In 1878 the black enrollment had expanded at St. Michael’s in the Irish Channel, New Orleans, and this good nun, Mother Austin, built a larger school behind the white school since there was so much land in the area. With the new school, the sisters were able to start a sodality for the African-Americans. The name of the sodality was The Holy Family Sodality. The sodality was associated with Notre Dame du Bon Secour Church, a parish of predominantly French-speaking people, who like most French parishes welcomed the black people.
Mother Austin experienced a different sort of prejudice here. The mulattoes (lighter skin blacks) would not mix with the darker skin black children. The sisters had to devise a plan to handle both groups.
The story is told of a sodality procession where there was one mulatto and one black-skinned child, each without a partner, and each refused to walk with the other. So at the end of each group was a single child without a partner. This situation was similar to the one Mother Austin experienced in Pensacola, Fla.
Another reason some parents kept their children at home was for financial reasons. The children peddled wares on the street. One source of income was brick shavings. The children would shave or pound certain types of brick into a fine powder and charge a nickel for the powder. It was a good little income. Even as a child, I remember pounding a certain type of brick into a powder that was used to scrub my grandmother’s wooden back steps.
Mother Austin also opened several schools for black children in Belize.
The year 1882 saw the birth of Mother Austin’s black school in Hot Springs, Ark. The school was opened on the same grounds as the new St. Mary’s Academy for white students. Many opposed the operation, but the Sisters of Mercy refused to close the school. The local Protestant ministers, who led the opposition, constantly intimidated and threatened the black parents. As a result, many parents kept their children from attending the school. The school was finally closed due to lack of enrollment.
As we face the many challenges surrounding Catholic education today, may we remember the very vital role that Catholic schools have played in the African-American community. They have been a choice of quality education in very poor areas oftentimes plagued with inferior education from the public sector. They have been a depot of faith and values. They have formed hearts and minds with spiritual gifts necessary to navigate through society. And in doing so, Catholic schools have transformed society. The black Bishops of the United States wrote in the pastoral letter. “What We Have Seen and Heard” these words about Catholic education – “The Catholic school has been and remains one of the chief vehicles of evangelization within the black community. We cannot overemphasize the tremendous importance of parochial schools for the black community. We even dare to suggest that the efforts made to support them and to insure their continuation are a touchstone to the local church’s sincerity in the evangelization of the black community” (What We Have Seen and Heard, page 28)
Today, most black Catholics do not realize the good done by Catholic schools and this gracious lady- Mother Austin. Growing up Catholic in New Orleans, I never heard of the Sisters of Mercy’s involvement with the education of black Catholics. However I am more than happy to share this bit of information with our readers. To God Be the Glory!
My paternal grandfather was orphaned early in his childhood. A German family in the Irish Channel reared him to adulthood. I often wonder if my grandfather was the recipient of the missionary activities of Mother Austin. Shortly before his death, my grandfather moved back to the place of his childhood, the Irish Channel.
Oblate Sister of Providence Reginald Gerdes is a historical researcher for the Oblate Sisters of Providence.