By 1960 Youngstown, Ohio had emerged as one of the largest steel producing cities in the world. Republic Steel, U.S. Steel Ohio Works, Youngstown Sheet, and Tube’s Brier Hill Works were operating twenty-four hours a day and decorating the city’s skyline and the populace’s lungs with ‘pay dirt’. This region between Youngstown, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became known as the Steel Valley, and steel dominated every facet of the culture here.
Saint Dominic’s Church had been situated on the Southside of Youngstown since 1923, and since about the 1960’s seventy-five percent of the Blacks in the city have been forcibly relocated to the Southside, while the West side has become almost entirely White due to redlining.
With the substantial presence of the steel industry having long abandoned the Steel Valley, decades of mafia activity, and the highest crime and murder rates in the country for a city its size, today Youngstown is working hard to find a new identity and economic base. Yet, in the midst of a growing downtown area, the poorest sections of the city, which happen to be predominately Black, also have thousands of vacant buildings. More on the economic rise and fall of Youngstown can be found here.
This is the type of neighborhood that Fr. Gregory Maturi, O.P.found St. Dominic’s in when he arrived there in 2009. After having to bury two of his parishioners due to neighborhood violence, he decided to leave the rectory and become part of the solution. “After the second murder, I said enough is enough. And I decided I needed to get more involved with the neighborhood because as goes the neighborhood, so goes the church,” Maturi said while strolling the snow-filled streets of Youngstown’s Southside, the center of the recent violence plaguing the town. “Whatever Youngstown has been doing up until now hasn’t been working,” Maturi said. “We need to take another approach.”
One of those approaches was to get involved with Mayor Jay William’s ‘Operation Redemption’ to tear down abandoned homes that had become haves of criminal activity. As a result, since 2011, several homes near St. Dominic’s have been torn down and turned into green spaces.
Yet, everything is not being torn down on the Southside of Youngstown. One thing that is rising out of the ashes is a new 4,700 square foot and $1.3 million parish center for St. Dominic’s parish. It will be dedicated on August 8, 2013 on the feast of St. Dominic and will be preceded by a Novena to Father Augustus Tolton for the Spiritual Welfare of the Black American Community.
When I arrived at St. Dominic’s I hadn’t known about any of this or Fr. Maturi’s nickname as the ‘Crime Fighting Priest’. I had been a roaming Catholic for a while, looking for a parish where I didn’t have to be spiritually disturbed by liberal stump speeches under the guise of a homily. A couple ladies who follow my blog recommend St. Dominic’s to me, so I visited there one Sunday. Being that it is on the Southside of Youngstown, I thought might find more than one or two Black Catholics. While didn’t happen, I admit that I’m still tickled by one older White gentleman there at weekday Mass who always thanks me for coming and tells me that the Church has too many White people. What did happen was that I found a parish whose outreach to the surrounding community is more than just providing food and clothing.
It seems that Fr. Maturi’s pastoral approach is directed towards getting to the core of the issue – the welfare of the children and the spiritual welfare of the whole community where his parish is situated.
Father Tolton, the first Black priest in the U.S., whose canonization process is being handled by the Archdiocese of Chicago, is a great person to employ in that effort. Father Tolton serves as a beacon of inclusiveness in society where many Blacks outside of Chicago, Louisiana, and the Northeast still see the Catholic Church as a White establishment. His potential sainthood signals that Black Americans have more to offer the Catholic Church than just our talents in athletics in High School and College. The saints have always been our evidence to the world that Catholicism works; that it leads people to Heaven. No other institution on earth has that evidence, and Fr. Tolton is a perpetual reminder that God has a path to holiness for all races of people in His Church.
Going forward, I pray that more churches will look to Fr. Augustus Tolton as a witness and intercessor to the Black community in America. I also hope that any broader discussion on how the Catholic Church can effectively evangelize Blacks puts their spiritual welfare at the center of that effort.