Bishop Vincent Waters

Bishop Vincent WatersVincent Waters was born to Michael Bernard and Mary Frances Waters on August 15, 1904, in Roanoke, Virginia. He attended Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina from 1920 – 1925. He continued his education in Ellicott City, Maryland, at Saint Charles College the following year. From 1926 to 1928 he attended Saint Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.1

Waters furthered his studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he was ordained to the priesthood on December 8, 1931. While in Rome, Waters studied and learned much about slavery in the United States and the Church’s stand against it. He encountered men of color while in Rome and was inspired by their intelligence, spirituality and dedication to the theological doctrines of the Church. While he had spent three years in Maryland, it is important to remember that the majority of his life had been spent in Virginia, with the first five years of his collegiate life in North Carolina. It is also likely that he had heard many derogatory comments regarding African Americans growing up in the South. 2

His encounter with Blacks in Rome led him to take a particular interest in the racial controversies facing African Americans in the southern states. He prepared himself well for the struggles that were to come and had a sense of urgency to evangelize African Americans. He was also concerned with the fact that the African Americans were free in the United States, but the emancipation they were given was not all inclusive.3 They were liberated from slavery, but the shackles had not been totally removed. They were free, but they were not treated as equals. They were no longer whipped into submission by a slave master’s hand but by a society that refused to grant them the very basic rights that should have been guaranteed by the constitution of the United States. He had studied and learned and he brought his aspirations home with him.

Waters returned to his home state of Virginia in 1932 and served as curate at Holy Cross Church in Lynchburg until 1936. At that time he was transferred to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond and served as the chancellor of the Diocese of Richmond from 1936 to 1943. He was also director of the Diocesan Mission Fathers from 1943 to 1945.

On March 15, 1945, Waters was appointed the third bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh by Pope Pius XII. He was consecrated by Bishop Peter Leo Ireton, with Bishop Gerald O’Hara and Bishop Emmet M. Walsh serving as co-consecrators.4 The two bishops Hafey and McGuiness that had come before him had built churches and schools and paved the path well. Waters took up the task of continuing their work and evangelizing African Americans. He had larger plans. His ambitions were for equality, and there would be many that would walk that innovative road with him.

Meanwhile, the third bishop of the Diocese of Raleigh was encouraging the interaction between Black and white parishioners. He asked his priests to share and exchange altars and pulpits. He presided at deanery Masses and inter-parish Confirmations, bringing African American and white Catholics together.5

Waters was also continuing his education through self-study, visiting the various parishes and talking with African Americans and whites concerning the need for unity within the Church. Early in his tenure as bishop, he realized that he would eventually unite the parishes and schools. He knew this was the only way to assure one faith, for when we are separated in our faith, there is much lost in the translations. Bishop Waters knew all of the congregations that fell within the boundaries of the Raleigh Diocese practiced Catholicism. Therefore, it did not make sense to him that there were two parishes and two schools within feet away of each other in one county. The faith was the same; the teachings were the same; so why separate the congregations because of skin color? The solution to the problem of racism within the Church, so far as Bishop Waters could see, was unity. This meant a unity of all things.6

The road would be long and hard, and he held no delusions having studied the history of hatred in the south. In speaking with the African American congregations, he could hear the pain of their past echoed in their words. He could see that they were not only separated by buildings, but there was a very real separation of spirit. Regardless of the cause, this separation had no business in a house of worship and it had no business living and thriving within people of faith. Waters also spoke with his white parishioners. There were similarities between the two groups and there were the positive influences Waters would focus on. He did not believe a person should be viewed as white or Black, but that all should be viewed as human beings, coming together in one faith.7 The only solution for Waters was unity and he set about studying the history of the churches and the schools and how they came to be. During this time, he continued opening parishes and schools for both races. The evangelization of African Americans continued in the diocese under his tenure. He sought to change those who were maligners against unity, and he studied the history of those men who had fought before him to bring about change.

One of the names that became very familiar to Waters was Dr. John Carr Monk. There was an irony here since Monk had been a devout Methodist prior to the emancipation of the slaves. The Bishop was impressed with a man who held to his beliefs in humanity and unity of faith so strongly that he converted to Catholicism.

