From mission to Mecca: An African-American Catholic church redefines itself

Mary A Ward, Fordham University


My study examines the experiences of African American Catholics through the window of Queen of Angels parish in Newark, New Jersey. It is the story of an errand in the urban wilderness by lay African Americans who desired at first to pass on their faith, and then to have a church and priest of their own. It is the story of how they came to accomplish their goals, and of the people who assisted them in their enterprise. This is a popular history which encounters the ordinary "person in the pew" in their concrete reality, honoring their values and cosmology, and their struggle for freedom with its "deep religious resonance." The sacred cosmos in which the people were imbued and which was derived from an ancient tradition of African Americans was very much in evidence in the oral and written data obtained. For seven years I was a participant-observer and a fellow traveler with many of the parishioners and ministers, present and past. I observed that the impulse of the persons involved was not toward cynicism but rather toward an abiding and tenacious faith in the reality of goodness and a "blessed assurance." My findings, measured against the sacred cosmos thesis and the dialectical typologies of priestly versus prophetic and accommodation versus resistance, revealed a continual discourse informed by faith and negotiated between these typologies. Multiple discourses took place among the African American people themselves; it occurred between them and the mainly white clergy, women religious and lay volunteers who ministered to them; and it transpired between both of these groups and the church hierarchy and secular society which exerted control over them. With self-conscious determination, the parishioners persevered in their pilgrimage toward complete participation in a church to which they knew they belonged. Ultimately, they turned their mission status into a "mecca status," that is, they transformed themselves into a people who contributed solutions, even in the midst of need. The hope is that this local study will contribute to the larger picture of the African American Catholic journey toward spiritual, economic, and political freedom.

Subject Area

Religious congregations|Theology

Recommended Citation

Ward, Mary A, "From mission to Mecca: An African-American Catholic church redefines itself" (1998). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9825856.