American Province History
In the Beginning
SMA missionaries first established a presence in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century when Fr. Ignatius Lissner, SMA, a native of Alsace, France, came to North America to raise funds for SMA’s African missions.
While here, he saw America as potential mission territory, particularly among the impoverished and largely unchurched black population in the South. Receiving permission from his superior, Fr. Lissner and his early missionaries, mostly other Alsatian-born SMAs, began work in America. From 1907-14, they established numerous schools and parishes for black Catholics, especially in Georgia.
Adhering to the vision of the founder of SMA, Bishop Melchior de Marion Brésillac, the SMAs recruited clergy and religious sisters from the black population to minister to their own people. For this, they endured bitter opposition spurred by racial prejudice and anti-Catholic sentiments prevalent in the area at that time.
A Saintly Friend and A Seminary
The SMAs in America worked closely with Mother Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), the extraordinary heiress who founded a religious order and was canonized in October 2000. Mother Drexel’s Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament also had a special commitment to serving blacks and worked extensively in Georgia where they collaborated with SMA on many projects. Mother Drexel and Fr. Lissner also maintained a lifelong friendship. It was she, heiress to a family fortune, who contributed funds to help SMA acquire property in Tenafly, New Jersey for its first American seminary. St. Anthony’s Mission House, established in 1921, was then the only seminary in the USA that accepted black candidates for the priesthood and that was racially integrated. Although two black priests were ordained from there, the seminary closed in 1926, a casualty of the racial tension that permeated the country then.
SMA Expansion in America /Growth of Catholicism and Vocations
In following years, a wave of Irish SMA priests came to America, expanding SMA’s presence to Arizona, Illinois and California. SMA founded or agreed to take over existing black parishes and schools. Their increased visibility attracted vocations among young Americans. Responding to the growth, SMA opened Queen of Apostles major seminary in 1939, in Silver Spring, Maryland. When a fire destroyed it in 1943, seminary operations were relocated to Washington, D.C.
Realizing that the Catholic Church in America had gained in strengthOutdoor confessions were common in mission parishes. over the years, and the USA branch of the Society was flourishing, SMA juridically established the American Province in 1941. Fr. Lissner became the first provincial superior and the Tenafly location that had been the site of the first seminary was named national headquarters. Five years later, a minor seminary, also called Queen of Apostles, was opened in Dedham, Massachusetts where SMA had acquired property. By 1946, the American Province and its three main administrative locations were established.
The American Province Sends Missionaries to Africa
In 1948, the first American Province missionaries were sent to Africa, specifically to Liberia, a nation that has remained the province’s primary place of mission in that continent. SMAs worked diligently, evangelizing, teaching, providing health care and assisting the people in nearly every way that might improve their quality of life, from teaching them job skills to working with the government for reform. Abiding by the vision of the Founder, the SMAs aimed to help the Liberians establish local churches that would eventually be served by indigenous clergy.
Liberia was and is a land rich in potential but scarred by political corruption and social unrest. Missionaries endured to serve the people who needed them and often spoke out and acted against the injustices of the government. Throughout the horrors of the seven-year civil war that broke out in Liberia in 1989, SMA priests and lay missionaries stayed with the victims, some accompanying the refugees who fled to neighboring Ivory Coast.
SMA missionaries continue to help heal the wounds that remain in the uneasy aftermath of the conflict. Since their first entry into Africa, SMAs of the American Province have established missions in Ghana and Kenya as well. Though the obstacles in those countries are many, the accomplishments are worthwhile, particularly the growth of the Church and the ordination of indigenous clergy, especially into the hierarchy.
SMA in the United States Today
Over the years, most SMA parishes in the United States eventually turned over to the various dioceses in which they were located. In 1979, at the request of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, SMA agreed to staff historic Queen of Angels Church in Newark.
Founded in 1926, it was the first black parish in the archdiocese. A vibrant faith community that suffered decline when the city was torn by racial unrest in the 1960s, Q of A survived, an oasis in the chaos. Today, the parish and its school, have had a revitalizing effect on a neighborhood recovering from decades of urban decay and unrest.
Though Queen of Angels is the only remaining SMA parish in America, our priests continue to serve throughout the country in diocesan churches that minister to predominately black communities. They are also educators and chaplains, and work on projects for social justice, particularly through their own Office of Justice and Peace based in Maryland.
Inspired by the vision of the Founder, who urged his missionaries to preserve and respect the culture of the peoples they evangelized, the American Province maintains a highly respected African Art Museum in Tenafly and an art collection in Dedham. These serve as a cultural and educational resource for SMA and encourage dialogue and understanding in a social climate of cultural and religious diversity.
Though SMA’s American seminaries in Washington, D.C. and Dedham have been closed since the late 1960s and transformed into a Formation Center (Takoma Park, Maryland), residences, and Houses of Studies (seminarians continue their theological studies at nearby institutions), the province has an active and highly regarded lay missionary program and continues to shape a path of service to the people of Africa and those of African descent who live in the United States.