Catholic churches were spread throughout Harlem, reflecting an organization that assigned each parish a particular part of the neighborhood. Unlike other religious denominations, the Catholic Church did not leave Harlem as blacks occupied the neighborhood. Catholic parishes retained white members into the 1930s, and even as blacks slowly came to dominate congregations, white clergy still presided. The Church also operated schools in Harlem, and in the 1920s added a day nursery for preschool children and an additional primary school, both operated by black nuns.
In 1929, Lester Walton estimated that 5000 blacks attended Harlem’s Catholic churches. The earliest were migrants from Maryland; the largest number were immigrants from the West Indies, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Walton identified St Mark’s on West 138th Street as the “largest Negro Catholic Church in New York,” with a membership of 1000. In 1912, the Holy Ghost Fathers had taken charge of the parish, and within 4 years had converted 400 blacks. At St Charles Borromeo on West 141st Street whites remained a majority of the congregation until the mid-1920s, but by 1929, blacks made up 90% of members. In Harlem’s other parishes, blacks were still a minority: at St Aloysius on West 132nd Street they made up about half the congregation; at the Church of the Resurrection on 151st Street blacks constituted about 40% of members; and only a few could be found at the two churches on the boundaries of the black neighborhood, St Thomas on West 118th Street and All Saints at East 129th Street and Madison Avenue.
Catholic churches undertook one activity that the neighborhood’s Protestant institutions did not: they operated schools. In 1929, the school next to St Mark’s housed 500 students, taught by seven nuns from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and three lay teachers. Of the 330 students at St Charles Borromeo, all but 15-20 were black, taught by 8 Sisters. Those teachers were white, as were most of those in the public schools. Not so those at St Mary’s Primary School, set up in 1930 by the Franciscan Handmaidens, an order of black nuns, in the basement of their convent on East 131st Street (they also operated a day nursery on West 132nd Street).
The school soon outgrew that location and in the mid-1930s relocated to St Aloysius, first to the rectory, and later to a purpose built structure, dedicated in 1941.
Notwithstanding the work of the Franciscan Handmaidens, the Catholic Church in 1920s Harlem needs to be seen as one of the institutions in which white control persisted long after blacks residents filled the neighborhood
Cecilia Moore, “Keeping Harlem Catholic: African-American Catholics and Harlem, 1920-1960,” American Catholic Studies, 114, 3 (2003): 3-21.
Lester Walton, “Catholic Church Makes Strides in Harlem,” The World, September 29, 1929, 6E