St. Sabina Parish: A Chicago Success Story
by Sr. Eleace King
Taken from the study: Keep Your Hand on the Plow
Produced by the Committee on African American Catholics:
The National Conference of Bishops: Office of Research, Washington, D.C., 1996, pp.126
St. Sabina parish, located on Chicago’s south side, is unique in a variety of ways. Established in 1916 to serve a primarily Irish congregation, today this Gothic-style church is a self-sufficient, thriving African American Catholic community that boasts 2,000 members and a school of 500 students in grades kindergarten through eight.
Situated in the Aubum-Gresham area of Chicago, St. Sabina parish represents a cross-section of stable neighborhoods in an urban setting with Hispanic families coming from Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America, as well as indigenous Africans from Ghana and Nigeria. The majority of parishioners are African American. Because the members of this strongly focused African American parish consider themselves “doers of the Word,” the parish has been successful in curbing some of the problems traditionally associated with urban neighborhoods, such as drugs and urban blight.
The inspiring Gothic structure serves the parish well, for the growing community of worshipers clearly needs the space. The decor of the church speaks to African American culture. A large mural of the risen Christ is clearly a captivating universal image; the painting titled “For God So Loved the World” depicts a Black Christ with his arms outstretched and standing between the hands of God the Father. The side altar is dedicated to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his vision of a world free of the burden of racism. A banner hanging over the bust of Dr. King quotes the words from Genesis: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil.”
St. Sabina is blessed with a cadre of strong, committed, Gospel-minded lay leaders who give of their time and effort in the ministry of service in may areas, but three in particular: social outreach and youth ministry, worship, and education.
Evidence of the parish’s outreach can be seen in its two youth centers: the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Ark, both of which provide teens and young adults with age-appropriate social, athletic, and academic activities. During the past year alone, some 6,000 young people utilized the services of the centers. The Ark houses a portion of St. Sabina’s School: however, this spacious building with a gym, fitness room, and meeting rooms is available for the neighborhood. In fact, the Ark is the home base for the “Young Warriors,” a group of young people who have committed themselves and their gifts to improving their neighborhoods by demonstrating a young Christian lifestyle.
St. Sabina’s efforts at social outreach have also attracted nationwide attention. Recently the parish was featured on the ABC news magazine, Day One. Over the years the parish has protested billboards advertising alcohol, cigarettes, and drug paraphernalia. Now the parish is joining other groups to rid the community of guns. Such sustained efforts are due in large measure to the serious commitment of dedicated African American lay leaders and pastoral leaders willing to take the risk. It is worth noting that the rectory of St. Sabina’s is also the home of two young men — one is the adopted twenty-five-year-old son of the pastor Michael Pfleger and the other is a local college senior who serves as a parish lay minister.
Another means of parish outreach is the general assistance program, which tries to meet the broader needs of the neighborhood by providing food, furniture, clothing, and financial assistance. Obviously, such a program could not function without the constant dedication and commitment of the parish community.
The parish family of St. Sabina’s gathers at three liturgies on most weekends, a vigil Mass at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and two Masses on Sunday at 8:30 and 11:15 a.m. Each of the liturgies radiates the joy and gratitude of the people of God called to worship and service. The liturgies are enhanced by parish choirs. But formal worship is not the only ingredient that attracts others to St. Sabina’s; there is the deepening of spirituality that comes from their gatherings to share the Bible.
The parish has recently begun a group called “new members — new believers.” This three-month program is designed for Catholics joining St. Sabina’s and for non-Catholics interested in learning more about the Church, some of whom intend to convert. Bible-based classes acquaint the newcomers with Sacred Scripture and prayer leading the participants to a deeper personal relationship with Jesus. At the end of the three-month program, newcomers enter into the second phase of membership, “watch-care.” At this time, neophytes are placed in the care of other parishioners who serve as personal, psychological, and spiritual support for several months. Those who are catechumens or candidates for Catholicism also participate in The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), which is recommended by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The parish family of St. Sabina’s takes its mission of Catholic education very seriously. The students in the school are well grounded in the traditional “three R’s” but they are equally well grounded in their faith. St. Sabina Academy has a strong African American male and female presence in its principal, faculty, and staff who are acutely aware of their responsibility to educate the children for the world of the twenty-first century. Religious instruction, for example, is part of the daily curriculum whether the student is Catholic or not. Each Sunday the 8:30 Mass is primarily for children of the parish.
Interestingly enough, the 11:15 Mass is referred to as the “teaching Mass” because all in attendance are encouraged to bring their Bibles. During the Bible-based sermon, questions are addressed and notes are taken for further clarification and discussion.
How does a distinctly inner-city parish manage to sustain all of these social institutions and educational programs? Clearly, the parish community takes seriously the Lord’s commands, “From what you have, take an offering for the Lord,” and “Bring the whole tithe into the temple.”
St. Sabina’s is a tithing parish. This profound understanding of the scriptural command to give back to the Lord a portion of his gifts is bolstered by a sense of ownership. St. Sabina’s is not some outside entity to which parishioners belong; this faith-filled, inspired African American Catholic community sees itself as St. Sabina.
While St. Sabina’s may be best known for its social justice activity, those who view the parish from that perspective miss the reason for the activism — the faith foundation of the Church. St. Sabina is a community of faith that inspires the commentator to greet the congregation with “Good morning, Church” and the celebrant to intone “Pray Church.”
Keenly aware that they are part of the body of Christ and that when one member suffers, they all suffer, parishioners routinely describe their work in the parish as “body ministry.” A community steeped in Scripture and committed to being “doers of the Word,” both priest and people than God for the blessing that each has in the other. Clearly this African American parish family lives up to its motto: “See how they love one another.”