Bishop Waters learned the stories he heard while visiting the community of Newton Grove. They led him to believe his dreams of a unified Church could become a reality. The writings told a story that Bishop Waters could not ignore. The story of Dr. Monk was documented in writing by Monsignor Michael A. Irwin, pastor of the Catholic Church at Newton Grove, North Carolina.8 The fact that Dr. Monk had the full support of his family encouraged him to convert to Catholicism.9 In October 1871, Monk and his family made the decision to become Catholics and were baptized into the faith at Saint Thomas the Apostle Parish in Wilmington, North Carolina, a parish where Blacks and Whites worship in the same building. The doctor died suddenly, at the age of 50, on September 10, 1877.10 Bishop Waters, in his tremendous love for the unity of his diocese, founded the North Carolina Catholic Layman Association as an organization where both Black and white Catholics could positively interact with each other and share ideas. His desire to begin the integration process was uppermost in his thoughts as he continued to build parishes and schools and to evangelize the African Americans in North Carolina. In the beginning, he had not thought of integrating the schools but rather the parishes. The history he had learned regarding Dr. John Carr Monk led him to Newton Grove. This would be the place desegregation would begin. However, there were many obstacles to overcome before he could begin.

In 1947, Monsignor Hadden, an African American, followed the advice of Father Charles Habets, a diocesan priest from Virginia, to apply to the Divine Word Fathers. Ironically and coincidentally Bishop Waters reversed a policy on vocations that had been created in North Carolina by Cardinal James Gibbons and accepted the first African American men to study for the Holy Priesthood. Four men were accepted for the Diocese of Raleigh. In the fall of 1947, Thomas Hadden entered Saint Augustine Seminary in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.11 Bishop Waters and Monsignor Hadden began a course that would bring them together in the crusade to unite all parishioners in Diocese of Raleigh. The two men were aware it had to begin with one step. Granting African Americans access to the priesthood was the first step for Waters, it would be a long journey; but the two men would always be on parallel roads. Eventually, their paths would cross; eventually both men would leave a mark on history that would begin unification within the Church.

While Monsignor Hadden was attending the seminary, back at the Diocese of Raleigh, Bishop Waters was putting his plan for integration into action. He had selected Newton Grove as the starting point. Bishop Waters took his action a year before the Brown vs. the Board of Education suit was decided by the Supreme Court.12 In that case, the Supreme Court ordered the integration of all schools. It would seem that Waters’ actions would be welcomed by those who were tired of the hatred in the south. Bishop Waters thought his decision would be well-received, but he quickly learned differently. Some felt strongly about the decision and were opposed.13 Southern racism was the reason for opposition to Water’s plan. African Americans opposition to the plan was not as well understood while some African Americans may have harbored ill feelings toward whites and the segregation they have suffered, this was not the major cause for their concerns.

With the help and financial support of Dr. Monk the parish church and Saint Mark’s integrated school was establish in 1877.14 Katherine Drexel also provided the necessary funding and eventually the Catholic Church grew in Newton Grove. In fact, the small town saw Catholicism take root and spread faster than any other place in North Carolina due largely to the efforts and dedication of Dr. Monk.15

In 1953, the town of Newton Grove had a population of about 450 people. Almost the entire community became Catholic because of the work of evangelization of Dr. Monk. The combined total of parishioners for the two Catholic churches in Newton Grove was 440. While some of the parishioners lived outside the township of Newton Grove, the numbers reflect just how important the work of Dr. Monk had been. The Church of the Holy Redeemer was the white Catholic church and had a total of 350 parishioners, while just 200 yards away, the Church of Saint Benedict had 90 African American members. Yet on the first Sunday of integration, a combined number of not more than 58 members showed up for any of the three Masses that were held in Newton Grove.16

April 19, 1953, Bishop Waters declared throughout the diocese (pdf) that in church or in a parish a parishioner should “sit or kneel wherever he desires and to approach the sacraments without any regard to race or nationality.” It took effect on Sunday, May 31, 1953.17 He had expected some opposition, but he had not expected the cold reception he received in Newton Grove at the first integrated service where he presided. The descendants of John Monk Carr had been some of the loudest to complain and had threatened to take their worship elsewhere when they had first learned of the merger. After having received a petition from the community and expecting some possible problems and dissonance, Bishop Waters elected to attend the first integrated service unannounced.18

