Remembering the history of Chattanooga's thriving black Catholic parish

Christopher Gurley Jr. presents the history of the St. Francis church and school at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul Friday night.

The Catholic community of Chattanooga spent Friday night acknowledging the faith's troubled racial history, as well as honoring the black Catholic community that thrived here with a presentation by Christopher Gurley Jr.

Gurley, a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, presented the history of the St. Francis church and school, Friday night at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Chattanooga.

Understanding the historical context in which St. Francis existed - from 1949 to 1971 - is necessary to recognize the strength of the city's black Catholic community, Gurley said. Not only was the United States experiencing violent acts of racism at the time, there was also strong anti-Catholic sentiment.

"This parish was sustainable," Gurley said. "It had a history and community. People were invested in this church."

In 1950, the primary school opened under the direction of Father John Baltz. The school seats were soon filled, Gurley said, another testament to the strength of the community's faith.

"It was a full classroom at a time when Catholicism was not an acceptable religion," Gurley said.

Catholicism in the mid-20th century was viewed as a foreign religion, since it was the faith of immigrants, specifically Irish immigrants. Catholicism was seen as anti-American, Gurley said, and the target of attacks from groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

While Catholicism itself struggled to oppose slavery and racism in America until the middle of the 20th century, there were visionary leaders among the faith's leaders, Gurley said. At St. Francis, the school enrolled black and white students, years before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated schools.

Vincinetta Brown was among the first group of students to enroll at St. Francis and was in attendance Friday night. Being part of the school, and part of the history of Chattanooga, is a blessing, she said. She faced racism in the city around her and bigotry for what she believed.

"Being black [and] Catholic has been a challenge," Brown said. "You have to be rooted in your faith and believe God has a better faith and a better outlook than what you're experiencing right now."

St. Francis closed in 1971 under the direction of the local diocese, which believed merging the churches was a sign of "racial unity," Gurley said. The decision fractured the St. Francis congregation to other Catholic churches, other Christian denominations and even out of the faith, he said.

"The fact that we had a fully functioning parish, an African-American parish, decimated was really an unfortunate consequence," Gurley said.

The Rev. J. David Carter of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul said he had heard about St. Francis since he arrived at the church and was excited for Gurley to have gone through the church archives and bring new light to the city's history. The presentation was important to raise awareness about local black history, he said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.