Omaha parish to acknowledge racism in its past, strive for healing

Sacred Heart Parish in Omaha considers itself a welcoming community.
But it wasn’t always, and on Sept. 9 it plans to hold a prayer service for reconciliation and healing as it acknowledges a past of racism. A hundred years ago, those prejudices prompted African-Americans to found their own parish in Omaha, St. Benedict the Moor. This year, St. Benedict celebrated its centennial.
“This is a part of us,” said Father Dave Korth, pastor. “It is an unpleasant part of us. But we have to acknowledge it, so we don’t repeat it. We’ll pray for healing and reconciliation that still has to happen, to go forward as brothers and sisters, to create a more just community around us.”
 Through personal invitations and bulletin announcements, members of St. Benedict the Moor Parish and its choir are among those invited to the prayer service, which will include Scripture readings and music. An ice cream social will be held after the service.
Archbishop George J. Lucas also plans to attend, Father Korth said. 
“We wanted to let him know we were doing this,” the pastor said. “I know he has a very busy schedule. He said it’s a good thing, and he wants to be present.”
The service will be modeled in part from a similar service Father Korth held when he led the St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago, before its 100-year anniversary celebration in 2009. It was important before celebrating that anniversary to acknowledge the mistakes and sins of the past, when many missionaries followed the U.S. government’s lead and tried to strip away native culture, Father Korth said.  
It’s important to hold this year’s prayer service as St. Benedict the Moor marks its 100 years of faith, to acknowledge that Sacred Heart was among parishes that did not welcome blacks to their churches, and led African-Americans to form their own congregation, Father Korth said.  
Seeds for the service were planted by parishioner Nancy Hemeseth, who last year told Father Korth about her desire to help counter the nation’s rising racial tensions and lack of knowledge or action around Catholic social teaching on poverty, the environment and other issues.
Father Korth helped form a committee on social justice, and after several meetings racial injustice became a focus for the group. Among those who joined was parishioner Matt Holland, who had the background to help the group understand the racial tensions of years ago. Holland four years ago self-published a book about a group that battled racism in Omaha in the late 1940s and 1950s. Titled “Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club,” the book chronicles the club’s founding and years of activity before the civil rights movement.
Holland’s late father, Denny Holland, helped form the club with the late Jesuit Father John Markoe.
His father was a member of Sacred Heart Parish at various times in his life, and the impact of racism can still be seen in north Omaha, Holland said. It’s good to open the parish’s door to everyone in a fresh way with the prayer service, he said.   
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