Two Daughters of Charity with African American children at St. Ann’s School, probably in the 1930’s. (Source: Saint Rita Church, Indianapolis, Indiana: Golden Jubilee, 1919–1969. South Hackensack, NJ: Custombook. 1969.)
Did Indiana’s first — and only — Catholic school for African Americans originate with an apparition of the Virgin Mary? So an old story goes.
In the 1870’s, a young Irish priest named Daniel Curran came to Indiana. Born in Crusheen, County Clare, Ireland, in 1841, he immigrated with his parents to Seneca Falls, New York, in 1850. Until he felt called to the priesthood at age 22, Curran worked as a blacksmith in upstate New York. Trained at St. Thomas Seminary in Bardstown, Kentucky, then at the Grand Seminary in Montreal, in 1874 he was ordained a priest at St. John the Evangelist in downtown Indianapolis. By 1878, he was serving as assistant pastor at St. John’s.
With the explosion of the city’s Irish population, the downtown parish churches – especially St. Mary – were bursting at the seams. In 1879, Father Curran and the local bishop, Silas Chatard, went out to the (then) northwestern outskirts of town, to a spot along the Central Canal called “Jimmy Blake’s Woods.” Today, this is roughly the intersection of North West Street and West St. Clair Street, halfway between IUPUI and the Central Public Library.
Begun as an ethnic Irish parish, construction on the now-defunct St. Bridget’s got underway in June 1879. The sanctuary was dedicated on New Year’s Day 1880. The brick building was said to look like an Irish country church. Staffed by the Sisters of St. Francis from Oldenburg, Indiana, the adjacent parish school started up in 1881 and had about 130 students the following year. As a later pastor at the church, John Francis McShane, wrote in 1931, St. Bridget’s was known as “a parish of hospitals,” being close to the “City, Riley, Robert Long, and Coleman hospitals.”
Interestingly for a neighborhood dominated by the Irish, who were often hostile to African Americans, this area that became the heart of the historic Near West Side attracted black residents from around the time of the consecration of St. Bridget’s. Mary and James Kinney, authors of The Church That Refused to Die, argue that a small number of black Catholics were active in the parish almost from the get-go.
Father Curran was interested in evangelizing and educating African Americans, which arguably made him a rarity among Catholic priests in Indiana at the time — especially Irish-born ones. According to an old parish legend, in 1892 Curran had a remarkable celestial vision. Reverend John McShane reported on this vision in a 1931 sketchbook of memories and poems, Around Old St. Bridget’s. The poems, written in African American dialect, are McShane’s own and seem uncomfortable — even in bad taste — today, considering that he was white.
As McShane put it: “Tradition current around St. Bridget’s and especially among colored brethren, has it that the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, as a negress, made it known to Father Curran that she wished him to take a special care of the Catholic colored folk, and to start a Catholic school for their children as soon as possible.”
In another version of the story told in the September 8, 2000, issue of The Criterion, the archdiocesan newsletter, “Father Curran claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him that he was not doing enough for her children. The priest couldn’t understand what she meant until she appeared as a black Madonna. It was then that Father Curran founded St. Ann’s School for Negro Children at Ninth and Fayette Streets. . .”
The Black Madonna has been a feature of Catholic spirituality since the Middle Ages, when pilgrims from Spain to Poland venerated statues and icons of a dark-skinned Mary. One of the most famous sculpted Black Madonnas is at the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, origin of the monks who founded St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. Many priests in Curran’s time were trained at St. Meinrad’s. Could there, perhaps, be a Spencer County connection?
From 1892 until at least 1945, St. Ann’s, described as “a small frame building,” was located at 844 Fayette Street, just around the corner from St. Bridget’s Church and Academy at 813 North West Street. At a time when segregation was mandated by an 1869 Indiana law and “separate but equal” schools were reinforced by an act of the General Assembly in 1877, black and white students were kept apart, even in Catholic schools.
