Mass marks centennial of founding of first seminary in U.S. for Black seminarians

Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Francis Wade and Vincent Smith, pictured in an undated photo, were ordained May 23, 1934, at St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss. St. Augustine was the first seminary in the U.S. to train Black men for the priesthood, and the four men pictured were the first to be ordained. Founded in 1920 in Greenville, Miss., the seminary, which is in the Biloxi Diocese, was relocated three years later to Bay St. Louis. (OSV News photo/Jim Schott, courtesy St. Augustine Seminary)

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (OSV News) — The first four African Americans to be ordained Catholic priests at St. Augustine Seminary in Mississippi in 1934 “stood tall in the midst of segregated times,” said retired Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis, Tennessee.

“They were the men who stood tall, who served the Lord in some trying times. These are men who are role models for us,” the bishop said at a recent Mass celebrated to mark the centennial of the founding of the first seminary in the U.S. to train Black men for the priesthood.

Located in the Diocese of Biloxi, it was originally established by the Society of the Divine Word, also known as Divine Word Missionaries, as the Sacred Heart Preparatory Seminary in 1920 in the Mississippi Delta city of Greenville. The seminary moved three years later to Bay St. Louis, which is on the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Biloxi.

On May 23, 1934, the first four men ordained to the priesthood at St. Augustine were Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Francis Wade and Vincent Smith.

Between its inception and closure in 1968, the seminary produced numerous priests, nine of whom later became bishops, including Bishop Steib, who was the principal celebrant of the special centennial Mass Oct. 29 on the grounds of the seminary, which now serves as a retreat center for the southern province of the Divine Word Missionaries.

“One hundred years ago on Sept. 16, 1923, the House Chronicle of St. Augustine Seminary described the formal opening day of the seminary as a ‘red-letter day in the annals of St. Augustine Mission House in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi,'” said Bishop Steib, who headed the Memphis Diocese from 1993 until his retirement in 2016.

This is an undated photo of St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Miss., in the Biloxi Diocese. The seminary was the first in the U.S. to train Black men for the priesthood. It was founded in 1920 in Greenville, Miss., and three years later relocated to Bay St. Louis. A Mass celebrated Oct. 29, 2023, on the seminary grounds marked its centennial. (OSV News photo/Jim Schott, courtesy St. Augustine Seminary)

“It was the day of dedication of this new mission house and, in the history of the Catholic Church among the Colored people of America, the day of the of the opening of the portals of the first seminary for young men of their race with a vocation to the priesthood, a day that will be long remembered as an epoch-making forward step,” he continued.

“Now, one hundred years later, today is another red-letter day because we are celebrating the centennial year of this seminary, 100 years of preparing young Black men for the priesthood right here at St. Augustine. It is indeed and has been an epoch-making time. We celebrate and we praise God for this epoch-making time,” the bishop said.

Concelebrating the Mass with Bishop Steib were Archbishops Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, Alabama, Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans and Shelton J. Fabre of Louisville, Kentucky; as well as Bishops Louis F. Kihneman III of Biloxi, Michael G. Duca of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel of Lafayette, Louisiana, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and Curtis J. Guillory, retired bishop of Beaumont, Texas.

Like Bishop Steib, Bishop Guillory is one of the priests formed by St. Augustine Seminary who became a bishop. The others are Bishops Joseph O. Bowers (1910-2012), bishop in Ghana and the British Virgin Islands; Harold R. Perry (1916-1991), auxiliary of New Orleans; Carlos A. Lewis (1918-2004), auxiliary of Panama City and coadjutor bishop of David, Panama; Raymond R. Caesar (1932-1987), bishop of Goroka, Papua New Guinea; Joseph A. Francis (1923-1987), auxiliary of Newark, New Jersey; Dominic Carmon (1930-2018), auxiliary of New Orleans; and Leonard Olivier (1923-2014), auxiliary of Washington.

“We give thanks for the St. Augustine Seminary, a building that stood majestically and tall for over 75 years, a building where high school seminarians lived and studied, where African- American students were trained and formed as they discerned a call to be priests and Divine Word Missionaries, despite the odds,” Bishop Steib said at the Mass.

“We celebrate proudly how many religious teachers dedicated their lives to educating and forming these young men, how many religious brothers and laity worked and ministered here on this sacred ground 25 to a 100 years ago despite the odds,” he added.

Bishop Steib imagined that, if the minor seminary building were still standing erect and could speak, it would mention how proudly the hundreds of alumni who graduated from the school moved on.

He also said it would recall those students who did not complete their high school years there, “but were able nonetheless to move into their respective careers and vocations in life as administrators, as principals and teachers, as lawyers and judges, as guidance counselors, as religious men, as family men, as leaders in the political world and the business world and made our world a better world, a holier world, just because they had been here, despite all the odds.”

Bishop Steib mentioned the thousands of Divine Word Missionaries who have followed in the footsteps of the first four Divine Word priests, calling them “strong and courageous” for the sake of the Divine Word.

“They went out to preach the Gospel here in the Southern province as associate pastors, as pastors, as teachers, as preachers, and some of them even went on to serve in Africa, in New Guinea, and in the Philippines,” he said.

“If this holy ground could speak, it would speak of the alumni who were called to become bishops, carrying with them the charism of the society they learned many years before on this holy ground. If the plaque on the seminary grounds where this building once stood could speak, it would say, ‘Look at all that has been accomplished. Look at what the seminary has stood for.'”

Bishop Steib expressed gratitude for St. Arnold Jannsen, founder of the Divine Word Missionaries, who took to heart “his own desire to proclaim the Gospel where it was not yet viable and dare to train African Americans to make it possible.”

“How thankful are we that the (Society of the Divine Word) continues to proclaim the Gospel by calling forth vocations from all nations to serve in this southern province,” he said.

Father Paulus Budi Kleden, superior general of the Society of the Divine Word who traveled from Rome to take part in the centennial celebration, said although the seminary “has lost its function as a center to train African American candidates for the priesthood, its legacy remains.”

“It is a permanent call to fight against all kinds of segregation and discrimination, which, like a virus, can quickly enter a person or group without being fully aware of it and affects our way of thinking, judging and acting,” he said, adding that celebrating the 100th anniversary of St. Augustine Seminary “is a privileged moment for all the members of the SVD to recommit ourselves to live and promote interculturality, which is our heritage, commitment and mission.”

The seminary stands for the congregation’s “dedication to actively participate in the efforts to eradicate the discrimination of race, religion, nationality, culture, and sexual orientation,” Father Kleden added. “At the same time, it calls for all of us to remain firm and consistent in this mission.”

Another challenge, said Bishop Guillory, is “to pray and work for vocations so that the ministry, work and vision of Arnold Jansen and those who have gone before us may continue.”

Seminaries must be more welcoming “but also be sensitive to the different cultures of the people entering the seminary,” said Bishop Guillory. “One of the many things that we learned here at Divine Word Seminary was, first of all, acceptance of our culture and to see the beauty and the contributions of that culture. With that, we were not only able to be in the midst of other cultures but also learn from them and they from us.”

He said the Divine Word Missionaries and the universal Catholic Church “have a very special mission today — to be a beacon, to be a light in the world of the common humanity of the human race. I think that’s our challenge and I know that God will give us the grace.”

Terrance Dickson is the editor of Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Biloxi.

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