St. Gerard Catholic Church was founded to establish a community of worship for Black Catholics who were unhappy with the segregation they experienced at other parishes in the city. For example, at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church they had to worship in a section separated from White parishioners. St. Gerard was the first and only Black Catholic Parish in Southwest Virginia.
In the 1940s the Redemptorist Order established several parishes in Virginia to serve Black Catholics, including in Roanoke. Here, the first service was held at Harrison School on September 22, 1946, led by Father Maurice McDonald, with seventeen members in attendance. For the first several years church services were held in a house on Moorman Avenue, NW. The church and rectory at 809 Orange Avenue, NW, was constructed in 1951. Because the congregation received permission to purchase this property on October 16th, the day of the Feast of St. Gerard, it took the name St. Gerard Catholic Church.
In addition to his parish-related activities, Father McDonald was an advocate for his African American congregation and their neighbors. In the early 1950s, he was a voice of support for the construction of affordable public housing in Roanoke. Father McDonald left St. Gerard in 1953, but the pastors who followed him served as similar advocates.
Integration in the Catholic Church
In the mid-twentieth century, integration came to the Catholic Church. Catholic schools opened to African American students in 1954, though there were still complications when events such as graduation or prom were held at locations that would not allow Black patronage.
The Diversity of St. Gerard Catholic Church
St. Gerard also welcomed an increasingly diverse congregation. The tenure of Spanish-speaking Father Bernard Krimm from 1959 to 1963 attracted Cuban parishioners to the church. In the 1960s, even as Catholic Church became more welcoming of Black parishioners, St. Gerard’s parish expressed a desire to maintain its unique identity and community. Church members increasingly participated in the broader activities of the Catholic Church.
In the 1970s Father Edward McDonough was an advocate of interracial ministries in the Roanoke Valley, as well as supporting working people and the poor. He began an inter-racial fellowship group at St. Gerard to further mutual understanding and was the first Director of the Roanoke Office of Social Development in 1970. In 1973 James Goode became the first member of the Black congregation at St. Gerard’s to enter the priesthood.
In 1974 the church was shifted from the control of the Redemptorists Order to the Diocese of Richmond. Rev. Michael S. Schmeid was the first diocesan pastor. He continued the traditions of incorporating Black culture and heritage into church life and serving on local civic committees that were important to his congregation. These efforts were further supported by Father Walter Barret, who In May of 1977 became the first African American priest at St. Gerard Catholic Church.
Diversity has continued to grow at St. Gerard. A Spanish language mass was introduced in 1996, and Hispanic church membership expanded rapidly. An integrated gospel choir was established. In 2007, 20 refugee families from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi found a welcome place in St. Gerard’s congregation. Translators for those who speak Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, or Swahili were added to St. Gerard’s list of service offerings. The church started as a haven for African American Catholics but is now a welcome place for people of all origins and ethnicities.
Haley, A. L. (1981). The Saint Gerard Story. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.
Parish History – Saint Gerard Catholic Church. (n.d.). Retrieved, February 10, 2022 from https://stgerardroanokeva.org/parish-history/
Poindexter, J. (2006, August 26). A colorful history. The Roanoke Times.