A few years ago some old memories came back to me unexpectedly. In the first, I am a child, kneeling beside my mother. A priest in fiddleback vestments is saying Mass at a white marble altar, ad orientem. Tall, stooped, he elevates an antique chalice.
Skip to a rainy Saturday morning; I’m holding my mother’s hand as we approach an old brick church in downtown St. Louis. Latin chant filters down to us from the stained glass windows. Inside, an elderly Jesuit celebrates the Usus Antiquor.
What makes these memories remarkable is their timeframe: the early 1970s, heydey of polyester vestments and guitar Masses. Yet more remarkable is the celebrant: a Jesuit priest who would come to be revered as a civil rights hero. An unlikely pairing, some might say.
That priest was my great uncle, Father Claude Heithaus, SJ. In the 1940s and 50s, he had been at the forefront of the struggle to integrate Catholic education. Exiled and then unappreciated until long after his death, he paid dearly.
At the time of those long forgotten Latin Masses, Father Heithaus was living alone at the Museum of the Western Jesuit Missions—the old Jesuit seminary in Florissant, Missouri. Surrounded by priceless artifacts, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream. Few, including his family, were aware of his civil rights legacy. In fact, it would be many years before his efforts were widely acknowledged.
As I reflected on those memories and began to research his life, I was intrigued. Was he a closet traditionalist? I didn’t find the story I expected, but a fascinating one nonetheless, spanning decades of turmoil and change in the church and society.
A Northern city with Southern roots
Claude Heithaus was born in 1898 in St. Louis, Missouri. His German father, Herman, had come alone to the United States at thirteen, finding prosperity as an engraver. Herman and Jesse Heithaus raised six children in a big stone house in the city’s Compton Heights neighborhood. The family attended nearby St. Francis de Sales parish.
St. Louis was a Northern city with deep Southern roots, but to the German families who attended Mass at the “Cathedral of South St. Louis,” the city’s racial divisions meant little. Claude worshipped with blacks and attended parochial school with them, something that was almost unheard of at that time. Black and white parishioners alike spoke German; it wasn’t until ninth grade at St. Louis University High School that Claude would make his Confession in English.
In 1920, after a stint in the army and college at St. Louis University, Claude entered the Jesuit novitiate, located on a sprawling farm north of St. Louis. It was there that he became better acquainted with the legacy of slavery. St. Stanislaus seminary with its orchard, vineyards and fields was idyllic, but nearby settlements housed the descendants of black slaves, some of whom had built the limestone seminary building and worked its grounds.
As novices at St. Stanislaus, brothers Bill and John Markoe had taken a vow to devote their lives to the black apostolate. The Markoes were from very white Minnesota; the state of things in Missouri was a revelation to them. In August, 1917, not long after riots in East St. Louis left almost 200 blacks dead, they had promised to dedicate themselves to “the salvation of Negroes in the United States.”
Deeply unsettled by “this gigantic problem”—blacks lining up at the seminary door for food and the state of the squalid shantytowns—the novices began visiting black communities bringing food, catechesis, and friendship. When the Markoes moved on, they left behind a zealous group of followers, among them Claude Heithaus. During his years of formation at St. Stanislaus he became familiar with the makeshift river bottom towns with names like Sandtown and Anglum.
Showered with rocks, stones
Claude was ordained in 1930, returned to St. Louis University to teach Latin and Greek, and then on to London for graduate studies in archeology. The issue of race took a backseat to studies.
During the summers of those years between 1933 and 1939, he traveled to Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East for research. It was on a trip to the Eastern Mediterranean to excavate ancient temples that the race issue surfaced again, with an immediacy that would affect the rest of his life. His work took him “out into the backwoods,” he told historian Marilyn Nickels in a 1972 interview. His aim was to unearth the remains of temples built in small villages during the Roman empire.
At the time, Syria and Lebanon were under French control, while Palestine was under a British mandate. Claude’s work took him to areas where the British were fiercely hated. As a white man, coming from the University of London, he came in for a share of that hatred.
“In some of those villages, I would get a very hostile reception, and I began to realize, from personal experience, what it is like to be of the wrong complexion,” he recalled. “To them, I was not only a non-Arab, but I was a hated Englishman because I had a white skin and I spoke English. In some of the villages I literally was showered with rocks, stones. All the men and kids in the village would come out and throw rocks at me, or spit at me. And curse me at the top of their lungs.”
The archeologist priest returned to the United States in 1939. He said later, “I suddenly saw something I never noticed before. Something very similar was being dished out to the Negroes here, similar to what I’d experienced among those people in southern Syria and Lebanon.”
