Historic St. Nicholas turns 125

December 11, 2012

Since 1887, St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Houston's Third Ward has been a place of peace, acceptance and sanctity for thousands of people. On Sunday, Dec. 2, the parish celebrated its 125th anniversary with a Mass and reception. 

It was only 22 years after Emancipation, but there were already a number of former slaves and their children in Houston. The pastor at downtown Houston's Annunciation Catholic Church, Father Thomas Hennessey, saw an ever-increasing number of black Catholic children and recognized their need for a religious-based education. He found land nearby, raised some money and soon a small wood-framed school house was completed and dedicated to St. Nicholas by Bishop Nicholas Gallagher. The school site was quickly expanded to include a parish church.

"This parish has a lot of heritage," said Father Desmond Ohankwere M.S.P., pastor at St. Nicholas. "This is the place where parishioners' ancestors were truly accepted, they felt a sense of belonging and were allowed to be free. Today, parishioners remember that. Many come to the church from miles away because of the sense of community and their passion for this parish."

Still a predominately African-American church, St. Nicholas has seen many changes throughout its history. Once in a thriving residential neighborhood, the area is now primarily industrial. It's a small parish, but parishioners keep traveling every Sunday because of the community it embodies.

Lucy Jackson has been a member at St. Nicholas since her baptism 84 years ago. She grew up only 10 blocks from the church, but even though she's moved around Houston several times and now lives in an assisted living facility in Missouri City, she travels to St. Nicholas each week for Mass. 

About St. Nicholas Catholic Church

In 1887, Houston was seeing a growing number of former slaves and their children. The Catholics among them would sit in the back of church for Mass at various parishes, however, a large number worshipped at Annunciation Catholic Church in downtown Houston. Annunciation's pastor saw the need for a faith-based education for the children and worked tirelessly to establish a Catholic School. The school site was soon expanded to include a parish church. At the time, and for many years later, St. Nicholas was the only place parishioners could worship without regards to where they could sit or when they could go to receive Holy Communion. Today, St. Nicholas Catholic Church still embodies the sense of freedom, hope and faith.
Josephite Fathers staffed the parish for 83 years. Since 1997, priests from the Missionary Society of St. Paul have served as pastors.

"I keep going back there because that is where my roots are," Jackson said. "The parish has a great sense of community and fellowship. We laugh and talk for hours after Mass. We look out for each other too – we do whatever we can to help each other."

That sense of community has been extended to some new faces and a new generation that calls St. Nicholas home. Within the last few years, groups of immigrants from several African countries including Rwanda, Kenya and Cameroon, have joined the parish family. They now have some Masses in Swahili, provide English classes and long-term parishioners help integrate these families into American society. 

"A sense of community, heritage and history is very much the theme heard repeatedly with community members," concluded Father Ohankwere. "It's why people keep coming back."