By 1892, the northwestern corner of town was facing major demographic changes as African Americans moved up from the South. As Reverend McShane recalled forty years later: “As the pastor of a large parish in Indianapolis Father Curran realized, from the very beginning, the storm of indignation, opposition and protest [that starting St. Ann’s] would arouse. At the first whisperings of the proposition [white] residents in the neighborhood of St. Bridget’s and the proposed school protested and threatened to appeal for an injunction to stop the whole thing, pleading that it would depreciate the value of their property and homes, and surrender the whole neighborhood to the negroes.” A resolution was drafted and appeals made to Bishop Chatard, who “turned a deaf ear to all appeals” and courageously gave Curran a personal financial donation to start the school.
St. Ann’s School for Negro Children, which had 76 pupils at its founding in 1892 and 37 in 1905, was the only Catholic school exclusively for African Americans in Indiana. It sat one block behind St. Bridget’s Church and Academy, just back from the northeast corner of Ninth & Fayette.
Staffed by the Franciscan Sisters under Mother Olivia Brockman, who designated Sister Christina Leavy to take charge of St. Ann’s, the school provided African American boys with “courses in mechanical drawing, woodcarving and book-keeping; while the girls were taught cooking, laundering and sewing.” (McShane) Sister Basil Appel succeeded Sister Christina, teaching at the school for seventeen years.
St. Ann’s apparently was segregated only when it came to education, however. Though school segregation reflected the culture of the times, parish records show that in 1911, First Communion and Confirmation classes were held side-by-side with white students at St. Bridget’s. African American boys were able to attend Cathedral High School, then located on Meridian Street across from SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral. Sadly, African American girls had a hard time continuing their education, struggling against the entrenched racism of many Catholic parents and even of some nuns, as they sought admission to one of the three Catholic girls’ academies (St. Mary’s, St. Agnes’, and St. John’s.) Only when trailblazing Bishop Joseph Ritter forced the desegregation of archdiocesan schools in the late 1930s and early 40s did “separate but equal” in Indiana Catholic education come to an end. Ritter’s conscientious actions in Indianapolis and later in St. Louis, where he was appointed archbishop in 1946, arguably paved the way for integration of public schools all over the U.S.
St. Ann’s, too, served as a model. In 1911, Mother Olivia opened a similar school at St. Monica’s, an African American parish in Kansas City, Missouri.
Father Curran retired from St. Bridget’s in 1916, dying in New Albany two years later. When St. Rita’s at 19th and Arsenal was founded as a predominantly African American parish in 1919, black Catholics tended to go to mass there, though children had to travel by bus back to St. Ann’s School on Fayette Street. St. Bridget’s School, immediately adjacent to the church at 813 North West Street, closed in 1935, but just a year later, students from St. Ann’s, now taught by the Sisters of Providence out of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, moved over from their former school due to better facilities there. The chronology gets confusing, from 1936 to 1946 St. Bridget’s School was known as St. Rita’s School. Enrollment was 208 in 1936. Nearby St. Ann’s was then used as a parish hall for St. Bridget’s Church.
Completion of a new school at St. Rita’s in 1946 led students back toward 19th and Arsenal. Led by pastors John McShane and Bernard Strange, these sister parishes, mostly African American, played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement in Indianapolis in the 1960’s, when this part of town was still called the “inner city.”
It is unclear when the building that once housed St. Ann’s School for Negro Children was torn down. In 1945, it was being used as a St. Vincent DePaul Center and was affiliated with St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Citing financial difficulties, a decaying structure, and crime in the neighborhood, the archdiocese closed St. Bridget’s Church in 1994, briefly used the building as IUPUI’s Newman Center, then turned a wrecking ball on it in 2000. The decision left many former parishioners embittered and feeling that rising property values in an area hemmed in by IUPUI and the IU Medical School — formerly called a “run down” neighborhood — was the real reason for closing the parish. Some parishioners went “underground” and formed an independent Catholic church, meeting at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church across the street.
The former site of St. Bridget’s, once a proud beacon of the heavily African American neighborhood that flourished near Indiana Avenue, is now occupied by condominiums. The site of St. Ann’s School is a playground.
Were they also the site of an old apparition? That story remains as mysterious as ever.