He viewed with new eyes a strictly segregated society in which blacks and whites could not patronize the same doctors, attend the same schools or worship in the same churches. In St. Louis, a few strictly black parishes tended the spiritual needs of the city’s black Catholics. At the Jesuit’s St. Francis Xavier parish, whites filled the pews of the beautiful Gothic Revival church while blacks attended Mass in a small upstairs chapel. Students at all black St. Joseph’s high school could not play competitive sports in the Archdiocesan high school sports league. Most importantly, graduates of St. Joseph’s were unable to follow up with a Catholic college education in St. Louis.
When the issue of desegregation arose, it met economic realities. The Great Depression was a recent memory, and priests—Archbishop John Glennon among them—were afraid to alienate donors, particularly wealthy families with Southern roots. Among those who favored desegregation, many thought it prudent to let things happen organically rather than force the issue. Typical of these was Claude’s brother Joe, a dentist who quietly treated black patients at the parish rectory on Saturdays but vehemently opposed forcible desegregation.
Controversy comes calling
For Father Heithaus, however, the next few years were uneventful: he taught archeology and classics at St. Louis University and became Director of Student Publications, overseeing the university’s student newspaper. He also tried, and failed, to set up a museum at the university, something that would become a recurring theme in his life.
This changed in February 1944, when Heithaus walked into his office to find a copy of the Pittsburgh Courier on his desk. A front page article detailed attempts by a black high school student to apply to Webster College, a St. Louis area school staffed by the Sisters of Loretto. Ultimately St. Louis Archbishop John Glennon made it abundantly, although obliquely, clear that the Sisters were not to admit the young woman, Aloyse Foster.
To be fair, a growing number of people—laity and clergy, black and white—had been working behind the scenes to change the status quo. A group of concerned individuals had selected Aloyse Foster as a promising candidate, laid the groundwork for her application to Webster College, and agreed to pay her tuition.
Leaving the Courier so Heithaus would find it was an attempt to draw him into the fray. And it succeeded. In his words, “After I read that article, I said to myself, ‘this can happen to St. Louis University any day, because if those nuns are guilty, then we’re guilty on a grand scale.’ … I decided to do something about it.”
In a few days Heithaus was scheduled to preach the homily at the weekly student Mass at St. Francis Xavier College Church. “I figured this [was] my chance to just climb over all possible barricades, and talk directly to those students,” he said later.
As he climbed the steps to the pulpit on Friday, February 11, Heithaus sensed that he was about to do something momentous, and he knew it was too late to back out. The St. Louis Post Dispatch already had a copy of his sermon; to be published in that day’s noon edition. An editor from the Post Dispatch was stationed in the choir loft. And “to make sure I did preach that sermon,” Heithaus had taken the precaution of sending the University News to the printers with a front page article on the yet to be preached homily.
“Speaking with slow intensity,” as reported by the Post Dispatch that evening, he began:
It is a surprising and rather bewildering fact, that in what concerns justice for the Negro, the Mohammedans and the atheists are more Christ-like than many Christians. The followers of Mohammed and of Lenin make no distinction of color, but to some followers of Christ, the color of a man’s skin makes all the difference in the world.
Christ “founded one church through which all were to be saved,” Heithaus continued. He spoke of the Apostles, “who taught these doctrines to all races and all colors,” and the saints, who “believed Our Lord when he said that whatsoever we do to the least of His brethren, we do also to Him.” He noted that the Pope “made black men bishops of Christ’s church and invested them with all the sublime powers and dignities which the Son of God gave to the Apostles.” Finally, he contrasted the joy of the Blessed Trinity “when a Negro receives Our Lord in Holy Communion” with the attitude of those who “say that it is indelicate to kneel beside a Negro at the Communion railing.”
Heithaus was warming to his subject:
Jesus denounced injustice in the highest places, and He threatened the oppressors of the downtrodden with hell-fire, but some people say that the Society of Jesus should connive at a wrong that cries out to heaven for vengeance.
Ever the historian, he compared “snobbery against the Negro” to the enslavement of Irish Catholics and the persecution of Catholics in the New England colonies. He lamented that Catholics in the United States who “have forgotten what terrible wrongs were endured by their ancestors in Ireland and Protestant England, have had the full strength of their Catholic convictions diluted” and “have been infected with this diabolical prejudice against the Negro.”
Calling out the “lie” that white students would walk out if St. Louis University admitted blacks, he admonished the assembled students:
And I ask you Catholic students to look at the Blessed Sacrament and answer this question. Will you not do something positive right now to make reparation for the suffering which this prejudice has inflicted upon millions of your fellow Christians? Because of it they are making a way of the cross that only the suffering Christ can understand.
Heithaus then asked the students to rise. 500 students stood up.
