Merlene Davis: Lexington's St. Peter Claver Church true to its mission

St. Peter Claver parishioners took communion last month from the Rev. Norman Fischer, center, and Bishop Ronald Gainer, right.
St. Peter Claver parishioners took communion last month from the Rev. Norman Fischer, center, and Bishop Ronald Gainer, right. Pablo Alcala

Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington was visiting a friend in Pennsylvania two years ago when they decided to tour the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem.

The order was founded in 1891 by St. Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress who became a nun. It was dedicated to improving the spiritual and educational well-being of Native Americans and black people. Drexel was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000 and became the second recognized American-born saint.

During Gainer's visit to the center's archives, an older nun asked him about Lexington's St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, one of about 60 missions and schools Drexel financed through her inheritance.

"She asked if the school was still there, and I said no," Gainer recalled. "She asked if the church still served black people, and I said yes."

When the nun, left archivist Stephanie Morris asked Gainer if he knew why the nun had questioned him. Morris then showed him an agreement from 1917 between Drexel and Ferdinand Brossart, bishop of the Diocese of Covington, which included Lexington at the time. It said Drexel donated $8,000 to "aid in the erection of a church at Lexington, Kentucky, ... to be used perpetually ... for the education of Colored People in religious and secular knowledge."

Included was a "recapture clause," Morris said. Had St. Peter Claver Church failed to serve the black community in Lexington, it would have had to return the $8,000, and there was no end date on the agreement.

"We got a good laugh out of that," Gainer said. "The money had to be returned if the church no longer served the spiritual needs of the black Catholics in Lexington."

This would not have been a good time to be repaying that donation. St. Peter Claver has just broken ground for a multipurpose and education center next to the church. It is the biggest renovation and construction that the congregation has undertaken in years, costing $2.9 million.

Parish life director James Weathers said it was the first of two phases of renovation and construction. The second will include razing the church and building a larger one on the same land. Seating capacity will increase from 250 to 450. That will cost about $2.3 million.

"We've already hired a contractor," Weathers said. "Construction should be starting soon."

The Rev. Norman Fischer, the parish priest, said the expansion would allow the "small church with a big heart" to serve more youth and neighborhood residents. "Now we are going to be a big church with a bigger heart," he said.

Plans call for having a clothing bank, ecumenical senior citizen activities, mentoring programs for youth and a sandwich program for the Hope Center.

"As the first black priest of St. Peter Claver and the only black priest in the Diocese of Lexington, I have been humbled and honored to bring the dignity of the church to all the people called to celebrate the Lord through an African-American experience," Fischer said.

Drexel's wealth came from her father, an investor and banker who died in 1885 and left the bulk of his estate to his grandchildren, Morris said. In the interim, his three daughters were to receive the interest.

Only one daughter had a child, however, and that child died. So did Drexel's two sisters, both of whom were just as philanthropic, leaving Drexel as the sole recipient of the interest. The money was never to be passed on to a husband.

Morris said Drexel received requests for help from around the world but was astute in protecting the money.

"Mother Katharine was frequently urged to break her father's will and claim his estate," Morris said, "but she knew that the Drexel estate would not be enough to resolve the problems of neglect facing the African-American and Native American communities. She relied on divine providence and the generosity of others to assist her and her sisters meeting these needs. But she did put that 'recapture clause' in the agreements she signed with bishops and missionaries."

Another beneficiary of her generosity is Xavier University in Louisiana, the only predominantly black Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.

In 1935, Drexel, 77, had a heart attack that limited her to a wheelchair and her bed for nearly 20 years. She died in 1955 at age 96.

The inheritance's principal then went to the charities her father had named in his will.

Weathers said the church would welcome donations to expand and continue Drexel's mission.

"We chose to stay in the same location," he said. "We could have moved to the suburbs, but our outreach is needed in the community."

And that is exactly what Drexel had hoped.

How To donate

To donate to St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, send checks to the church at 410 Jefferson Street, Lexington, Ky., 40508-1319, or call (859) 254-0030 for more information.

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