A Sanctuary for Black Catholics

This month, Shrine of the Holy Cross in Daphne celebrates its 75th anniversary.

A confirmation class in the Quanset Hut church of the 1970s. Images courtesy Shrine of the Holy Cross.

On a muggy Sunday morning in late summer, parishioners at Shrine of the Holy Cross on Scenic Highway 98 in Daphne pass through the church’s proud Spanish facade and gather inside its simple, white-painted cinderblock sanctuary for Mass at 9 a.m. About 75 members of the faithful quietly wait for the service to start, dispersed evenly among the church’s two rows of pews under a pointed ceiling hung with bright lights and ceiling fans. 

For the next hour, this space is a world unto itself. Muffled daylight shines softly through frosted yellow stained-glass windows spaced along the walls. Each one is decorated in white with an outlined religious symbol: a dove, a crown, praying hands, a star, a cross, a chalice. Above the altar, a window depicting a cinnamon-skinned Jesus floats among the clouds, his pierced hands outstretched.

Pews creak under congregants’ shifting weight and the pianist plays a soft prelude, backed up by an organist sitting off to the side, until the hour arrives and everyone rises in unison to proclaim, in song, that, “He has done great things for me.”

Most of the people here are white, a demographic trend that has grown more pronounced in recent years as the church has closed in on its 75th anniversary. But a few parishioners scattered among the pews remember a time when Shrine of the Holy Cross was explicitly, and exclusively, a church and parochial school for Black people living under the thumb of Jim Crow who weren’t allowed to worship alongside white people.

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“Christ the King denied you,” said Fred Macarthur “Mac” Lambert, who has been a parishioner at the Shrine since its founding, when he was 5 years old. “You couldn’t go to Mass there” if you were Black, he recalled. “One of the priests from the Shrine said Mass up there one Sunday and told them that all of them in there were going to Hell” for not admitting Black people. 

In Fairhope, St. Lawrence would also turn Black Catholics away at the door, said Gayle Wilson Thicklen, another longtime parishioner who attended kindergarten and first grade at the Shrine’s school.

(Rob Herbst, a media representative for the diocese and editor of The Catholic Week, hunted through the few books he had on hand that describe the Catholic church’s history in the area but couldn’t find published evidence that either confirmed or contradicted this claim. Neither could the diocese’s archivist.) 

“Our racial history in Alabama is long and complex,” acknowledged the Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, Archbishop of Mobile, in an email. “The stories of our Christian churches have both times which made us proud and times which did not. Yet, in every time, there were those who sought to bring about racial healing.”

Parishioner Annie Johnson Carter Hall, who has attended church at the Shrine since she was 12, put it more succinctly in her soft-spoken voice: “As the song says, we’ve come a long ways and a long ways to go.”

A Missionary Endeavor

In 1947, Bishop Thomas Toolen directed the Rev. Vincent Warren, S.S.J., to travel to Daphne and evangelize the area’s Black residents, very few of whom were Catholic. Fr. Warren, a white man, was a member of the Josephites, a religious order founded in Baltimore after the Civil War to serve newly emancipated Black communities. 

By the time he headed over the Bay, Fr. Warren had already established himself as a seasoned evangelist. According to the Shrine’s archival news clippings, Fr. Warren came to Mobile in 1936 to serve as pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary church, the largest Black parish in the diocese. In 1942, with help from a local doctor, he opened a five-bed maternity clinic for Black women that would grow to become the 35-bed St. Martin de Porres Hospital.

Five years later, Fr. Warren set out on his new mission to convert Daphne’s Black residents to Catholicism. 

“Though the Bishop has allowed me to call the place the Shrine of the Holy Cross, at present we have only a small shanty as a dwelling place and 10 acres of land,” Fr. Warren wrote in a 1948 letter to Bishop William O’Brien, president of the Catholic Church’s Extension Society. “We are making this the center of this missionary endeavor.” 

Fr. Warren had written to Bishop O’Brien to ask for the Extension Society’s help in funding an established chapel for the Shrine. The building he had in mind was a Quonset hut, a simple barrel of a building with “a Spanish-type front” that he reckoned he could erect for $6,000.

