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Black members of St. Charles Borromeo Church in South Philly allege racism and will protest to declare their ‘parish lives matter’

Black members of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church allege that the parochial administrator of the church, who arrived six years ago to implement a new form of evangelical worship called The Way, has alienated the church's Black parishioners.

Members of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, at 20th and Christian, protested outside the church on Sunday, July 5, 2020. They wore black T-shirts saying, "Our St. Charles Borromeo Parish lives matter." They contend the church administrator has ignored their concerns because they are Black.
Members of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, at 20th and Christian, protested outside the church on Sunday, July 5, 2020. They wore black T-shirts saying, "Our St. Charles Borromeo Parish lives matter." They contend the church administrator has ignored their concerns because they are Black.Read moreCourtesy St. Charles Borromeo Member

Black members of St. Charles Borromeo Church in South Philadelphia say they have been reduced to “second-class parishioners” because of the racist and insensitive practices of a parochial administrator who, they allege, has given preferential treatment to an evangelical community also based at the church.

The Black parishioners, many of them lifelong members of St. Charles, say a black cross is no longer used during Mass, minimal attention is paid to Black congregants, and physical changes have been made to the 152-year-old church without their input.

“We are being tossed aside. We have no connection to what is going on at St. Charles parish at all,” said Carolyn Jenkins, 76, a lifelong St. Charles member who sits on the parish council, which helps plan worship services and other religious celebrations.

Jenkins and other Black parishioners plan to protest on Sunday outside the church at 20th and Christian Streets. On Sunday, July 5, about 70 parishioners wore black T-shirts that read “Our St. Charles Borromeo Parish Lives Matter” at their first demonstration, which lasted more than two hours. Jenkins said she and others will meet with Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez on Monday to present their concerns.

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Jenkins said when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia assigned administrator Rev. Esteban Granyak ) to St. Charles in 2014 to start and lead the evangelical program the Neocatechumenal Way, it created a two-tiered system that Black parishioners compare to apartheid.

“We can walk into the church on a Sunday, and everything will be changed. Everything is different. And it’s changed for the good of the Neocatechumens, not for the people of the parish,” Jenkins said. “We know nothing about it, and we have no input about what is happening.”

Jenkins said Black members don’t know how many Neocatechumen followers worship at St. Charles because they have separate services.

Granyak did not return calls for comment.

In response to the allegations, Archdiocese spokesperson Kenneth Gavin said in an email Friday: “Allegations of racism are not taken lightly by the Archdiocese. Racial hatred has no place in our Church or in the hearts of people. Racism is a mortal sin and an attack on the gift of life. No complaints of racially motivated behavior have been lodged against Father Granyak with the Archdiocese.”

Gavin said parish communities “are often comprised of individuals from a variety of age groups as well as cultural and ethnic backgrounds.” St. Charles has a rich diversity, he added. “In addition to the African American community within the parish, it is important to note that Father Granyak is Chilean and that many parishioners hail from Latin America with a mixture of families from Spain and Italy.”

Because the Archdiocese office closed early Friday, Gavin could not say how many parishioners are African American and how many members comprise the Neocatechumens, or The Way, a ministry from Latin America and Europe.

Charles Major, 66, another church member, said many Black people have stopped attending St. Charles recently because of the conflict with the administrator.

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The Black parishioners issued a three-page document outlining their concerns, which include:

- Major renovations and construction at the church started without their knowledge or input, and marble altar railings used when kneeling for prayer or communion were removed.

- Lack of space for committees to meet, and Granyak’s failure to have meetings of the finance committee or the Parish Council.

- Granyak holds multiple worship services throughout the week with members of The Way. Black parishioners say that before Granyak’s arrival, several traditional Masses were held throughout the week at the church. Now, there is one traditional Mass, a Sunday service.

- Ending the use of a black cross during the traditional Sunday Mass.

“There’s no symbolism in the church of Black Catholicism where there had been before,” Jenkins said.

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Black parishioners have been “lowered to second-class parishioners,” said Ernest Tymes, 76, a parish member since the age of 6. “There’s no genuine sense of [our] belonging.”

The protesters said that Granyak does not address social issues relevant to Black people.

“His homily doesn’t address what is happening in the real world,” Jenkins said. For example, she said, he has not mentioned the killing of George Floyd or the protests demanding social justice.

Gavin, the archdiocesan spokesperson, said Archbishop Pérez is aware of the concerns of the Black parishioners at St. Charles but could not confirm he is scheduled to meet with them Monday.

“He is in the process of addressing the situation with the parochial administrator directly to provide for resolution in a manner that is fair and equitable to everyone,” Gavin wrote in an email response to The Inquirer Friday.

The Inquirer previously wrote about the Neocatechumens ministry, a program that began in Spain in 1964 but was only approved by the Vatican in 2008, and the simmering tensions at St. Charles two years ago.

Another of the protesters’ concerns is Granyak’s conversion of a basement gym — once routinely used by Black parishioners for social gatherings or repasts after funerals — into a new worship space, mainly for the new church members.

Because of construction in the main sanctuary now, the traditional Sunday Mass is also taking place in the converted gym.

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One church member said Granyak moved the altar in the sanctuary and built a high platform behind it so that he sits above everyone else “like he’s a king” during the Sunday Mass.

Tymes agreed: “He sits up there like he’s sitting on a throne.”

Gavin said he was told that the parishioners had used another church building, the former St. Charles Senior Community Center at 1941 Christian St., for repasts, or meals, after funerals.

Once the Senior Center was sold in recent years and converted to condominiums, Gavin said Granyak “has made announcements that space for such gatherings is available to parishioners should they wish to use it.”

Jenkins said she has never heard Granyak make any announcements, and she said the parish used both the gym and the community center for repasts.

As for not having committee meetings with the Black members, Gavin said that prior to the July 5 protest, Granyak made several attempts to meet with members “but his calls and emails were not returned.”

The church members contend the priest only reached out to the parishioners at that time because he learned they were planning to protest on July 5.

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St. Charles was once the social center for Black South Philadelphia. The church had a parochial school, Girl and Boy Scout troops, a skating rink, and basketball and volleyball leagues that met in the gym, Jenkins said.

Jenkins’ mother and grandparents were members of St. Charles. It has been a predominantly Black church and parish for traditional Masses for the last 70 years, she said.

“At this point, we want him [Granyak] gone and removed,” Jenkins said. “There’s no way he can stay here with all the bad history and signs of racism we have experienced.”