Celebrating our Elders

Holy Cross senior parishioners share their faith journeys during National Black Catholic History Month

Panelists for Celebrating our Elders discussion, moderated by Warren Harris

Warren Harris, left, was moderator of the discussion with panelists, left to right: Zita Bowal, Sid Myers, Celina Umari, Helen Hudson and Violet Duport.

The Holy Cross Catholic Church community in Durham marked the start of Black Catholic History Month with an oral history presentation at a special Celebrating our Elders event featuring several of the historically black Catholic parish's most senior parishioners. (View a brief video with highlights on our Facebook page.)

Following the first Sunday Mass this November, a procession of the parish’s elders danced and swayed from the sanctuary into the church’s community room, moving to the rhythm of an African hand drum. Soon after the drumming stopped, the church’s gospel choir, a foundation of this diverse Catholic community, transitioned to a powerful rendition of the hymn, “Praise Him. He is worthy to be praised.” 

The event – which complemented the church’s display of photos and books about Catholics of African descent – celebrated the parish’s identity and history as the faith home of African ancestry Catholics in Durham, whether they be immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, or a Protestant convert from around the corner. The parish was founded in 1939 by Jesuits as a welcoming place for African American Catholics when other places were not as welcoming. Since September 2014, the Franciscan Friars Conventual from Our Lady of the Angels Province in Maryland have been providing pastoral leadership for the parish.

On this day, following a blessing by the church’s pastor, Fr. Bart Karwacki, the young children present were invited to sit at the feet of the elders, who had taken seats in a semicircle at the front of the room. Over the next hour, each of these pillars of the Holy Cross community shared stories and wisdom from their lives and from their time in the church.

The five elders on the panel reflected the great diversity that exists within the African Ancestry Catholic experience in America:

  • Zita Bowal from Guyana in South America
  • Violet Duport from the island of St. Christopher in the Carribean
  • Sid Myers from the Central American country of Panama
  • Celina Umari from Nigeria in Africa, and
  • Helen Hudson, who grew up a Protestant in a rural area outside of nearby Sanford, N.C.

Helen — who is the longest attending, active parishioner — had started coming to Holy Cross in the late 1940s while a student at the North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University. She was raised in a Protestant family, but while she was away from her family at school in Durham, she began attending Catholic Mass with her friends. A couple years later, she decided to convert.

“This was not pleasing to my aunt and the rest of the family,” Helen recalled. “They said, ‘You’ve always been a Methodist, why are you going to change?’ And I said, ‘Well, I like what they’re doing.’” 

She said that at times she wouldn’t attend church, or she would try out another church, but, “I always ended up back at Holy Cross. It’s a part of my life and will remain as long as I live.”

While Helen’s story begins closer to home, Holy Cross parishioners represent a wide variety of backgrounds.

Zita Bowal describes herself as a cradle Catholic from a long line of Catholics. Raised on a sugar estate in Guyana, a small English-speaking South American country, she said her community was an eclectic mix of Hindus, Muslims and various sorts of Chrisitans, “and we all lived together in one community.”

With a background that wouldn’t be typical in most North Carolina parishes, especially in previous decades, finding a place to attend church could have been difficult. But once Zita found Holy Cross, she said she knew she’d found the place for her.

“I was asked to stand up and introduce myself, and that was the beginning of a good time,” Zita said. “I am so happy to be in this church. I am welcomed. I feel at home in this church.” 

Violet said that where she came from in the Carribean, life was hard, and sometimes her large family prayed that by the end of the day, they would at least have a potato to share. When things got particularly desperate, she left seven children behind with her relatives to try to find a way of supporting them in the United States. She did not consider that when she arrived, her skin color would be a concern, especially at church.

“Because to me if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t mind the color of my skin,” she said. “Everybody in my country looked like me. So, when I came to America and went to a Catholic church, I was shell-shocked, because the only person in the room that looked like me, was me.”

Violet said that when she was in Oklahoma, and it was time to offer the peace greeting, she got ready to shake hands with those around her, thinking she would be greeted as warmly as she was used to. 

“I turned to the family next to me to say, ‘Peace be with you,’ with my hand out, and they gave me their back, because I was me and they were them,” she said. “But I said, ‘Peace be with you, anyway. And have a blessed day.’“

After this, when she visited American churches, she would sit in the back and then try to slip out before anyone else did so nobody would know she had been there. Violet moved to Durham, and at that time, she said the area parishes she visited “were as cold as a deep freeze,” but she kept looking. 

The first time she came to Holy Cross, Violet said she looked around and thought, “Everybody looks like me! Thank you Jesus, I’m home.” 

“So now I’m sitting here at Holy Cross, and thank God there’s a black church here because many of the Catholic churches I went in — it would be very disheartening,” said Violet, who turns 89 this month.

Celina Umari is from Nigeria originally and has lived in many countries around the world. She said she experienced similar treatment as Violet. The first thing Celina would do when she got to a new town was to look for the Catholic church. In many places, she said, she was treated poorly, “because of the way I looked.”

In Poland for example, Celina said during the offering of peace, “They didn’t just turn away; they walked away.” Even the priest himself would often refuse to shake her hand.

But since relocating to Durham and finding Holy Cross, Celina said she feels like she’s found a home. “One thing about this church: I went around the world and I never had a church that felt like it was mine,” she said. “But here, just like in Nigeria, these are my people.” 

What she loves most about Holy Cross, she said, is that they are “very friendly.” While Celina is not mobile, she says she comes to church every day, and, “Because of the friendliness of this group, I never have to ask for a ride.”

Sid Myers, the sole male on the panel, was born and raised in Panama, Central America, to parents from Jamaica and Barbados. 

“From a very early age, Catholicism was my religious foundation,” Sid said. “I remember my father taking me to the tailor to have my first white suit made for First Communion and my Confirmation. And later I became an altar boy.” 

He said this experience serving at church “filled me with a love for the Mass, which is still with me to this day.” When he graduated from high school in 1959, his strong faith guided his decision to go to college at Xavier University in Louisiana. So, Sid hopped on the first flight of his life and headed to the United States; years later, he landed in Durham. 

Sid says that his faith makes him “feel reassured when I am challenged and troubled,” and that this peace “is not an escape from trouble, but the courage to face it calmly.” 

Holy Cross has been a place of refuge for African Ancestry Catholics for 80 years, giving them this reassurance and courage through troubling times. Like Christ and the Holy Family, they were often turned away when they needed a place to call home, but Holy Cross welcomed them and created a place to form a uniquely African American Catholic identity that is also welcoming to others in search of a Catholic spiritual home.

Author: David Larson, writer, Holy Cross parishioner and member of the Young Adult Scripture Group hosted by Holy Cross.

Tags: Celebrating our elders at Holy Cross, National Black Catholic History Month, Holy Cross Elders

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