundred pupils, he was forced to send nearly half of them back to their former schools. Then Father read a list of names and a sad, heartbroken crowd of youngsters followed him out of the room.
The narrative accounts of St. Malachy and the neighborhood all depict African Americans from a white point of view, but this does not mean that the collections are devoid of information that directly provides pieces of information about individual members of Mill Creek’s African American residents. While there are no surviving class lists in the collection, programs of events provide names of students along with their graduating year. Other publications reflect the pride of taking part in the school and parish communities and demonstrate a proud and successful Black Catholic parish.
The collection also, perhaps most valuably, contains approximately 50 photographs that show the life of the school and of the Mill Creek neighborhood. Among them are the joy that only comes from children.
The collection is available here in the Archives for on-site research. It is a candidate for digitization in the near future, and we hope to provide an update when that day arrives. Based upon research need, we can create scans for remote use. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to schedule an appointment.