Divine Word Seminary- Bay St. Louis
In September 1920, the Society of the Divine Word opened a seminary for African American Catholic men known as Sacred Heart College in Greenville, Mississippi. Twelve students enrolled and Fr. Matthew Christmann, SVD served as their rector, prefect and teacher. By the end of that year, enrollment figures were climbing and it became clear that a larger space would be needed. The growing interest energized organizers and reaffirmed their belief that the seminary could succeed.
In 1923, the school was relocated to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi and renamed St. Augustine’s Seminary.
According to the St. Augustine’s Seminary website, Fr. Christmann wrote this in 1926, "It must be clear to everyone that it is surely a grave injustice to exclude a whole race from the priesthood, principally because prejudice will greatly hamper them in their religious activities, or a cordial cooperation with white priests may meet with great obstacles."
In 1934, Divine Word Missionaries in America celebrated another exciting milestone when they ordained the first four African American men to complete the formation program at St. Augustine Seminary. Fathers Anthony Bourges, Maurice Rousseve, Vincent Smith and Francis Wade hold a special place in SVD history, as well as Catholic American history. Collectively, they are known as the First Four. Tragically, Fr. Christmann, who fought to defend the right of African American men to be educated for the priesthood in the United States, didn’t get to witness the momentous occasion because he died five years before their ordination.
“For years (St. Augustine’s Seminary) was practically the only place in the United States where a young black man who felt he had a vocation to the priesthood could go to test his vocation. Because of the pioneering work of this effort, other seminaries and religious orders began to accept and even actively recruit candidates from the African American community. By its existence and because of the success of its ordinands, St. Augustine’s had accomplished the historic work God willed of it.”
- “In the Light of the Word,” by Ernest Brandewie
In the following decades, St. Augustine produced many Black priests and Brothers. In 1950, the school officially integrated its student body when four white seminarians volunteered to transfer to St. Augustine’s from another school.
The major seminary closed in 1967 and its students went to Techny, Illinois. St. Augustine’s went on to become the site of the Society’s novitiate and also remained a high school seminary. In 1982, the high school closed and in 1990, the novitiate relocated but the SVDs mark on American Catholic history was secure. Today, St. Augustine’s serves as the administrative center of the Society’s U.S. Southern Province.
The text of this page is an adapted version of The Southern District by Fr. Mark Weber.