Now repeat this prayer after me. ‘Lord Jesus, we are sorry and ashamed for all the wrongs that white men have done to your Colored children. We are firmly resolved never again to have any part in them, and to do everything in our power to prevent them. Amen.
That morning’s sermon made news across the country. Both major St. Louis papers, the Post Dispatch and the Globe Democrat, covered the story. Only the St. Louis Archdiocesan paper, the St. Louis Review, printed not a word about it.
Telegrams poured in congratulating university president Father Patrick Holloran on his new policy of racial integration. He was not amused. He reprimanded Heithaus and ordered him to stop speaking out about race. What’s more, he dragged Heithaus to an uncomfortable interview with Archbishop Glennon, who later reported that “he decided, after thinking the matter over alone in another room of my residence, to cease his activities.”
Nonetheless, two months later St. Louis University announced it would accept black students into its summer program. It became the first college in Missouri to integrate, and the first historically white college in any of the former slave states to do so.
“An agitator and a troublemaker”
Prior to his sensational sermon, Heithaus had lived a quiet life. A respected professor, he headed the university newspaper he had founded a quarter century earlier. His dream was to found a museum of Jesuit history, not to make headlines as a civil rights activist.
Controversy came to him again, however, in November 1944, in the person of Jane Aileen Kaiser, a well educated black woman. After hearing her pastor speak about the importance of Catholic education, Kaiser was scandalized when her five year old son was denied admittance to her parochial school. She wrote to Heithaus requesting help. Over the next few months Heithaus and his friend Father John Markoe advised Kaiser as she met with Archbishop Glennon (She transcribed the following gem from their interview: “would Jesus refuse to go to school with negroes?” “Oh, you don’t know negroes.”) and then took her case to the Apostolic Delegate. Glennon’s correspondence on the matter reveals that he viewed Heithaus as “an agitator and a troublemaker.”
Interceding for Kaiser did not help Heithaus’s relationship with Holloran, which was increasingly strained. Holloran made it clear that the university would accept black students, but that integration stopped there. He instructed the student leadership that school social functions were to be strictly white.
In the spring of 1945, Heithaus was asked to advertise a “Jim Crow dance” in the University News. He refused.
Holloran was outraged. After several issues were published with no mention of the dance, he gave Heithaus a direct order to advertise it. Instead, the next issue of the University News featured a front page editorial entitled “Why Not Christian Cannibalism?” If racial discrimination could be Christian, Heithaus asked, why not cannibalism?
At this, the “lid blew off,” in Heithaus’s words. He was publicly disciplined with a “chapter of faults” and sent to his room, to be served only bread and water for three days. Shortly after, he was transferred to Ft. Riley, Kansas, to serve as chaplain to German POW’s.
Meanwhile, the Jesuits were discussing what to do with the troublesome priest. They discussed expelling him from the order. Heithaus was saved by the intervention of his old seminary roommate, Father Peter Brooks, president of Marquette University.
So it was that in the fall of 1945 Father Claude Heithaus found himself in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, teaching at Marquette.
Happily, Heithaus’s time at Marquette was very different from his years in St. Louis. Unlike Holloran, Brooks was sympathetic to Heithaus and backed his efforts. Protected by his former roommate, Heithaus made headlines again and again with his work on behalf of black students. He gave lectures on race, helped integrate Marquette’s medical school, served on a number of private and public boards dedicated to racial justice, and was a frequent radio guest. In 1950, Time magazine ran an article on his efforts.
And then … nothing.
Writer Michael Heithaus has spent years researching his famous uncle for a book-in-progress. He has combed Jesuit archives, interviewed relatives and former students, tracked down the now elderly children of Heithaus’s grad school professor. “Around 1952 or so, radio silence,” he says. “If one didn’t know better, one might guess Fr. Claude died that year.”
A single clue is an interview in which the Jesuit requested a return to his hometown: he was troubled by recurring nightmares, and he missed his family. His superiors granted that request, and in 1958 Claude Heithaus took up teaching Greek and Latin at St. Louis University once again. His students from those years remember stories about archeological digs, but none knew of his civil rights activities until much later.
Was silence a condition of his return to St. Louis? Michael Heithaus thinks not. “It doesn’t sound much like Fr. Claude’s fighting spirit. For whatever reason—whether it was his age, a change of political philosophy, or simply a belief that his goals had been accomplished—Fr. Claude never spoke of his civil rights actions until a few historians began interviewing him in the early 70s.”
