For generations, religious worship has provided Omahans with hope and inspiration. That spirit was renewed last weekend as some houses of worship in our community resumed in-person services.
“It was wonderful, great, fantastic, awesome,” said Sharon Cyr of the service at St. Cecilia Cathedral. “I missed receiving Communion, and the blessings, of course, are very special,” she told The World-Herald’s Kevin Cole.
Churches and worshipers showed appropriate attention to health protections. Such prevention will continue to be vital for the foreseeable future. Omahans must be resolute in holding to a high standard of such protection, given the ongoing threat of virus exposure and spread.
The measured resumption of in-person worship provides an occasion to note Omaha’s religious heritage, going back to Nebraska’s territorial times. It is a rich tapestry, indeed:
• Sisters of Mercy. In October 1864, the steamer Montana pulled alongside the Missouri River’s western shore. Seven Sisters of Mercy stepped off the ship and onto muddied planks, spying the set of humble buildings that was earliest Omaha. The sisters soon launched what continues to be a remarkable record of devoted service to Omaha, assisting the needy and nourishing the spirit.
• Mormons. Omaha has a longstanding connection to the early days of Mormonism. The Mormons’ Winters Quarters in Florence served as the staging area for more than 1,000 adults and children who set out in August 1856 on a 900-mile trek to Utah carrying their belongings in handcarts. The Mormon excursions continued till 1860. The handcarts were two-wheeled, made of hickory or oak. “The interior box of the cart typically measured three feet by five feet,” historian John Bicknell writes. “Empty, the cart weighed about 65 pounds.”
• African American churches. Religious worship has had enduring importance for Omaha’s black community, providing a spiritual bedrock in the face of struggle and injustice. The city’s earliest black church, St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, dates from 1867. Other early churches founded by Omaha’s black residents included St. Phillip the Deacon Episcopal Church, 1878; Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, 1887; and Zion Baptist Church, 1888. By 1910, historian Quintard Taylor notes, Omaha’s black population constituted no less than “the third-largest African-American population among the major cities in the West.”
• Henry Monsky. Monsky (1890-1947), an Omaha attorney, was a major figure in Jewish civic leadership in the 20th century. He was lauded for his influential civic involvement nationally and internationally, including as national president of the B’nai B’rith service organization.
• Muslim community. When Akbar Ahmed, a scholar of Islamic studies at American University in Washington, D.C., took a group of his graduate students across the U.S. during 2008-09 to meet with Muslim communities, he included a stop in Omaha. In a book he wrote about his experiences, Ahmed observed, “We met many younger American Muslims who were balancing their Islam with their Americanness and a good grasp of both.”
These are only a few of the stories from Omaha’s religious heritage, a tapestry to which present generations are enthusiastically contributing.