In the shadow of Ebenezer: a black Catholic parish in the age of civil rights and Vatican II
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This dissertation explores the racial and religious history of black Catholics in the United States through a focus on the critical intersection of the Civil Rights Movement and the Second Vatican Council as it was experienced at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, uniquely situated in the heart of Atlanta, a city that was a cradle for the Civil Rights Movement and the home of influential churches like Ebenezer Baptist. Tracing the early history of the parish, I outline the role of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament (SBS) in establishing the Our Lady of Lourdes School and Parish. The SBS were a missionary women’s religious order that was founded by St. Katherine Drexel in 1891 with the charism to evangelize “the Indian and the colored” through the Catholic education. The willingness of Atlanta’s black Protestants to support the work of the SBS attached to Our Lady of Lourdes, despite their general misgivings towards what they perceived to be a “white church,” is a testament to the order’s unusually progressive commitment to interracial action. During its existence from 1912 to 2001, the Our Lady of Lourdes School was regarded as a cost-effective alternative to segregated public schools for blacks regardless of religious affiliation. Like many Catholic schools in minority areas Our Lady of Lourdes faced many challenges during its existence, including persistent financial problems, the withdrawal of the SBS in 1974, and the proliferation of new educational opportunities for blacks after desegregation. The ability of the Our Lady of Lourdes community to keep the school operational until 2001 illustrates the importance of inner city Catholic schools to minority populations. The convergence of the Civil Rights Movement and Vatican II in the 1960s affected how the parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes defined themselves as blacks and Catholics within a segregated society. School desegregation and white flight fundamentally changed the place of the parish in the urban Catholic landscape. Nevertheless, these religious and racial reevaluations enabled the Our Lady of Lourdes community to revitalize itself through liturgical inculturation and the embrace of its heritage as an Auburn Avenue religious institution.