THE TEXAS CATHOLIC February 19, 2016
Celebrating a community’s culture
By Steve Landregan
This is a story about a former slave, a pro-cathedral and Dallas’ first African-American priest. It actually begins when the Diocese of Dallas was a year old. Bishop Thomas Francis Brennan, first Bishop of Dallas, recognized the need for a school for African-American children. He contacted Mother Katherine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who, at the suggestion of Pope Leo XIII, used her fortune to establish the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, a community of women of religious dedicated to serving African-Americans and Native Americans.
Mother Katherine, who was canonized by Pope Johns Paul II in 2000, agreed to build a “school for colored children” in Dallas and to staff it with Blessed Sacrament Sisters. Bishop Brennan’s resignation in 1892 brought and end to the discussion.
Bishop Edward Joseph Dunne, Bishop Brennan’s successor, had his hand full raising funds for Sacred Heart Cathedral, which was completed in 1902. About that time, Mary Jordan, a former slave of American Indian and African-American heritage and a Baptist, approached the bishop proposing a Catholic school for African-American children. Mary’s husband, Valentine, worked at Ursuline Academy and was impressed at the education the students were receiving.
Bishop Dunne embraced the idea and invited the Josephite Fathers, who were committed to serving African-Americans, to staff a new parish under the patronage of St. Peter. The church would be built in Freedmanstown, a neighborhood north of the downtown areas settled by former slaves now known as the State-Thomas district. The Josephites accepted the invitation and sent Father John P. Ferdinand to oversee the establishment t of the church and school.
With the dedication of the new cathedral, the former pro-cathedral located at the corner of what became St. Paul and Federal streets, was no longer in use. Bishop Dunne donated the building for the new church. It was not possible to move the church so it was dismantled and the materials used to construct St. Peter’s. Remembering Mother Katherine’s offer to Bishop Brennan, Father Ferdinand contacted her regarding the proposed new school. Mother Katherine donated $2,500.
Father Ferdinand obtained Sisters of the Holy Ghost and Mary Immaculate from San Antonio and the Sister’s Institute opened in 1910. The Jordans got their wish and enrolled three foster sons in the school. In 1930, the school was renamed St. Peter School.
One of Jordan’s foster sons, Max Murphy had a priestly vocation, but no seminary in the area would accept him. Max enrolled at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California and proved to be such an outstanding scholar that he was sent to the German Theological Seminary in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He was ordained there in 1934, becoming the first African –American priest from the Diocese of Dallas. Sadly, his race prevented him from serving in the United States so he was assigned to Trinidad, to the Archdiocese of the Port of Spain. He visited Dallas frequently and had the joy of seeing his foster mother baptized a Catholic in 1927 at the age of 80.
In 1950, a new church was built at St. Peter. Things began to change in the post-war years. Construction of the Cochran-Munger Expressway divided the neighborhood and new developments began to further disrupt the community. The Josephites withdrew in 1970. Enrollment in the school declined and, in 1987, it closed.
St. Peter’s struggled as many parishioners moved to other neighborhoods. In the mid 1980’s the Diocese approached the African-American parishioners about sharing St. Peter’s with a group of Polish Catholics. In February 1985, Society of Christ Fathers from Poland assumed pastoral care of American and Polish communities. Today St. Peter parish has two thriving communities and cultures.
As for the school, it is now the Notre Dame School of Dallas. In 1988, the school was refurbished for operation by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. It is utilized as a school for special needs children.