The First Four Divine Word African American priests from
St. Augustine's were ordained on May 23. 1934.
(from left) Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Francis Wade and Vincent Smith
For a more detailed view of the Seminary early days read the paper prepared by Father Joseph Simon, SVD at the 1995 Xavier Symposium.
ST. AUGUSTINE'S SEMINARY
Brother Dennis Newton, SVD
"It must be clear to everyone that it is surely a grave injustice to exclude a whole race from the priesthood, principally because prejudice will greatly hamper them in their religious activities, or a cordial cooperation with white priests may meet with great obstacles. Such an injustice is bound to work havoc and bring down heavy vengeance upon him who becomes guilty of it."
These words were penned by Fr. Matthew Christman, SVD in 1926. Fr. Christman, the founding rector of St. Augustine’s Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Ms., fought many prejudices to begin the first Seminary in the United States to train Black men for religious life and priesthood in 1920. Established originally in Greenville, Mississippi, Fr. Christman moved the seminary to Bay St. Louis in 1923.
Pope Pius Xl, in a letter to the Superior General of the Society of the Divine Word in 1923, congratulated the Society for beginning the Seminary for training Black Americans. The Holy Father wrote: "In your new undertaking you are following the very principle which has always guided the Catholic Church. To this mother has arisen, especially in recent times, a numerous progeny among the black races – a host of children who have frequently displayed virtues so splendid that they have sealed their faith with their blood."
On May 23, 1934, Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Vincent Smith, and Francis Wade were ordained by Bishop Richard Gerow of Natchez in the presence of over 2,000 persons gathered at St. Augustine’s. Fr. Christman, who worked so hard for this day, had died of heart failure on Valentine’s Day five years earlier at the age of 41.
All of us can appreciate this accomplishment for it was the first time in the history of the United States that a group of Black men was ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Can we ever, however, even imagine the depth of the heartache and frustration, or the amount of planning and labor, or the hours of quiet service and prayer which made the vision a reality.
Our rich past give us much pride, but more importantly it offers a tremendous challenge. Spotting injustices and recognizing needs are gifts often given to many. Unfortunately, how many of us are frozen there. Fr. Christman and our other pioneering missionaries, by their example, show us the path of perseverance, courage and faithful discipleship.