A School’s Legacy of Service

A church and school on the African-American Heritage Trail mark a place of great consequence in the history of Mobile Civil Rights.

Former Heart of Mary students and teachers gather with Sister Beverly Distefano (seated, left) to plan a reunion, 1978. Photo courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History, donated by Alabama Media, photo by Dave Hamby, Mobile Press-Register

During the summer of 2007, supporters gathered to dedicate the first marker of the newly established Mobile African-American Heritage Trail. The decision to begin this work at the intersection of Davis Avenue and Sengstak Street was no accident. Since 1907, 100 years earlier, this consequential corner had been the home of Most Pure Heart of Mary. The marker labeled the church and adjacent school the “spiritual beacons” of the Port City’s modern civil rights movement. These were not hollow words. Established in 1899 as a mission church, Heart of Mary has performed a noble and extraordinary service as part of the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. 

Commonly known as the Josephites, the order’s mission is one of service to the African-American community.  From meager beginnings, the church has maintained this singular, unfaltering commitment to black Mobilians. Since its relocation in 1907, Most Pure Heart of Mary’s neoclassical, white-shining building along “the Avenue” has been a hub of civil rights activity, a gathering place of great consequence for generations. In 1909, Josephite priests and 40 of their African-American congregants established here the Knights of St. Peter Claver. It became the largest lay organization for black Catholics in the United States. In 1931, amidst criticism from the Port City’s leaders, Father John Albert offered Heart of Mary as the location of a speech by Illinois Congressman Oscar DePriest, part of an attempt to shore up Mobile’s faltering NAACP branch. During a hot August night, DePriest spoke to more than 250 people inside the church, then slept comfortably in the home of congregant James A. Franklin, a physician, while others kept an armed vigil to ward off members of the Ku Klux Klan.

A parent-teacher conference,1978. Photo courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History, donated by Alabama Media, Photo by Frank Chandler, Mobile Press-Register

As one of the few all-black parochial grammar schools in the region, and the only black Catholic high school within more than a hundred miles, Heart of Mary School performed vital educational and social functions. During the 1960s, under the tutelage of instructors from the Dominican Order of Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, Heart of Mary’s classrooms were incubators of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “somebodiness,” a place where students were treated far better than they were in other places within Mobile’s segregated society. Decades after he walked the halls of the school, businessman Marion Lewis recalled the “breath of fresh air” his teachers at Heart of Mary provided: “They communicated to us, in one way or another, that we could do whatever we needed to do. We were able. We were good. We were capable. And that was 100 percent counter to what society was telling us.” Like Lewis, many of the young pupils took these lessons to heart. The list of the school’s alumnae is a veritable “who’s who” of American enterprise, business, politics and science, a lasting legacy of the school. The Archdiocese closed the high school in 1968, but Heart of Mary continues as an elementary and junior high school.    

During the late 1960s, many students and teachers at Heart of Mary were also participants in Mobile’s civil rights movement, particularly with the Neighborhood Organized Workers, the grassroots organization that fundamentally changed the nature of protest in the Port City. The weekly meetings of the group were held in the school cafeteria. Many no doubt saw their participation as a logical extension of their solemn oath of service to black Mobilians.

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In matters great and small, for more than three generations, Most Pure Heart of Mary Church and School has maintained the Josephites’ commitment, a cornerstone of faith and community through changing times.

Scotty E. Kirkland is author of the forthcoming book, “Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Politics and Race in Twentieth-Century Mobile.”

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