A Mission for Justice: The History of the First African-American Catholic
Church in Newark, New Jersey. By Mary A. Ward. Knoxville: The University
of Tennessee Press, 2002. 232 pp. $35.00, cloth; $15.00, paper.
Mary A. Ward describes her study, A Mission for Justice: The History of the First African-American Catholic Church in Newark, New Jersey, as a "history in microcosm" that tell much about " the larger picture of people who are black and Catholic." (p. 2) Using archival materials, oral history interviews, Catholic and secular histories, and theology, Ward skillfully brings into view the African American, West Indian, black Portuguese, and European American women and men who together created and sustained the African American Catholic community in Newark. Though several small missions served the black Catholics of Newark and its metropolitan area, Ward focuses on the mission of Queen of Angels, the central Catholic mission of Newark, which still exists today. A host of ministries were launched from Queen of Angels, including a medical clinic, credit union, and ultimately a school. Queen of Angels and the other missions benefited from the energies of several charismatic lay leaders, nuns, and priests. Mrs. Ethel Wright, Miss Anna Theresa Lane, Mrs. Lucy Mulligan, Sister Peter Claver, Father Cornelius Ahern, and Father Thomas Carey, just to name a few, fostered and guided the development of the African American Catholic community.
Ward credits laywomen, and particularly, Ethel Wright, with building the foundation of the African American Catholic community in Newark. By1916, Mrs. Wright was teaching catechism classes in her home and by the 1920s she was organizing black Catholic laywomen to advocate for the establishment of a Catholic church in Newark especially for African Americans. In the tradition of the national parishes, which served particular European Catholic communities like the Germans, Poles, and Italians, the African American parish would attend to the special social and cultural concerns of blacks as well as provide them with a spiritual home. Wright encouraged African American Catholics to see themselves as a significant and distinct body within the Catholic Church that had a right to its own church in Newark. The idea of a separate parish for blacks did not garner the support of all African American Catholics in Newark, but as time marched on a church for African Americans appealed to more and more Newark Catholics. Such a church would free them from the discriminatory treatment and prejudice they often faced in the predominately European American Catholic churches in Newark and give them the opportunity to worship in a church where they would be accepted and could feel at home. By the 1940s, many regarded Queen of Angels as the accomplishment of this goal.
In presenting the history of Queen of Angels, its parishioners and the nuns and priests who served it and the other missions, Ward reveals ways in which African American and white Catholics engaged in various American social and political movements in the twentieth century. For example, her research reveals that Newark African American Catholics and their priests, who were white, were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s in very significant ways. When African American Protestant churches would not agree to house the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Newark, Queen of Angels agreed to do so. Busloads of Queen of Angels parishioners and their priests and sisters participated in the historic March on Washington in 1963. And when the black Protestant churches in Newark declined to serve as headquarters for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968, Queen of Angels served as the headquarters. Ward says that the week before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Queen of Angels on behalf of the Poor People's Campaign. Ward credits Father Carey and other social justice oriented priests that served Queen of Angels with inspiring African American Catholics to get involved in the civil rights movement. Though Ward presents ample evidence that these priests were dedicated civil rights activists and encouraged the laity to become involved in civil rights, it also seems to me that most likely there were also strong black lay leaders in Queen of Angels who would have been involved in the movement even without their priests' encouragement. I say this because Ward establishes that from the early twentieth century, African American Catholics in Newark experienced racial discrimination and challenged racial injustices. In fact, the impetus for a black church in many ways seems to have been a challenge to racial injustice and discrimination within the Catholic Church.
Though A Mission for Justice is a historical study of African American Catholicism in Newark, it also has a strong theological dimension. Ward makes use of theological methods, especial liberation theology, to interpret the history of African American Catholics in Newark and she also discusses how various theological ideas were at work in history and how these theological ideas shaped what happened in the Newark black Catholic community. She is particularly interested in how King's theology of non-violent activism was incorporated into the life and work of Queen of Angels, and this is one of the most interesting facets of A Mission for Justice. In doing this, Ward provides us with solid and creative and worthy model for how we might take up the important role of theology in history when we are contemplating, researching, writing, and teaching African American religious history.
A Mission for Justice is a wonderful contribution to the growing body of local histories of African American Catholics. Ward's study joins Gary Wray McDonogh's history of Black Catholics in Savannah, Georgia, Mary Ann Blatnica's history of Black Catholics in Cleveland, Ohio, and Morris J. MacGregor's history of St. Augustine's Parish of Washington, D.C. These histories are invaluable to our understanding of the place of Catholicism in African American religious history. Without them, churches like Queen of Angels, Catholic laywomen leaders like Ethel Wright, and black Catholic participation in the social movements like the civil rights movement would remain quite obscure save within the memories of African American Catholic parishioners. Through her rich oral history interviews and deft use of archival materials Ward, makes it possible for us to hear from the women and men, lay and religious, black and white, who shaped, guided, and galvanized African American Catholicism in Newark, New Jersey throughout the twentieth century. I definitely recommend A Mission for Justice for undergraduate and graduate courses in African American religious history, U.S. religious history, and U.S. Catholic history.
Cecilia A. Moore, University of Dayton