By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 22, 2009
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Rudy Cadney earned pocket money in his hometown by cleaning the church in the white parish, St. Anne’s, while his family worshipped at the Catholic parish set aside for blacks.
“There were segregated institutions for everything. Churches were segregated. Schools were segregated. Buses were segregated,” said Cadney, now a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service.
St. Anne’s was a brick church set in the middle of Fayette. The black parish, St. Anthony of Padua, was a wood frame building on its outskirts. He and his mother, a domestic, together cleaned the church; then he’d go to help his grandparents with chores, he said.
It wasn’t until he attended college that the parishes merged in the early 1970s. But bringing the two faith communities together did not unite them. He said at the first Mass for both communities, some white parishioners saw the blacks arriving at the church and got up and left.
“I don’t know where they went. They went somewhere else,” said Cadney, who now attends Atlanta’s St. Anthony of Padua Church, where he leads an adult prayer group.
He said the election of President Barack Obama does not solve racial divisions, but it is a step toward that goal.
As the country marked the historic inauguration of the 44th president of the United States and the first black man to hold the office, Catholics in the archdiocese, black and white alike, recalled life under Jim Crow laws and the changes they have witnessed in a little more than a generation.
Msgr. Henry Gracz was a young seminarian new to the South. He came down in 1964 from the Catholic-rich city of Buffalo, N.Y., to minister instead in Georgia where priests were needed.
He recalled how once he drove a van full of black and white teenagers to a church camp. Msgr. Gracz said he was getting a lot of stares as the group stopped for food. He thought first it was the novelty of seeing his Roman collar.
But a car tailed the van out of the parking lot. He believes the car’s driver intended to send a message of fear.
“He followed me through a red light that I accidently ran. He followed me into the black part of the community. And at that time, this is a contrast, it was not unusual for rednecks to go out partying and shoot randomly into black homes,” he said.
The inauguration of an African-American as president is a “radical change,” said Msgr. Gracz, sitting in the dining room of the rectory of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta.
“Obama brings the spirit of (the late Cardinal Joseph) Bernardin to bridge building,” he said.
Carlene Thomas said she felt watching the inauguration would be “very glorious,” her hands rising in praise. She sat on her couch covered by a colorful blanket and a cane beside her.
The 92-year-old mother of four taught in the “colored” schools in Atlanta. She sent her children to Our Lady of Lourdes School, a school and parish at that time set aside for black Catholics in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward.
As a student at Spelman College, Thomas and other Catholic students at times could not pay for cabs or streetcars to get to Lourdes for Mass. Instead, they walked to nearby St. Anthony of Padua, about a mile away from the college.
“They would guide us to the back. We were brazen enough to go sit where we wanted to,” Thomas said.
Deacon Hilliard Lee also attended Lourdes, where he became a Catholic as a youth, and he wanted to continue in Catholic schools. Instead, he was required to attend a segregated black high school. But his “wildest dream” in the early 1960s was to attend Marist High School with its military corps of cadets. The private Catholic school at that time didn’t accept blacks, however.
He saw barriers begin to crumble as a member of the Catholic Youth Organization. He was one of the few blacks to attend its 1959 national conference in Missouri. He earned the trip as the youth of the year award at his parish, St. Paul of the Cross, where he now ministers.
Deacon Lee recalled that during the trip the group of teenaged whites and Lee couldn’t get served a meal.
“They refused to serve us because I was with them. I remember the guys coming together and saying, ‘If you couldn’t serve him, you can’t serve us,’” he said.
Deacon Lee got active in politics in Atlanta, registered voters and marched for civil rights.
“I was never arrested. I know what it is like to be spat upon,” said Deacon Lee, who has been a deacon for close to 20 years.
Recalling the late nights working for long-shot politicians, the deacon said the idea of a black president was “the farthest thing from my mind.” And even as the Obama candidacy gathered steam, Deacon Lee was still skeptical the country would vote for him.
“It’s a great day. It’s truly a great day. I’m sure it is going be quite emotional,” he said, days before the inauguration.
At 24 years old, Jayla Davis, who works with the mentally ill, came of age long after racial segregation was outlawed. But she said growing up in Little Rock, Ark., racial animosity still would at times spring up.
She was one of a dozen Catholic students at Lyke House, the Catholic chapel at the Atlanta University Center, watching the inauguration together Jan. 20. The excited group stood as Obama began the oath of office and burst into shouts of joy as he became president.
And when the Rev. Joseph Lowery closed his benediction prayer with, “Let all who do justice and love mercy say amen” the friends answered him with an “Amen!”
Davis said she hopes the spirit of change touches all corners of the country, from the big cities to the little country towns.
“This for me is a renewal of my faith in the American society and proof that the change is coming and we all have a part to play,” she said.