“Black History Month, to me, should be every day, not just February” says Mr. Ernest Alls. Mr. Alls is a beloved Elder of the Saint Katharine Drexel Parish family and comes from a long line of devout Catholics where strong religious calling runs on his mother’s side. “My family has been blessed,” says Mr. Alls. His great aunt, Sr. Mary Mercedes Ernest and second cousin, Sr. Alexis Fisher, were nuns belonging to the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order founded by women of African descent in 1829 at a time when women of color were not welcome in Catholic congregations of religious women. Another second cousin was Bishop Carl Fisher, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who died in 1993 at the age of 47.
A warm, affable African American man, Mr. Alls has been married to his wife Vornevva for almost 58 years, with whom he has two children – Terence and Cassandra. As he turns 88 this year, Mr. Alls reflects on the importance of Black History Month as well as his faith.
“It (Black History Month) is important because most times, when I was coming up, my aunt always made sure we knew about our Black history,” Mr. Alls explains. “The young today don’t know a thing about Black history. They don’t know the people who have paved the way. It’s about respect. Respect.” His grandparents, faithful Catholics, raised the whole family to treat everyone with respect and that is a lesson Mr. Alls has carried with him his entire life.
When asked about events in Black history that have a very personal meaning to him, Mr. Alls immediately points to the members of his family who have answered God’s call to serve Him. Mr. Alls himself has a lifetime of service at parishes he worshipped at, earning him the nickname “Deacon” at St. Mary of the Angels in Roxbury while he served there. Cardinal Law took notice of Mr. Alls and suggested to his pastor that Mr. Alls should become officially ordained a deacon but the pastor quickly replied “no because then you will take him away from here,” Mr. Alls says fondly.
Born in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, Mr. Alls was all too familiar with the restrictions placed upon him due to the color of his skin and the pain of segregation. “At the white church, St. Vincent de Paul, we had to sit in the back,” recalls Mr. Alls. But rather than focus on the indignities inflicted upon him, he chooses to focus on the blessings received in his life. “One day a new pastor came and stood up and said at Mass ‘there will be no segregation at this church. You can sit where you want. And if you don’t like it call the bishop and I’ll resign.” This was sometime in the 1940s and Mr. Alls appreciated the gift of having a pastor assigned who was clearly ahead of his time.
When discussing why African American firsts are so important to recognize, Mr. Alls points out the many years their contributions were overlooked. “George Washington Carver and so many other African American pioneers never got mentioned in history books for so long,” he laments. “They did so many things.”
“Slaves built the White House but you don’t see that mentioned anywhere in history books. The only black kids in history books were kids picking cotton! But there has been so much advancement – doctors, lawyers – all this achievement is because of education and (opening up the doors to) college.”
Although there are many Black Saints – St. Martin de Porres, St. Monica, St. Josephine Bakhita, etc. – the Catholic Church is still awaiting its first African American to be named a saint. There are several candidates under consideration – Venerable Henriette Delille, Venerable Augustus Tolton, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Servants of God Thea Bowman, Mother Mary Lange, and Julia Greely. Mr. Alls wonders if he will see the first African American saint from the US named during his lifetime.
“It would mean a lot,” says Mr. Alls. “I would like to see the canonization of Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, the founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence Order.”
When discussing the importance of having a Black Catholic parish to worship in, Mr. Alls’ voice fills with excitement. “I tell people ‘if you want to have church, come to Saint Katharine Drexel because we have church,’” he says. “We praise the Lord. Fr Oscar Pratt preaches. When you go to Mass the most important thing to me to take away is the sermon and the music. When you have both things, you have church.”
Mr. Alls also points out that it’s the information that the church provides which is of great service to him and community members. “The Black Church, especially the Black Catholic Church, we always get the right information. It’s important because there’s a lot of things in the community we wouldn’t know about.” Saint Katharine Drexel Parish in Dorchester has been particularly active in providing accurate Covid information to its parishioners as well as practicing extensive Covid protocols. The parish has hosted several vaccination clinics for community members disproportionately affected by this pandemic. In addition, the parish boasts a very active Social Justice Committee which keeps parishioners informed about current issues.
Mr. Alls praises Pastor Oscar Pratt and Saint Katharine Drexel Music Director Meyer Chambers for making people comfortable coming there. “We are blessed to have Fr. Oscar as our pastor. I see young people coming – young people seem to be enjoying the Mass. It makes my heart leap for joy to see them singing and clapping.” He noted when white people attend Mass there for the first time it may be a different atmosphere than they’re used to at a predominantly white parish, “but they come back and join the church.”
The hymnal used at Saint Katharine Drexel is Lead Me, Guide Me, an official African American Catholic hymnal that Sr. Thea Bowman helped develop and get published. The publication includes Negro Spirituals, historic songs enslaved people sang when all they had to hang on to was hope in God himself. The legacies of these spirituals have been preserved by continuing to be sung to this day. The traditional Negro Spiritual “Wade in the Water” is a mainstay at every baptism at Saint Katharine Drexel.
When asked what advice he would give to young Black Catholics, Mr. Alls responds readily “Open up their hearts. Open up your ears to listen. Fight for what you believe in. Have hope. Hope to make things better than they are. To build the church.”
As he looks to the future Mr. Alls comments on his own hope. “I hope I can live a good life, a long life,” he says. “I pray all the time. God has blessed me. I always hope for the best. Every day you hope something good will happen in your life. Live for that hope.”