The Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore was originally built with separate seating for black and white worshippers, Cardinal William Keeler revealed last Tuesday. Speaking at a prayer service on the subject of church racism, the Cardinal then confirmed the recent discovery that the city's own John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore and the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, who pioneered ecumenical tolerance, owned slaves and freed the last of them before he died in 1815. "We gather this evening mindful of an evil, a spiritual malady that has gnawed at the moral fibre of our nation, our community and our church from the early days of colonial America," the Cardinal said. As leader of the 500,000 Catholics in the statewide Archdiocese of Baltimore, the nation's oldest, Cardinal Keeler led prayers for forgiveness and pledged a commitment to the 19 parochial schools remaining in the inner city. "These schools are a point of pride as much as they are an urban anomaly. As middle class families have left for suburban parishes, the city schools have been largely filled by poor minority students who are not Catholic," he said. "We will not abandon our city. We will keep our schools open. We will serve the poor and the children of the poor." Listening in the congregation, a black teacher, Charles G Tildon, who has served on national and diocesan church councils, said he felt relieved that the long-submerged subject of racial intolerance was finally being discussed, prompted by the call of tolerance last year by Pope John Paul II. "It's a good beginning, but we have a long way to go," said Mr Tildon, 74, who can still remember crude segregation in his downtown parish in the 1940s. As a young man, he said he was shunted to back row pews for blacks and even shunned from a confessional line by a white priest who pronounced it for whites only. "Catholicism doesn't teach you to treat people like three-fifths of a person," Mr Tildon said. A descendant of slaves, he said said the church has struggled like other American institutions with the fact that its history was "peppered with racism". Slavery's aftermath, he said, deserved to be met with the same sense of public penance that the nation eventually applied to its wartime failures in having imprisoned Japanese-Americans and in ignoring evidence of the Holocaust in Germany. Mr Tildon praised Cardinal Keeler for fighting to keep city schools open in the face of recommendations, based on finances, that they be closed. Several years ago, the cardinal started soliciting $1.5 million a year from businesses to help the 4,000 students in the schools with a third of the tuition, which is now $2,900. Students' families commit to pay the rest, which is an important factor, the cardinal said, in the 95 per cent attendance rate and 98 per cent graduation rate of the schools. "The Catholics moved out, but we're serving whole neighbourhoods now," Cardinal Keeler said in an interview. "We have an obligation to these kids." While laying bare "the sad facts of our own early history," Cardinal Keeler reminded churchgoers that Baltimore was the home of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first order of black nuns, founded in 1828. They were not legally allowed to teach the children of slaves or freed blacks, he said in his sermon. "But they taught them nonetheless, because they knew they were teaching God's children."
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