Two wood-paneled walls once flanked the sanctuary at St. Benedict the Moor Roman Catholic Church. Before they came down, Elmer J. Crumbley went to see them one last time.
They were special to him. He thinks of those walls when he remembers his family’s first Mass at St. Benedict’s, in 1964. The family, he recalls, had faced racial discrimination at another Omaha church. But here, it found a home.
The walls are gone now, replaced by gold pillars and white drywall. But Crumbley, now 64 and the finance chairman at the church, isn’t nostalgic about them. Things have to change, he said, to move forward.
On Christmas Eve, St. Benedict the Moor, 2423 Grant St., celebrated its first Mass in a remodeled sanctuary. Sunday, Archbishop George Lucas will visit the church — thought to be the only Catholic church in Nebraska established to serve African-Americans — to consecrate the new granite altar at a special service.
The project is the first major renovation St. Benedict’s has seen in more than 50 years. And parish leaders say the new fixtures have lifted spirits at the church, which has been home to generations of Omaha’s black Catholics.
“For the church it’s a fresh beginning and a new start for the community,” said the Rev. Vitalis Anyanike, who has been pastor at St. Benedict’s for the past six years.
The stations of the cross now hang on white-painted drywall rather than exposed concrete blocks. A traditional African kente cloth falls over the new granite altar. The church’s old asbestos tile floors were replaced. The wood panels on either side of the sanctuary were removed, widening the space, leaving more room for the gospel choir that sings every Sunday.
The $30,000 project took almost a year, said Crumbley, a retired Omaha school principal. Most of the money was raised by the parishioners. Some pieces were donated, and contractor Felix Cortes, owner of Deluxe House and Garden Services, donated time and resources to keep costs down.
From the beginning, Anyanike called the project a “leap of faith” for the parishioners. A leap made with the future in mind.
“For a while it looked like we were on the chopping block,” said Pat Bass, office manager at St. Benedict’s.
In 2012 the Archdiocese of Omaha considered reorganizing several eastern Omaha parishes. St. Benedict’s, said Deacon Tim McNeil, spokesman for the archdiocese, was never considered for closing, but faith leaders did recommend the parish share its pastor with one of its neighbors.
Today, Anyanike co-pastors at Holy Name Church.
Currently St. Benedict’s counts 125 families in its congregation. That’s down, Crumbley said. Longtime members are dying. The parish has been working for years to reel in families that have stopped attending services and to recruit new, younger parishioners.
The renovation modernizes the church, and the hope is it will attract a new demographic, Crumbley said. It also helps to ease the fears of many parishioners that St. Benedict’s future is uncertain.
“People can now see the long range instead of the next three to five years,” Crumbley said. “Why would you make this great change if you aren’t going to be around?”
An Omaha without St. Benedict’s would be inconceivable to many of the city’s black Catholics. The parish, Crumbley said, thinks of itself as the “mother church of African-Americans and people of African descent” in the city.
Next year the parish will celebrate 100 years in Omaha. In November 1918 the Rev. Francis Cassilly, a Jesuit priest, placed an ad in the Monitor, a newspaper aimed at Omaha’s black community, stating: “All Colored Roman Catholics are requested to meet at 10 o’clock every Sunday morning at Sacred Heart Church …”
The notice would draw five people, according to “Black and Catholic in Omaha: A Case of Double Jeopardy,” by Jack Angus, which chronicles the first 50 years of St. Benedict’s.
The small group grew, eventually adopting the name of St. Benedict the Moor, a 16th century Sicilian friar who was born to African slaves and eventually became the patron saint of African-Americans.
Cassilly hoped to address the “de facto exclusion of blacks” from membership in Omaha’s Catholic churches, Angus wrote. And indeed, the fledgling church eventually moved from Sacred Heart to a home on Parker Street because “some of the white people seemed rather displeased at the hospitality we were receiving,” Cassilly later wrote.
The church grew and changed over the years, making the transition from a mission church into a standard territorial parish in 1953. A school was established, though it later closed. In 1958 St. Benedict’s moved into the Grant Street building where it remains today.
A few years later, in 1964, Crumbley’s family moved to Omaha from Louisiana. The Crumbleys have Roman Catholic roots going back generations, Crumbley said, so when they came here they went to Mass at the north Omaha church associated with their parish. It was not St. Benedict’s.
“We didn’t dream about crossing parish lines,” he said.
Decades later Crumbley’s voice is soft as he tells how he and his family were made to sit in the balcony of that church, away from the rest of the congregation.
“At the time, I didn’t understand why,” he said. “I understood, living in the South, what was going on. But the mindset of being in the North, where everyone’s free, and then you find out that not only are you not free but you’re not free in the church. That gets me to this day.”
Crumbley’s mother caught wind of St. Benedict’s and took her family there the following Sunday. The family has worshipped there ever since. In 1975 Crumbley married his late wife, Velma, there.
He would like to say the world has changed. But Crumbley said he has visited other churches and felt unwelcomed.
There’s a coldness about other places, he said, that you won’t find at St. Benedict’s, even among races. The parish counts more than one white family in its congregation.
Diana Vogt, who is white, started attending Mass at St. Benedict’s after the Rev. Ken Vavrina transferred there from St. Richard Catholic Church. She sings in the choir and is a member of the ladies’ auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver, a predominantly African-American lay Catholic fraternal order.
“From the first day I went there, it felt like home to me,” Vogt said. “It’s a community that you feel a part of, and that they make you feel a part of.”
This, Crumbley said, is why St. Benedict’s must go on.
With the sanctuary complete, the church has turned its focus to the next phase of remodeling. There are cracked windows that need repairing, and the social hall downstairs needs updating.
Crumbley is optimistic. Tithing is up. And there’s a confidence among the members here that St. Benedict’s can start looking at its future in terms of decades rather than years.
After all, Crumbley said, “We control our own destiny.”