Parish committee places focus on Elmira’s Black history - Catholic Courier
A woman holds her hands to her face. Theodora Bragg is seen June 21, 1992. (Courier file photo)

Parish committee places focus on Elmira’s Black history

The U.S. bishops’ 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: the Enduring Call to Love,” has had a lasting effect on Faith Tarby.

In May of 2021, during an online Catholic Charities social-ministry conference, Tarby took part in a breakout session devoted to the document. From there, she and other members of Elmira’s Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish began meeting regularly, eventually forming a parish Solidarity Committee. Its members strive to implement the bishops’ letter by creating greater local awareness about African-Americans past and present.

“We have done a lot of outreach,” said Tarby, who coordinates the group. She added that the public is “not as well educated as we should be.”

Elmira parish offers several awareness-raising efforts regarding African-Americans

The solidarity group functions as a subcommittee of Most Holy Name of Jesus’ social-ministry committee. According to Tarby, it includes African-Americans and non-Catholics who meet monthly and conduct a variety of initiatives, including the following:

  • Development of monthly bulletin articles, educational presentations in the parish, and a resource list of books, movies, podcasts and articles for those wishing to understand factors that have affected Elmira’s Black population.
  • Celebration of national Black Catholic History Month in November 2023, during which the committee displayed posters at church entrances, submitted related prayers of the faithful for Sunday liturgies and highlighted the six U.S. Black Catholics on the path to sainthood. In addition, on Nov. 12, a caravan of 15 Most Holy Name of Jesus parishioners traveled to Rochester for a Sunday Mass at Rochester’s Immaculate Conception Church — a predominately African-American parish that is celebrating its 175th anniversary in 2024.
  • Support of an effort to have Elmira’s Madison Avenue Bridge — located over the Chemung River on the city’s east side — renamed in honor of two African-Americans who were local civic leaders. They are A’Don Allen (1916-94), the first African-American to serve as a Chemung County legislator and Elmira City Council member; and Bessie Berry (1932-2008), the first Black elected to the city’s school board and to serve as a local social worker, probation officer and corrections counselor. The bridge initiative is being led by James Hare, former mayor of Elmira. A proposal for the bridge’s renaming has been presented to the city council.

Committee seeks to honor and accept Blacks, other ethnic groups

Hare and the Solidarity Committee also collaborated for his Nov. 29, 2023, article in the Elmira Star Gazette about Black Catholics. The story spotlights families who go back several generations in Elmira’s former Ss. Peter and Paul Parish — particularly the Davises, whose ancestors were slaves in Maryland in the 1800s for cousins of John Carroll, the first U.S. bishop and archbishop.

The article noted that a Davis family descendant, Theodora Bragg (1909-2008), made significant contributions to the Elmira community, most notably through her volunteerism for Ss. Peter and Paul. Her husband, George, was a convert to Catholicism and a community leader. Bragg Towers, a senior-living center on Madison Avenue, is named in his honor.

Tarby said it’s vital to not only honor her city’s African-American history, but also call attention to injustices committed against Blacks and “give them the recognition and dignity that’s been robbed of them over the years.” For example, she cited lack of equal housing opportunities and other aspects of “white privilege” in Elmira, where — according to the U.S. Census Bureau — as of July 1, 2023, 10.8 percent of its 25,000-plus residents were African-American.

Tags: Black Catholics, Chemung County News
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