In his reply, Bishop O’Brien wrote: “…if you knew the rules and regulations under which the Extension Society has to
operate you would not have written this letter asking the Extension Society to build a chapel that must serve good, colored people. The Holy See has limited the Extension Society to mission work among white people of the United States and its Dependencies.”

Despite this discriminatory roadblock, Bishop O’Brien went on to write that the Extension had occasionally been known to “bootleg” funds to the Josephites, and he promised to do the same for Fr. Warren.

“Four Years Ago This Was All a Dream”

With workaround financing in hand, Fr. Warren built the Quonset hut chapel, which opened for church services in June 1949. Next, he turned his sights to establishing a school. According to an October 22, 1949, article in The Catholic Week, he bought a nearby building that had been a dance hall and tavern, and he arranged for it to be moved to the church property, where he had it remodeled into a three-room schoolhouse to be run by Franciscan nuns from Baltimore.

Since the nuns needed a place to live, Fr. Warren vacated his own home on the property and gave it to the nuns to use as their convent. He then set to work remodeling a barn to be his rectory.

“The nuns were from different countries, and they brought their culture to us,” said Jewel Lawson, who started at the school as a kindergartener when she was just 3 years old. 

Former student Hazel Wilson Smith remembers that the nuns were strict, presiding over combined classrooms that grouped two or three grades together at the K-8 school. 

Mac Lambert’s grandmother, whom the children called Ms. Melinda, lived next to the church and would serve lunch from her back door. “We used to line up to go and get our hot dog and milk, and I think it was only a dime you had to pay,” said Smith.

“On Fridays, it was her awesome tuna salad,” added Lawson.

After lunch, instead of shepherding them back to class, Fr. Warren would instead organize softball games with the children. 

By November 1952, Fr. Warren had acquired two school buses, which brought children to the school from miles around. “Four years ago this was all a dream,” he wrote to Bishop O’Brien. “We now have 180 little ones who are learning for the first time about our dear Lord and His holy Mother.” 

Around the same time, Fr. Warren established a mission called St. John’s in Bromley, north of Spanish Fort, to serve Black residents who lived farther afield. He reported in his letter to Bishop O’Brien that 150 people attended Mass at the Shrine on Sundays, with another 75 attending weekly services in Bromley.

Fr. Warren’s proximity and service to Black families attracted the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. Parishioners recalled that one day, as he drove to St. John’s, Klan members blocked the highway and physically assaulted him. Another time, they caught up with him near Birmingham and leveled a second attack.

These incidents weren’t Fr. Warren’s first brushes with the Klan. According to various historical documents, back in 1926, long before he journeyed to Daphne, six hooded men kidnapped and interrogated the priest, who was then teaching Black children in Princess Anne County, Virginia. Despite a public outcry, his assailants in that incident were never brought to justice. 

Left to Right Fr. Vincent Warren speaking at the dedication of the brick school at the Shrine of the Holy Cross in 1955. Also in attendance were Archbishop Toolen and the Director of Catholic Extension, Bishop William O’Brien. Image courtesy Archdiocese of Mobile. A confirmation class in the Quanset Hut church of the 1970s. Images courtesy Shrine of the Holy Cross.

End of an Era

In 1960, Fr. Warren was elected vicar general of the Josephites and moved back to Baltimore. Six years later, the school at the Shrine closed. Parishioners recall that, when area schools were integrated after the Civil Rights Act passed, the diocese decided to integrate Christ the King and shutter the nearby Black school.

In 1990, the deteriorated Quonset hut was replaced by the cinderblock sanctuary that stands today. That same year, according to the church’s archival materials, the Josephites turned over
administration of both the Shrine and St. John’s to the Archdiocese of Mobile. 

As time has wrought its changes in the community, the church’s Black roots have faded, captured now only in the sparse pages of historical records and the waning memories of aging parishioners.

But this month, old and new congregants will come together to celebrate the parish’s diamond
jubilee. The church’s history will be recounted, its founding families acknowledged out loud. The archbishop will celebrate Mass, and people of all races will break bread for a 75th-anniversary dinner together. 

Back within the sanctuary’s walls on that muggy summer Sunday, the people pray that their community may be healed of every division. And as the service ends, voices swell and sing a familiar tune: “Come by here, my Lord” — a song known, alternatively, as “Kumbayah.”

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