Heart of Mary parish was established in 1899 as a mission church by St. Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart, an order devoted exclusively to religious service in African American communities. For much of its history, Heart of Mary Church and School occupied the corner of Sengstak Street and Jefferson Davis Avenue (renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Avenue in the mid-1980s), the heart of Mobile’s Black business district. From the parish grew mission churches in two nearby communities, as well as the Knights of Peter Claver. Founded in 1909, it is the oldest and largest group of Black Catholic lay leaders in the world. Heart of Mary parishioners, as well as several of its nuns and priests, played important roles in Mobile’s civil rights movement throughout the twentieth century.
Dismay quickly gave way to determination. Alumni launched a crowdfunding campaign and set an initial goal of $350,000. At the same time, they launched a broad public relations campaign to underscore the importance of Heart of Mary to Mobile and the surrounding Catholic community. Current Heart of Mary students greeted the news that they might be the final pupils to walk those historic halls with their own resolve and suggested fundraising campaigns through billboards, flyers, and even rummage sales. None could question their zeal.
Contributions came quickly. Community leaders and national philanthropic groups lent help, as did a coterie of former students, teachers, and administrators. There were several large donations from notable alumni, among them Gary Cooper, a decorated former major general in the US Marine Corps and the ambassador to Jamaica. There were also dozens of much smaller donations from contributors who, like the parable of the widow’s mite, gave all they could. Many left messages of support as well. “I am a better man because of what I received here early in life,” one wrote. “Most Pure Heart of Mary has provided for the needs of our community over the years,” wrote another. “Now it’s time for us to help provide for the needs of Most Pure Heart of Mary.” Along with her contribution, a former nun and teacher added, “The people need Heart of Mary. The school has been a blessing and should continue.”
With more than one hundred small donations, alongside several notable private and corporate partners, the fundraising campaign far surpassed its initial goal. At the last tally, the campaign to save Mobile’s oldest Black Catholic school was nearing an incredible $500,000.
This broad demonstration of support brought the decisionmakers back to the table. In late March 2022, the Archdiocese of Mobile announced that Heart of Mary School would remain open after all. A new entity would be formed to assume control of the school, which would operate independently of the archdiocese. “This was the only way to keep the school open,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi told reporters, “so I’m willing to give it a try.”
“She is risen!” attorney and new Heart of Mary school board president Karlos Finley proclaimed as he shared the news on social media. Coming amid the Lenten season, this seemed poetic symbolism, indeed. There were details yet to mete out, for sure. Still, there was much to celebrate. Even more importantly, there was momentum. “This is an effort for not just next year,” Finley told a local news station, “but for long-term sustainability and hopes of another 121 years.”
From the retirement home of the Dominican Order of Sinsinawa in southwest Wisconsin, Patricia Caraher welcomed the news out of Mobile. Caraher, who was known during her time at Heart of Mary as Sister Alberta, said, “My heart sings as I realize the meaning and depth of Heart of Mary remaining open. The miracle of this turnaround touches my heart at a deep place. This decision comes from people with hope, not a false optimism. This is a water to wine moment.”
The hope that Caraher described, as well as the spirit of determination which undergirds it, proved contagious. As the campaign to save the school progressed, administrators received numerous requests from south Alabama parents to transfer their children to Heart of Mary. Several grades were at capacity when the new school year began. Increased enrollment will no doubt help keep the school on a sound financial footing in subsequent years.
Heart of Mary joins more than 850 Catholic schools in America that now operate independently of their local parish or diocese. In an interview with a national Catholic newsmagazine, Finley allayed any concerns about the quality or tenor of instruction at the school under the new arrangement: “The school is going to be committed to the Catholic faith and to being a faith-based institution. That is who we are.”
Among the stories that emerged after news of Heart of Mary’s potential closure was that of alumna Kangia Bryant, a fourth-generation student of the school. In an interview with Alabama Public Radio’s Lynn Henderson Oldshue, Bryant credited the faculty and students with helping her overcome an aggressive childhood cancer. Through dozens of surgeries and months in the hospital, Bryant never missed an assignment. “They brought my schoolwork to the hospital and taught the new things,” she recalled. “They brought me teddy bears and letters from the class.”
Bryant’s cancer battle left her without the use of her right hand and confined to a wheelchair. Back in classes at Heart of Mary, she learned to write with her left hand. During that time, she found comfort in drawing and painting. There was an obstacle, however. The school’s art class studio was on the second floor; there was no elevator. In her interview, Bryant remembered the determination of her art instructor, who ensured she could participate in the class by carrying her up the stairs every day.
Heart of Mary School helped forge Kangia Bryant into a fighter, just one of the students whose lives were changed in immeasurable ways by their association with the school and the people in it. And thanks to hundreds of supporters’ fundraising and organizing efforts, the halls of the school are still open. Each day that students have the opportunity to walk those halls provides chances anew to forge another generation of church and community leaders, another generation of fighters.