From the days of racial segregation, through the turbulence of the 1960s and up to today, St. Benedict the Moor Parish in northeast Omaha has served as a spiritual home and anchor of stability for its mostly black congregation and the surrounding area.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the parish has been the “mother church” for black Catholics in Omaha and has played a prominent role in the community, said Father Vitalis Anyanike, pastor of St. Benedict and nearby Holy Name Parish.
“A lot of black Catholics in north Omaha and around the city identify with the parish,” he said. “It’s been a vital presence and many people have been touched in some way.”
One of those is longtime parishioner Elmer Crumbley. Moving as a child with his family from Louisiana to Omaha in 1964, the Crumbleys began attending Mass at another church. But due to the racism of the time, they were expected to sit in the choir loft, away from the main body of the church.
“My mother and father felt we needed to be attending a church where we were fully welcomed,” he said – a welcome they soon found at St. Benedict.
The parish’s impact through the years has gone beyond the spiritual, also serving other needs of the black community.
Parishioners have run a food pantry for needy people in the area, and some parishioners are involved in Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), a city-wide organization of churches and community groups that work to affect public policy and improve the community through collective action.
And in 1966, then-pastor Jesuit Father John Killoren helped form the Bryant Center Association, which built several outdoor basketball courts and began hosting summer sports leagues, field trips, educational programs and other activities to keep youth busy and off the street.
Ever since the racial strife of the 1960s, the center has provided stability and a “safe harbor” for area youth, Crumbley said, with youth playing basketball even as rioting occurred on 24th Street.
“The basketball courts became a place where children and young adults could go for peace, for safety,” he said. “It has been a sanctuary for a large number of people.”
Another parish-spawned effort, this one aimed at community development, is the Bryant Resource Center, an independent, nonprofit group that operates programs out of the parish’s former school building, said parishioner Alvin Goodwin, president of the group’s board.
The school operated from 1923 to 1968, and the Bryant Resource Center was founded in 1985, obtaining legal title to the school building from the archdiocese to qualify for federal funding, Goodwin said.
“We set up programs for community betterment such as job training and education programs for young people,” Goodwin said.
Although parish membership – now about 225 people – has fluctuated over the years, the parish is seeing a rebirth, with numbers and contributions growing and the remodeling of the sanctuary in 2016, Crumbley said.
Father Anyanike, in his seventh year as pastor and the first archdiocesan priest to lead the parish after the Jesuits, said St. Benedict Parish is a “very dynamic, warm and friendly faith community that is very proud to express its Catholic and black heritage.”
ST. BENEDICT THE MOOR PARISH HISTORY
1918, Jesuit Father Francis Cassilly forms mission church. Masses held in chapel of nearby Sacred Heart Church before moving to a house at 24th and Parker streets
1923, parish purchases St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church at 25th and Grant streets. Elementary school begins classes in the church.
1956 to 1958, current church built.
1929, school built, 1937, high school added.
1968, school closes
BRYANT CENTER - FUTURE PLANS
Plans are underway to improve current programs and create new ones over the next few years, said Bryant Center Association’s new executive director Sundiata Menelik.
Educational programs to help youth develop job skills will include an introduction to the trades such as construction technology, electrical, plumbing, welding and heating/ventilation/air conditioning, and courses in emerging technologies such as drones and robotics, all through Metropolitan Community College, said Menelik, who also is an instructor at the college.
BRYANT RESOURCE CENTER
A Head Start program was one of the center’s first tenants; a child care center now operates there, said parishioner Alvin Goodwin, president of the Bryant Resource Center's board.
“We also ran a senior citizen program that we’re hoping to revive and a computer center that is in dire need of new computers so we can train young people,” he said.