Chicago, Ill., Mar 31, 2021 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- Amid a plan to merge and close dozens of parishes, the Archdiocese of Chicago has disproportionately closed parishes that minister to black Catholics due to low attendance, according to an archdiocesan official.

“There have been disproportionate numbers of closings in the Black Catholic community, but this is going on all across the Diocese,” Cliff Barber, chief strategy officer of the archdiocese, said in a March 29 interview with the Chicago Crusader, a publication that focuses on the African American community.

“There has been some shared pain here, but it’s just been disproportionate in the Black Catholic community.”

Barber also heads the archdiocese’ Black Catholic Initiative, which seeks to support the Black Catholic community in the city. Barber said there are about 6,000 Mass-attending Black Catholics in the archdiocese, heavily concentrated in the south and west sides of the city.

The Chicago archdiocese has been closing and merging parishes for several years, with the latest round of mergers announced March 9-10.

One such parish is the predominantly African-American St. Peter Claver Mission, which will join the parishes of St. Benedict and St. Walter under a new parish name.

The Chicago archdiocese lists nearly forty parishes on its website as ministering specifically to the black community; Baker said there are nearly 800 predominantly Black Catholic parishes across the U.S., most of which are located in the east and south.

Overall, the church closures and mergers are part of Cardinal Blase Cupich’s project “Renew My Church,” which he announced in 2016. At the time, around 100 parishes were expected to close due to a shortage of priests and church buildings in need of repair.

Barber told the Crusader that the Black Catholic Initiative is relaunching itself in 2021 with an updated mission.

Chicago has been home to communities of Black Catholics for several hundred years. Following the evangelization of black slaves and freed men by Jesuit missionaries in the decades before the American Revolution, large African-American Catholic populations settled in cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and numerous cities throughout the South.

Chicago has at least one prominent African American Catholic who may someday be canonized — Venerable Augustus Tolton, who was born a slave in Missouri and was the first African-American priest. He was ordained a priest in the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran on Holy Saturday 1886, and was sent back to serve in Illinois in the Diocese of Alton. He worked at a parish in Quincy, but met with opposition from a white priest, and in 1889 secured permission to transfer to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

In Chicago he founded a black parish, Saint Monica’s. He died July 9, 1897 from heat stroke and heart failure, at the age of 43.

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