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Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin Evolves with Demographic Changes

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez
Father Basil Aguzie at Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin.

It's no secret that the African American population of East Austin has been dwindling as the white population has increased for the past couple of decades. But some see a bright spot in that transformation, and it's apparent on Sunday mornings at the Holy Cross Catholic Church.

On one of those mornings at the East 11th Street church, Father Basil Aguzie blesses Olivia and Angel Mena on their fifth wedding anniversary. The couple carry their one-year-old son in their arms. Olivia is white and Angel is Latino. Olivia says, for her, Holy Cross is home.

“As a mixed family, too, I think this is a space where we felt really welcome and really comfortable and really engaged because it’s very centered in the community and working with the community,” she said. “And that aligns with our commitments.”

Holy Cross was built in the 1930s largely because African American Catholics were often treated shabbily at other Catholic churches in the diocese.

Donna Sistrunk-Irving is a retiree who volunteers at Holy Cross. She personally knows that history.

“The African-Americans were not invited or welcome at other churches,” Sistrunk-Irving said. “During that time they did ask us to sit in the balcony or sit in the back."

Holy Cross became a beacon to African American Catholics in the area. Retired Air Force veteran Brent Brown has been coming to Holy Cross since 1989. But, even as a child, growing up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Brown saw that racial acceptance eluded some Catholic churches.

Credit Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez / KUT
Brent Brown serves as an usher at Holy Cross Catholic Church. He says he sees churches as a reflection of their congregations.

“I’ve been to Catholic churches -- because I was in the military -- all over the world, all over the United States,” Brown said. “And I find that it’s a reflection of those people. Some parishes are very welcoming; some churches look me as if I am poison.”

The Pew Research Center finds that African Americans are largely Protestant, only 5 percent are Catholic. Here at Holy Cross, the importance of race is unmistakable. In the Community Center, there is a painting of Martin Luther King -- right under a painting of Jesus Christ.  On a table near the entrance of the center the two local African American newspapers are available. Both papers often carry stories about racial injustices.

“Racism is rampant in the United States,” Brown said. “I don’t know whether we’ll ever get the courage to stand up and admit it and trace it back to where we culturally came from. But that’s a fact. That’s the United States.”

“Like somebody was saying, ‘Well, they are going to take over our church.’ And I said, ‘Who is they? Who is they?’ Because we are all God’s children.”

Holy Cross pastor, Father Basil Aguzie is black. He is originally from Nigeria. In the neighborhood around Holy Cross, the demographic changes have come fast. Inside the church, the big increase has been of black African immigrants, less so for non-blacks.

“What I normally see is a typical white person who comes into church on Sunday and sees we’re all blacks and the kind of music we play and how we interact,” Aguzie said. Those people have told Aguzie that they love being at Holy Cross, but then don't return.

"So maybe they don’t feel comfortable,” he said.

Olivia Schmidt and her family are originally from Togo, in West Africa. They have been at Holy Cross for close to two decades. Three years ago, she married German immigrant Henning Schmidt and brought him into the fold. The parish embraced him, too.

“Everybody was interested in who he was and where he came from and it was just a welcoming family,” she said.

Henning Schmidt says the church has included him and his wife in the mass.

“They’ve even invited us to speak in different languages,” he said. “So, I gave a little reading in German and she did it in French. It was really neat.”

The Holy Cross parishioners who have moved away, some because of higher taxes, often come back here on Sunday. But, Donna Sistrunk-Irving said, not all of them are happy with the newcomers.

“Like somebody was saying, ‘Well, they are going to take over our church.’ And I said, ‘Who is they? Who is they?’” she said. “Because we are all God’s children.”

Leon Roberts lives in Oak Hill. He drives by three other Catholic churches before he gets to Holy Cross. He sees the transformation of this African-American Catholic church as something natural.

“Times are changing, times has changed. Times changes every day,” Roberts said. “So, if you don’t get with the time and the changing, you're gonna be left out so to speak is what I’m saying. You’ve got to keep going along with what what’s going on."