Journey of Faith
North Omaha Family of Parishes aims to recognize, heal racial wounds
June 16, 2023
Arlene Dacus has experienced racism, stigma and segregation – including in the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Omaha.
She remembers the early 1960s, being relegated to the back pews or choir loft of Sacred Heart Church in Omaha, and feeling invisible.
“You knew that you stayed in your place, and you were OK with it because you were used to being segregated,” Dacus said.
Her home parish, St. Benedict the Moor, was founded in 1919 after black Catholics had been shunned from parishes across Omaha, including Sacred Heart.
St. Benedict the Moor – which is still known as Omaha’s “black parish” – has been home for Dacus for most of her 80 years.
While nobody welcomed her or said hello at neighboring Sacred Heart, at St. Benedict the Moor, “I felt a kinship,” Dacus said. “I felt family. I felt togetherness. I felt enlightened. I felt inspired.”
Journey of Faith, the archdiocese’s pastoral planning initiative, is now connecting the two parishes historically divided by racism. As the parishes are being brought together into one family, there’s hope for healing the 100-year-old wound.
“Sacred Heart was definitely part of the reason why the need for a black Catholic parish came about,” said Father David Korth, the pastor of Sacred Heart who will soon be pastor of St. Benedict the Moor, too.
Journey of Faith has presented an opportunity to bring healing and reconciliation between the parishes, he said. The grouping of the two parishes has been named the Historic 24th Family, signifying the street that connects the two churches.
In 2018 Sacred Heart began sharing parts of its shameful history with its parishioners with several months of bulletins write-ups by parishioner Matt Holland.
Holland authored a book about racism, the local Catholic Church and an early civil rights group at Creighton University called “Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club.”
He and Father Korth said they wanted parishioners to know the full truth about the parish’s past.
A healing and reconciliation service at Sacred Heart followed.
“Then lo and behold,” Father Korth said, “the archdiocese puts us together in this pastoral planning and gives us the opportunity to further it. I think the Holy Spirit is really at work.”
Most Catholics in Omaha remain unaware of the history of racism in the local Church, Holland said.
While that history might be a revelation for many, “it is a living, breathing moment in history for the people at St. Benedict the Moor,” Holland said. Some parishioners lived through it, while others are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who suffered from the segregation and hostility, he said.
That racist past is also familiar for black Catholics in other cities, such as Chicago and Milwaukee, Holland said.
Even in more recent decades, Dacus and other black Catholics experienced a cold shoulder from Sacred Heart parishioners and other Catholics.
The Historic 24th Family hopes to be open about that history, work on current problems and be a role model nationwide for parishes trying to overcome racial wounds and divides, Father Korth said.
Dacus, who has served as parish council president at St. Benedict the Moor and been part of the Black Catholic Congress, said she’d like to be more informed about Journey of Faith and the changes that will be going into effect and be represented in that process.
Trust needs to be built, she said.
Father Korth said the new church family will work hard to gain that trust.
Perlie Whitley, a parishioner at St. Benedict the Moor since 1973, already sees the hard work happening.
As soon as it was announced that the two parishes would be part of the same family, but before Father Korth was named St. Benedict’s pastor, he was concelebrating funerals of St. Benedict the Moor parishioners.
Whitley, who serves as St. Benedict the Moor’s sacristan and in several other roles, said that in recent months, Sacred Heart parishioners have attended Mass at St. Benedict the Moor and St. Benedict the Moor parishioners have gone to Mass at Sacred Heart. Sacred Heart parishioners helped with St. Benedict’s fish fry and parishioners at both parishes have attended one another’s festivities.
“We’re hopeful and we’re excited and we’re anxious,” Whitley said. “It is something new. But when Jesus gave the disciples their charge, it was something new to them. And when you pray over it and look at the title, ‘Journey of Faith,’ you step out in faith and know that God is there. And we’re grateful for that.”
A lot of people at Sacred Heart still don’t fully understand their parish’s sinful past “because it’s long and complicated,” Holland said. “But they know it exists.”
“It made some people uncomfortable. It made some people absolutely energized” to help.
Jacques Musavyimana, a member of Sacred Heart parish who served on the planning committee for the Historic 24th Family, joined Sacred Heart parish before the Journey of Faith began. He said he always felt welcome there but understands the “dark history” between the parishes when “for many years people from St. Benedict did not feel welcome at Sacred Heart.”
“We cannot ignore those wounds which still exist among those parishioners,” he said. “They will take some time to heal. We just need to allow that time.”
Musavyimana said Father Korth and the Journey of Faith committee from the two parishes are doing everything possible to make it a smooth transition, including lots of communication and holding events to unite people.
“Who would have ever dreamed that Sacred Heart, St. Benedict the Moor, the Archdiocese of Omaha and the Catholic Church would have an opportunity to acknowledge that history and address it?” Holland mused — “and maybe do better this time around.”