Less than two weeks ago, at the nearly three-hour-long Saturday night Easter Vigil service at Montgomery’s St. Bede the Venerable, I joined the Catholic Church. After a roughly eight-month stint of RCIA classes, going every Wednesday night to receive an hour’s worth of instruction on how to “see the world through Catholic-colored glasses,” the time came in the spring . . . and I got baptized at the tender age of 37, something I had long neglected to do— largely because for my most of my life I thought I already had. After being married for more than ten years to a “cradle Catholic” – it was made clear that no one is a life-long Catholic, no one is born Catholic – I made the plunge! It feels pretty good to be church-going sort of person, you know.
Being Catholic in the South is . . . well, not dangerous like it may have been in some places during certain periods of Southern history, but it remains markedly outside the norm. Historian Wayne Flynt opens the chapter on religion in his award-winning 2004 book Alabama in the Twentieth Century by referring in the very first sentence to the state’s “virtual Baptist-Methodist monopoly.” Flynt’s assessments are backed up by the tables on religion in Howard Odum’s 1936 opus Southern Regions of the United States, which explain that 87% of church-going Southerners were either Baptist or Methodist, the denominations of the working and middle-classes, while the blue-blood Southern aristocrats were mostly Episcopalians and Presbyterians. (This is before the burst of growth among newer evangelical and fundamentalist denominations.) The huge tome-like Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published in 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press, confirms the continuation of those same trends, barely mentioning Catholicism at all in its “Religion and Social Class” article.
I could tell a half-lie right now and say that I was raised Baptist, but the real truth is that I wasn’t really raised anything and don’t remember us going to church very much at all. Coming from a working-class to lower-middle-class family, my mother had been raised Baptist and my father Methodist. My only solid recollections of Normandale Baptist Church, where we were members and sporadic attendees when I was a child, are of dreading being sent to Vacation Bible School in the summers – something my mother still razzes me about – and of coloring pictures of Biblical scenes in Sunday School while my mother and grandmother were in “big church” in the sanctuary. Probably about fifteen years ago, Normandale Baptist shut down and later sold the building to a black congregation. I have no idea why, we had stopped going at all by then. Not too many years ago, driving by there, I noticed that the new occupants had put window-unit air conditioners through the stained glass windows.
I don’t remember much about that Baptist church where we spent a little bit of time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but for some reason I do have a distinct memory about the preacher, Dr. Earl Hall, whose clean-shaven face, Brylcreem hairdo and horn-rimmed glasses belied his roots in an earlier era. I took a few minutes not too long ago to look him up, to see where he might be today, and found an article about him that ran about a year ago in The Alabama Baptist. In it, the now-nonagenarian Dr. Hall recalled his time at Normandale Baptist, from 1961 to 1986, including “leading the congregation through the turmoil of the civil rights movement,” a congregation of “people who were [at first] dead-set against allowing black men and women to worship in the church.” The article quotes him as saying:
“It was my privilege to be able to lead Normandale Baptist Church to accept the black race into our membership before I left that church,” he said. “We put it on our church [books] that any person who desires to worship and fellowship is welcome in our church.”
I was a small child when we went to his church, and at that age knew nothing about the racial strife of my hometown. I also can’t recall ever seeing a black face among the congregation that gathered for worship. I would have been about 12 years old when Dr. Hall retired, but I do remember my grandmother really having a high opinion of the man. Reading that article about him, I probably would have, too.
Those days are long-gone for me now. Looking back, I just think it a little strange that a group of Baptists neglected to explain to me that I would need to get baptized. Maybe they did and I just wouldn’t listen— to be honest about it, that’s entirely possible . . .
In the late 1990s, when I met the woman who would become my wife, I was 25 years old and had never stepped foot in a Catholic church . . . and truthfully, I rarely stepped foot in any church. I went to Mass with her family that Christmas, and to this day, other than weddings or funerals, I haven’t been in a Protestant church since. Back in 2000, when we were preparing to get married at St. Peter’s parish in downtown Montgomery, in that beautiful, then-recently renovated historic church, the priest at the time, Father Sherlock, had us come to his office to fill out some paperwork for the marriage records. One of the questions for me was, when were you baptized? I told him that I was sure about where – certainly at Normandale Baptist – but not when, and if I could use his phone to call my mother at work, she would know the date. Those are the kinds of things that moms just remember, right? I got her on the phone, and she explained to me that Baptists don’t baptize little babies, they “dedicate” them, and to get baptized is that person’s choice—and that as far as she knew I never had made that choice.
When I told my father that I was marrying a Catholic girl, his response was that, if I did, the Pope would be running my life from then on. I was kind of surprised by his off-putting reaction, but it wasn’t out of character for him, and his comment kind of echoed that clamor that I kept hearing, “You know you have to convert or they won’t let you get married!” A mildly foreboding assertion that I had to make a devilish choice between moving over to dark side or rejecting the woman I loved. Growing up in the Deep South, I was completely aware of racism and anti-Semitism, which were very real parts of everyday life, but this wave of suspicious anti-Catholic jibes threw me for a loop.
The entry on Catholicism in the New Georgia Encyclopedia relates modern anti-Catholicism to the fact that many Catholics in the South were immigrants or African Americans, two groups not exactly popular among local-yokel Southern types. Later, by the early twentieth century, we can add in the infamous “agrarian rebel” Tom Watson who openly despised African Americans, Jews and Catholics, then add the formation of patriotic-sounding anti-Catholic groups with names like the Guardians of Liberty and the True American Society, and there’s no way to omit the early and mid-century resurgences of the notorious Ku Klux Klan . . . Apparently, most Southerners either hated, disliked or at least distrusted Catholics for a long time. That was news to me as I prepared to marry one.
Within the more modern consciousness, the Catholic Church’s open support of the movement also didn’t sit well with the mainstream of Southern culture. As one example, the Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers’ final camp site was at the City of St. Jude in west Montgomery. My guess too is that some of more rabid yet not-so-well educated Southerners probably couldn’t tell the difference between a Catholic priest and an Episcopal priest, which may have caused a lot of them to assume incorrectly that any activist in a black shirt and collar – the murdered Episcopal priest Jonathon Daniels or the 27 Episcopal priests on the September 1961 Freedom Ride to New Orleans – was a Catholic.
I only joined the Church about two weeks ago, but so far being Catholic in the Deep South is not so scary, though I do understand that it used to be. My wife once told me this little anecdote: when she had grown up and had become more conscious of the South’s racist past, she asked her New Orleans-born Catholic father about the Ku Klux Klan, and his response was that he knew the Klan hated him as much as they hated any black person. Of course, the Klan’s most prolific and notorious violence was perpetrated against black people, and it would have been a risky move to attack white Catholics, but a comprehension of the threat and of being outnumbered was still present in the Catholic community. From my vantage point, it looks as though the South has handled its anti-Catholic sentiments in the same way it has handled so many other things: let it recede into a vague yet periodically violent malaise whose roots are lost but which continues to affect attitudes and decision-making through cursory ignorance and unfounded prejudice. I haven’t faced any of that yet, and most people who know me know that they’d be wasting their time bringing me their hateful prejudices. So far about the hardest thing about being Catholic is forgetting to genuflect.