Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

  • The Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic community celebrates its parish feast day during Mass last February. Photo By Michael Alexander
  • Even though Our Lady of Lourdes was founded nearly 100 years ago as an African-American Catholic community, today it is a diverse community of various ethnicities. Photo By Michael Alexander
  • Our Lady of Lourdes School was established in 1912 through the support of Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The school closed in 2001. Photo By Michael Alexander
  • (L-r, across front) Carmelita Rogers, Anne Haas and Eddie Cadres sing in the parish choir. Photo By Michael Alexander

The Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic community celebrates its parish feast day during Mass last February. Photo By Michael Alexander


Lourdes Sustains Saint’s Founding Work

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 29, 2009

Stand outside the three-story red brick and Stone Mountain granite building near the intersection of Auburn Avenue and Boulevard, in the heart of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, to see what a canonized saint who visited here help build.

The school-turned-parish center at Our Lady of Lourdes was paid for by St. Katharine Drexel, the heiress who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Estimates vary on the total, but the Philadelphia native gave between $10,000 and $15,000 in the early 1900s to establish the parish. (In 2009, the money would be valued at about $217,000.)

“I think that Katharine Drexel, her dream has lasted this long. It is still going on in some places, even though the school has closed here. There are enough people that still go to church here that went to school here,” said Karen Allen, one of four siblings who attended the school.

Walking outside the building brings out laughter from Allen and two friends with her about days when boys and girls played on separate playgrounds. Black and white photos fueled the flashbacks.

Here was where the sister stood to ring the large and loud cowbell that gathered the students to march into the building.

“Mother would be standing on the steps, just ringing that bell,” said Allen, a retired educator, laughing at the memory.

Our Lady of Lourdes has worshiped at its current site since 1960, but last year a neighboring piece of land was purchased and a Capital Stewardship Campaign is underway for the construction of a new sanctuary. Photo By Michael Alexander

The historic building sits around the corner from the birth home of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and across the street from The King Center.

The parish marks its centennial anniversary in 2012. Today the pews are filled with Catholics of different races, but it remains a predominately African-American parish, with an estimated six out of 10 parishioners black.

Father John Adamski said the makeup of the faithful hasn’t changed that much even though the parish sits in the gentrifying Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, where new condo complexes have opened with coffee shops, pubs and vegetarian restaurants on Edgewood Avenue.

However, the size of parish has grown from 300 households when the neighborhood was considered rough to 900 households, said Father Adamski, who has served as pastor for 10 years.

St. Katharine Drexel and her order helped to found parishes for blacks and Native Americans, people forced to live on the margins. The parish was founded to serve the black Catholic community when other Catholics discriminated against them. It was only about a dozen years ago the church dropped its official designation as a national church for African-Americans.

That separation gave Lourdes a sense of isolation from the rest of the Catholic community here, Father Adamski said. That is the opposite of the vision the parish has of itself now.

“We’ve moved beyond the business of isolation. We have certainly moved beyond the time of segregation. Lourdes has always wanted to be a warm, welcoming community,” he said.

The parish “wants to be what we believe church ought to be,” he said.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament staffed Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School until 1974. The school closed in 2001 with parishioners protesting the archdiocese’s decision. Former students treasure the memories and the community around the school. At least one Atlanta priest attended the school, Father Ricardo Bailey.

The group of alumnae, Allen, Darlene Ingram, Sandra Criddell go into the building’s basement. It served as the church for close to five decades. A separate church, which is standing room only for most Masses, was built in the 1960s. In 2008, the parish raised $2 million to purchase adjacent land to double its original campus. It will be used for future growth.

Our Lady of Lourdes Church pastor Father John Adamski preaches to the congregation during the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass. The parish also has a Sunday liturgy at 10 a.m. and 12 noon. Photo By Michael Alexander

Allen holds in her hand an aged photo of girls in the choir with a sister in a large habit sitting at an organ. She takes a visitor to the basement corner where the picture was taken. A bend in a wall pipe mirrors the photo.

“I think about my friends. I think about the sisters. I just think about the days that we spent here. I liked it. A lot of people didn’t like Catholic school, but I liked it,” said 63-year-old Allen. Growing up, her father worked in a shoe shop and mother worked in dry cleaners. She graduated from eighth grade, the highest grade, before going on to a public high school.

Criddell was the youngest of five children. “From looking back over the years and all the students that attended Lourdes, the school has had a tremendous impact on our community, locally, nationally, because it produced some judges, some doctors, some lawyers. Having attended Lourdes, I am among the elite.”

“I feel her vision was accomplished,” said Criddell, talking about St. Katharine, whom alumni call Mother Drexel. “I was the first to be converted to Catholicism, because my whole family was Baptist. I was converted when I was in the third grade. After that, it was my two sisters and their families and my mother were all converted to Catholicism. That was her purpose for recruiting blacks into Catholicism. Out of my family, she probably converted about 10 people.”

Alumni continue to have a devotion to St. Katharine. Portraits of the American saint hang throughout the building, known as the Katharine Drexel Community Center, with its church offices, classrooms, a choir rehearsal hall.

In the works is another pilgrimage for parishioners to the grave of the woman born into wealth but caring enough to build a place of worship and education for Atlanta’s black Catholics.

Ingram said the work of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament changed lives, including her own. “If I were to see Mother Katharine Drexel, I would say thank you. The moment you walk in, you just think about all that has been in the past. It still holds memories, good memories, the sisters. It is just a beautiful, beautiful location, finding happiness over here in Our Lady of Lourdes. I am still happy.”