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Black History Month: St. Monica Catholic Church grows to reflect area’s multi-cultural mix

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By Stephanie Hornback

“Its doors have always been open to all, in Christian love and acceptance, but its soul and mind have never ceased to be Black.”

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The above is an excerpt from a 25th anniversary publication for St. Monica Catholic Church. But 1981 was the anniversary only of the St. Monica facilities on South Third Street. The church’s roots actually go back almost to the Civil War.

In 1868, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth began teaching the children of black Catholics in a small frame house in Bardstown where Medica is today. The house eventually became known as St. Monica School.

According to the Rev. Clyde Crews, a historian with the Archdiocese of Louisville, St. Monica and St. Augustine, who were African, are names reserved for predominantly African-American parishes. Augustine was Monica’s son, Crews said.

“St. Monica and St. Augustine are names very revered in Catholic circles,” Crews said.

Even though a school had been established for the children of black Catholics, the families still attended St. Joseph Church, from “time immemorial,” according to the anniversary publication. It was their custom to sit on the west side of the church. But things started to change in 1942, when the archdiocese appointed the Rev. Michael Lally to minister to the African-American members of St. Joseph while serving as chaplain to the students at St. Joseph Preparatory School. With a mandate to establish a separate parish, on All Saints Day, 1942, Lally celebrated Mass in the new St. Monica Chapel in the school building.

Ground was broken on the present-day St. Monica Church in 1955, and before it was even finished, Lally celebrated the first Mass there on Christmas Eve, 1955. A new school building followed, and one day the children lined up at their old school, with a crucifix and an American flag in the front, and Sister Cecilia Edward led them to their new school.

St. Monica School closed in the late 1960s when St. Joseph School expanded. Carrie Stivers, a lifelong member of the parish, remembers that and practically everything else. She describes St. Monica today as a laid-back Vatican II church. And it’s not just for African-Americans, she said. Young and old, black and white, disabled, Asian, and so on, they’re welcome at St. Monica, Stivers said.

“We call ourselves a multicultural church,” she said.

The Rev. Jeffrey Hopper, who was appointed to St. Monica and St. Thomas in January following the death of former pastor the Rev. Wally Dant, agrees with Stivers that St. Monica is made up of people of many ethnic backgrounds.

“They seem to be a very welcoming community,” said Hopper, who said he hadn’t yet learned much about the parish’s history since he has been there such a short time and since his appointment was so sudden.

A retired Army chaplain, Hopper has worked for years with people of all races and ethnicities.

“This is the same, but different,” he said.

Mass is celebrated at St. Monica 8 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. Sunday, and 10 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday.