Lisa Kochanowski
Assistant Editor/Reporter
February 14, 2024 // Diocese

Black Catholic Spirituality Fully Alive at St. Augustine

Lisa Kochanowski
Assistant Editor/Reporter

Nestled in historic downtown South Bend, Catholics of all backgrounds are invited to celebrate their faith at St. Augustine Parish. The multiracial parish in the African American tradition began with the move of seven African American Catholic families from Mississippi to the area in the 1920s. The Congregation of Holy Cross priest Father George O’Connor, who was teaching at the University of Notre Dame, heard about the newcomers and began offering Mass for them on Sundays.

Father O’Connor was from Kansas, and after his entire family died in a tornado, he was taken in by a neighboring African American farmer, which gave him a long history with the Africa American community. Initially, Masses were offered in a small building outside St. Joseph Parish in South Bend and later moved to a building on the west side of South Bend. As the community grew, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend decreed St. Augustine a parish, and the church’s current location is on West Washington Street in downtown South Bend, where there are 250 registered parishioners.

“St. Augustine’s is a multi-racial community but is still considered an African American parish,” said Holy Cross Father John M. Santone, Parochial Administrator of St. Augustine. “The parishioners come from various parts of South Bend, but also the surrounding towns. The sense of community, hospitality, and worship brings Catholics to the parish. Those who join often cite the intimacy found in this small but tightly knit community of faith,” Father Santone added.

The parish’s published mission statement proclaims: “We, the people of St. Augustine Catholic Parish, are a multi-racial faith community, rooted in the African American tradition, nourished by word and sacrament, and empowered by our belief in the redeeming presence of Jesus Christ. We commit ourselves to living the faith and proclaiming the Gospel through our efforts toward evangelization, Spirit-filled worship, community outreach programs, and social services. We welcome all to share in our beliefs and our mission.”

Deacon Mel Tardy, a permanent deacon who serves the St. Augustine community, said some think “our African American parish identity is mainly about numbers in the pews. If they see that we are visibly more diverse than expected or than we used to be, they might assume that we are no longer an African American parish. In truth, many things still point to that unique identity.”

Deacon Tardy continued: “First is our unique history.
Nationwide, many Black Catholic parishes originated as parishes for European immigrants but grew predominantly Black during the decadeslong Great Migration of Blacks from the rural South. Unlike them, St. Augustine Parish was initially founded in 1928 to serve Black folk (diocesan archives say ‘Negroes in all of South Bend’). A Holy Cross priest, Father George O’Connor, dedicated his later years to establishing St. Augustine’s once hearing that Black Catholic migrants were unwelcomed in local parishes and had no one to tend to their spiritual needs. Given our unique history, we are the only Catholic institution included in Indiana University South Bend’s African American Landmarks Tour. We still have
parishioners with a lineage dating back to the first families,” Deacon Tardy told Today’s Catholic.

“To say that we are an ‘African American’ parish is to also say that Black Catholics indeed exist and – regardless of our sense of welcome at other parishes – we are indeed welcome at St. Augustine and in the Catholic Church. It implies that we have a sense of belonging as well as an agency at St. Augustine to worship and serve in a way that resonates with our distinctive culture and spirituality as a people. It’s a place where one’s identity as an African American and as a Catholic can co-exist.”

Deacon Tardy added: “Second is our attention to Black culture and heritage. Our patron saint, Augustine – a
prominent Father and Doctor of the Church – happened to be from Hippo, Africa. Visitors will notice Afrocentric altar cloths, vestments, and images inclusive of Black folk (for example, our ‘family portraits’). The latter include artistic renditions of Biblical figures, saints (St. Martin de Porres), candidates for sainthood (Venerable Father Augustus Tolton), as well as photos of bishops (Wilton Cardinal Gregory),” Deacon Tardy said. 

The church proudly displays photos of clergy who have served the faith community.  Although most have been white, this includes former Assistant Pastor Father Paulinus Odozor (from Nigeria) and two African American deacons: the late Frances Hubbard, who founded the church’s soup kitchen, and Deacon Tardy. Images of civil rights leaders include an iconic photo of the late University of Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh arm in arm with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tardy noted if inclusive images alone don’t convince visitors that they are welcome, they also welcome all visitors at each Mass and gather at least 30 minutes for heartfelt fellowship afterward.