It was around this time that Heithaus fulfilled his lifelong dream. The Jesuit seminary north of St. Louis closed in 1971, and the old rock building became the Museum of the Western Jesuit Missions. Claude Heithaus was a natural choice to head the museum: he had twice tried, and failed, to open a museum at the university itself. And for many years he had been quietly squirreling away Jesuit artifacts. When the order conducted an inventory prior to opening the Museum, Heithaus was found to have nearly a million dollars worth of Jesuit antiques and artifacts in his personal collection.
Heithaus spent his last years steeped in history at St. Stanislaus, surrounded by relics of the Jesuit missionaries, American Indian artifacts, missals, vestments, priceless chalices and monstrances, and tools of daily life from the old seminary. It was at the chapel there, that my mother and I had attended his private Mass.
Some quiet recognition came his way, notably a letter from Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe praising him for his integration work.
On May 8, 1976, family and friends gathered at St. Louis University as Heithaus received the French government’s highest academic honor: the Palmes académiques. Like his students, his nephews and nieces knew little of his civil rights work. This was how they knew him: the revered archeologist and academic, his grey head bowed as he stooped to receive the medal with its crossed palms.
Just a few days later, they gathered again at the College Church. Father Heithaus had passed away quietly in his sleep. The French ambassador, still in town, spoke at the funeral: emotional, heavily accented words stumbling as tears streamed down his face.
Otherwise, there was little fanfare at Claude Heithaus’s death. His obituary made no mention of his civil rights activities or the price he paid for them. By Jesuit tradition, he was buried in a common grave at St. Louis’s Calvary Cemetery.
The Catholic conscience
It took many years, but eventually St. Louis University acknowledged Father Claude Heithaus’s courageous stand against segregation.
A plaque, erected in the 2000’s, now stands on the university campus, commemorating Heithaus’s actions. A scholarship was established in his honor in 2014. Every February, students gather in the College Church for a reading of the “Heithaus homily.” And a slew of articles and books can be found hailing him as a civil rights hero. He has enjoyed, for a time, at least, the honor he deserves.
Some recent articles, however, are not uncritically flattering: one piece calls him a “do-gooder Jesuit;” others insinuate that he took credit for integrating St. Louis University when others were actually responsible. I find it curious that a man who spoke up bravely, whose words were the catalyst for great change, should be begrudgingly honored.
Perhaps this is because he wasn’t easy to categorize. He was simply a Catholic priest following his conscience, living the Ignatian axiom “to labor and not to ask reward.” Says Michael Heithaus, “Claude’s actions were truly based on his conscience, but that conscience was a conscience fully formed and developed in Church teachings, a Catholic conscience in every sense of the word.”
What does it mean to have a Catholic social conscience, particularly today, when Critical Race Theory dominates the headlines?
“The Catholic conscience,” says Noelle Mering, author of Awake, Not Woke (TAN, 2021), “directs us to understand ourselves and our neighbor each as a child of God with dignity and duties toward him and one another.” A conscience based on Critical Race Theory, on the other hand, “directs us to understand ourselves and our neighbor not as children of God but rather as totems of identity groups defined into division along various oppression narratives.”
According to Mering, “The salient difference is we are either defined by the love of God or by the hatred and oppression of society. The former definition invites us to be ennobled, united, and familial. The latter compels us to be reduced, estranged, and merely political.”
Arthur Hippler is the author of Citizens of the Heavenly City, a Catechism of Catholic Social Teaching. (Borromeo Books, 2005) and a contributor to Created in Christ: A Catholic Response to the Sin of Racism (Sophia Institute Press, 2021). Hippler spoke to me about Catholic social conscience and the origins of Critical Race Theory.
“CRT is a blend of things that are originally in Marxism, infused with multiculturalism,” he remarks. “It identifies some races as arrogant and oppressive, other races as historically marginalized and oppressed.”
The problem with CRT’s Marxist framework, says Hippler, “is that it lacks any kind of moral clarity. It doesn’t think of human beings as defined by mind or will. It never gives a proper dignity to human nature. It is tied to a very tendentious view of human history, as if there is one identifiable cultural or racial group that is oppressive, and one identifiable cultural or racial group that is oppressed.”
The Catholic social conscience, on the other hand, is not tied to one particular time or era. The Catholic conscience “is not predicated on historical winners and losers, but on one’s dignity as a child of God.”
Seventy-eight years ago, Father Claude Heithaus concluded his famous sermon with a stern warning about the practical implications of racism: >“Do you realize that if the Negroes are snubbed by the followers of Christ, they will turn in despair to the followers of Lenin?” Like many things about the crusading Jesuit, those words were ahead of their time. They gave urgency to his fight for integration, a decade before it became the law of the land. Yet at a time when the Church was throwing off the past, he clung to history and cherished tradition. An enigma? Perhaps. Or perhaps no contradiction at all, merely a many faceted life, guided by a Catholic social conscience.
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