Probably nothing lives to be 100 without struggles along the way. St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church certainly has had its share.
An interstate divided its neighborhood and destroyed its high school. A priest told parishioners the church should close. A sanctuary was designed anticipating the church might fail.
Yet, on Sunday, Dec. 30, the Baton Rouge area’s first black Catholic church will celebrate its centennial with the theme “Through trials and tribulations, by God’s grace, we triumph.”
“Our history has been about survival,” said Niles Haymer, the Parish Council chairman.
For many years, African-American Catholics worshiped at St. Joseph Cathedral and, later, at St. Agnes Catholic Church, which was closer to the predominantly black south Baton Rouge area. Early in the 20th century, a site was chosen at Julia and South 11th streets for a church exclusively for black Catholics, and the first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day, 1918. The Josephite Fathers of Baltimore, Maryland, sent the Rev. Joseph Dube to be the first priest at St. Francis Xavier. Many parishioners worked to build the brick sanctuary.
Unlike parishes that sprung up as Baton Rouge grew, St. Francis Xavier never received geographic boundaries. A school began in 1920 and flourished along with the church. A high school was added in the mid-1950s. More than 3,000 people were on the church rolls, according to St. Francis Xavier’s written history.
But problems were coming.
When Interstate 10 was built, the planned route went straight through the high school. Only six classes graduated from the high school before it was leveled. Interstate construction vibration damaged the sanctuary.
“The front of the old church was actually 11 feet from the interstate,” said Walter Williams, a former Parish Council chairman. “As a kid, when I was growing up, I never could figure out, ‘Why the heck did they build the church by the interstate,’ not knowing the interstate came through (later).”
I-10 also cut through the heart of the community surrounding St. Francis Xavier, destroying homes and businesses. Attendance declined. As the church reached its 50-year anniversary in 1968, its priest, the Rev. Vincent Keenan, had a discouraging message.
“He stated to us that he had come to close the church and direct the members to become members of St. Agnes Church,” lifelong member Sophia White said. “He said there was a church in a nearby neighborhood and it wasn’t to capacity.
“We always dreamed and talked about building a new church, but he said there was no money available and the parish members were old, and it just didn’t seem feasible. … It didn’t make sense to him.”
Parishioners argued with Keenan at the rectory at night, and some marched to protest at the residence of Baton Rouge Diocese Bishop Robert Tracy. Older members told of how unwelcome they had felt attending St. Agnes before St. Francis Xavier came into being.
Ultimately, Tracy said the church would remain open as long as parishioners kept coming, and he later approved building a new sanctuary because of damage to the original building. Hedging his bets, the bishop said the sanctuary would be designed so that it could be used as an auditorium or another purpose should the church close. It was dedicated in 1978; stained glass wasn’t added until years later, Williams said.
The school also fended off attempts to merge it with the St. Agnes School. White, then a member of the diocesan school board, argued that St. Francis had more certified teachers and a more modern building. The school remains.
“It’s the first time … they closed a white school in favor of a black school, because everything was better in that environment,” she said. "We couldn’t believe that it happened.”
Although many parishioners moved away from the neighborhood, they kept coming to the church, said the Rev. Edward Chiffriller, who is now pastor. St. Francis Xavier has 530 registered families.
What keeps them coming?
The feeling that members are family, said Gail Vavasseur, a longtime member. The music is a big draw, too, said Betty Bickham, whose ancestors helped found the church.
“We’ve got gospel music in our church, which is a wonderful thing,” Bickham said. “People are allowed to worship in our heritage. As African-Americans, we’re allowed to sing gospel songs. We even have drummers and saxophone players that come into our Mass. I think it’s being able to practice our faith in our own culture.”
Haymer, 40, doesn’t have the multigenerational roots at St. Francis Xavier like some other members, but he identifies with what the church has been through.
“All the trials and tribulations in the African-American community over the last 30, 40 years are reflected in our parish, but we have still triumphed and we are triumphing right now,” Haymer said. “That’s why we’re so proud of the 100-year-old history, because there are some churches that didn’t make it. We made it.”
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church 100th Anniversary Gala
WHEN: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 30
WHERE: Belle of Baton Rouge Capital Atrium, 800 S. River Road, Baton Rouge
SPEAKER: Retired Army Gen. Russel Honore
TICKETS/INFO: $75, stfrancisxavierbr.org