A year and a half after breaking ground, the new $3M worship space for St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Lexington, Kentucky will receive an official dedication on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 16, at 10am ET.
Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv. of Lexington will celebrate the Mass, announced by the parish pastor, Fr Norman Fischer, on March 3—the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, who helped fund the church’s original operations.
“Saint Katherine gave $8,000 to [the parish] to minister to Black Catholics in the late 1890s,” he wrote on social media that day, which is also her feast.
“She believed in us when many Black Catholics were not welcome in Lexington.”
St. Peter Claver was one of several institutions founded with financial support from Drexel, who backed Black and Native American Catholic institutions across the country before her death in 1955. St. Peter Claver is today the only Black Catholic parish in all of east-central Kentucky.
The parish originally began in 1887, after the Black population of Lexington surged following the Civil War and local Black Catholics worshipped in segregated areas of another local church. The St. Peter Claver community met for decades in the same building as a parochial school meant to educate local African-American children.
The church moved into its own building in 1948, but flooding and space issues eventually occasioned that edifice’s demolition in 2015. They then began meeting in the nearby parish hall—formerly the Black Catholic school run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
Construction on a new church was scheduled to begin in 2016, but various delays interrupted that plan. Now, seven years later, the new building is complete and awaits a final blessing. Meanwhile, the parish is thriving with a diversifying community centered around an African-American core.
“We have Congolese refugees having Mass in Swahili, and recently Latinos have joined us,” Fischer told BCM last year.
According to OSV News, the new building will seat 450 worshipers, just under double the previous total. It was designed by Pearson & Peters Architects and will feature a prominent Afrocentric crucifix designed “so the congregation can see themselves in the sacred artwork,” according to a construction update provided last year.
“St. Peter Claver promotes a worship environment that is visually and spiritually Afrocentric.”
Fischer, who is himself a visual artist, has also commissioned and collected iconography for the new building, including a Black rendering of St. Michael the Archangel by local painter Amber Knorr and her piece depicting various venerated Black (and African-American) Catholics.
Also prominent will be the church’s patron, Peter Claver, the Spanish Jesuit missionary known for his ministry to enslaved persons in 17th-century Colombia. Various Black parishes and schools in the United States bear his name, which has become a universal emblem of Black Catholic identity.
The “Little Church with the Big Heart,” as Fischer and others have termed the resilient parish in Lexington—one of the first in the world to take on the Claver moniker—was originally founded the year before his canonization as the patron saint of ministry to African Americans.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.