The close-knit parish offers several special community programs parishioners can get involved with, including a soup kitchen, their active St. Vincent de Paul Society, and an after-school tutoring program. The church’s commitment to social justice, hospitality, and ministry to the poor is one of their greatest strengths, Deacon Tardy said.

“Our parishioners individually and collectively serve the needs of the surrounding community, including those who are poor and many who are Black. Several non-Catholic churches are neighbors to St. Augustine. Community activism includes forging relationships and standing in solidarity with them on common concerns, particularly racism. Advocacy also takes place through parishioner involvement in the local Neighborhood Association, the 100 Black Men of Michiana, Faith in Indiana, etc.,” Deacon Tardy said.

Lisa Kochanowski
Members of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir perform during Mass on Sunday, February 11, at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend.

Sunday Mass at St. Augustine’s is described as authentic, fun, and relaxed, but also intentional. They share practical messages and inspirational music to visitors, presenting the faith in an easy way that can be applied to daily life.

Father Santone said unique aspects of St. Augustine include the parish’s worship, “especially the Gospel Choir at the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday,” as well as “our outreach to the poor and those in need, [and] the sense of community and hospitality.”

Deacon Tardy elaborated: “Visitors who attend the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass will encounter the soulful, uplifting music of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir. Black Catholic spirituality is also at times reflected in the preaching, the prayers of the faithful, and the attention to the needs of the local community,” he added. “From praying the Rosary together to praying for the canonization of the first recognizably Black priest, Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, our parish has Black Catholics who are faith-engaged and unashamed to be both Black and Catholic.”  

Deacon Tardy shared that in January, St. Augustine was one of three historically Black churches invited to host a community event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.  The Indiana University South Bend-led event featured the South Bend Symphony performing the music of Black American composers, a community Gospel Choir, and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. As the only Catholic host church, they surprised all-comers by attracting a standing-room-only number of multiracial attendees. 

“St. Augustine, the only historically Black Parish in our diocese, serves as an important hub for many gatherings pertaining to Black Catholics (although many of these gatherings are inter-racial and ecumenical),” Deacon Tardy said. “Our parishioners also participate in local, regional, or national organizations and events relevant to Black Catholic faith and understanding, from the Tolton Ambassadors of Indiana to the National Black Catholic Congress, which attracted 3,000 participants to Washington, D.C., last July. Convening in such ways also allows us to better support mainstream events – for example, gathering a critical mass of Black Catholics to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis in July.”  

Church leaders work hard to teach the younger generation the importance of being engaged in their faith and carrying on the work and traditions of their church community.

“Through the years, some young folks have gotten involved in church leadership naturally by observing what their parents were doing,” Deacon Tardy said. “For example, our Gospel Choir Director, LaDonna Flynn, happens to be the daughter of the late Rob Huddleston, who founded the choir. For 22 years, we’ve had an active youth ministry program, encouraging faith engagement and evangelization of local youth. Through youth ministry, they learn the Catholic faith in relevant ways; they get involved in sacramental formation and in-service ministries (for example, St. Vincent de Paul); they participate in parish traditions (youth Masses, devotionals regarding Black candidates for sainthood); and they attend events and programs via local Catholic colleges and the diocese (ND Vision, the March for Life),” Deacon Tardy said.

Church leaders hope the congregation finds inspiration in their faith journey when they come to St. Augustine’s.

Father Santone said he hopes visitors and parishioners gain “a deepening of their relationship with God, faith, and brothers and sisters in Christ” and “to understand how we’re called to put our faith in action as we meet the need of others.”


St. Augustine Church

1501 W. Washington St., South Bend

Founded: 1928

Phone: 574-234-7082


Parochial Administrator:
Father John M. Santone, CSC

Sunday – 8:15 a.m., 10:30 a.m.

Parish population: 193 families 250 members

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