The white congregation complained the loudest, but the bishop must have been confused as to why the African Americans had stayed home as well. As Monsignor Hadden comments, “He waited in the second floor of rectory to hear the complaints that he knew were surely to come.” Bishop Waters interviewed parishioners two by two: “Segregation, he told them, was a product of darkness and the time has come for it to end.”19

In 1953, it was on Sunday, June 21, when Bishop Waters made it very apparent that segregation of the diocese was, in fact, coming to an abrupt end. There were no homilies on this particular Sunday for the churches in the Diocese of Raleigh. Instead, the bishop had sent a letter for the priests in the parishes to read. His thoughts and feelings on the injustice of racism and segregation could not have been clearer as he diagnosed prejudice as a disease, with the unity of religion and faith being the prescription for the cure: “Let me state here as emphatically as I can, that there is no segregation of races to be tolerated in any Catholic church in the Diocese of Raleigh. The pastors are charged with the carrying out of this teaching and shall tolerate nothing to the contrary. Equal rights are accorded, therefore, to every race ... and within the church building itself. Everyone is given the privilege to sit or kneel wherever he desires.”20

From the words he had written, it was evident that Bishop Waters equated a separation in houses of worship to prejudices and the erroneous notions affiliated with the bigotry of too many southern white men and women. It was also clear that he felt the physical separation in the celebration of the Eucharist was an abyss that amounted to a spiritual divide. Division of the Church was not an option for Bishop Waters, for he hoped to create a positive atmosphere in the diocese that would call people to the Catholic faith.

Perhaps the action Bishop Waters took in Newton Grove as he personally presided at the first Mass as he proclaimed the integration of these parishes of Saint Benedict (Black parish) and Holy Redeemer (white parish) into one. Perhaps he had not made his rationale clear. One fact is clear, Waters believed strongly in evangelization and he believed that a shared faith would vivify the unity of African Americans and whites within the Church. He also believed strongly that this unity would serve to heal the great wrong of prejudice. His heart and his thoughts were in the right place even if his actions were not well-received at the time.

It is also imperative to remember that, during this time in North Carolina, Catholicism was still not well-received. To many North Carolinians, Catholicism was suspect to those who had only heard rumors of the Church. The truth could not be shared with those who were ignorant of the Church doctrines and tenets unless they were willing to listen. Furthermore, someone had to be willing to talk in order to be heard. Evangelization was the answer, but Waters strongly believed that the message was meant to be shared with all people, regardless of race or nationality. Like Father Thomas Frederick Price before him, Waters believed there had to be a starting point to share and from that point, growth would occur.

It would take years before the impact of Waters’ decision in Newton Grove could be understood by the faithful. He would later be viewed as a visionary, and his values and ideals would be deemed as noble. His decision created a controversy that lead to the closing of the African American church and the school in Newton Grove.21 In that understanding, we must seek to evaluate the circumstances that integrated the community even though there was hardship to both communities. The fear of reprisal may have kept some African Americans at home. Those who had lived through hate crimes in a time when such crimes were ignored and even applauded by some members of society may well have decided it best to avoid the controversy and the backlash that was to come. There were other reasons as well. It is doubtful that Waters was aware of the consequences of his actions during the integration of the faithful.

When Bishop Waters integrated the churches in 1953, he could not understand what he was taking away from the African Americans. In his attempt to help them to be seen as equals, in the minds of African Americans, he was just another white man taking away something that was dear to them such as their church building, statutes, and places of gatherings.22 Some most likely did understand the reasoning behind what was happening, but it is hard to communicate feelings when you have been oppressed. Waters’ heart and spirit were in the right place and he thought he was doing well for his diocese. His vision for the unity and integrity of all parishioners was always his motivation to integrate parishes. To judge with the eyes of today, we may say that it would have been a more unifying action if he had informed or catechized the faithful before making a decision. Churches and schools were built specifically for the African Americans. The Catholic doctrine was part of the syllabus and within their curriculum were specific history lessons dealing with their own cultural experiences.

1 Ibid., 309

2 Cecilia A. Moore, “Dealing with Desegregation: Black and White Catholic Responses to the Desegregation of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, 1953” in Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, ed. M. Shawn Copeland, LaReine R. Moseley, and Albert J. Raboteau ( New York: Orbis Books, 2009), 65.

3 Powers, 310.

4 Ibid., 311.

5 Powers, 312.

6 Moore, 72.

7 Bishop Vincent S. Waters, Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina 1951 , Archives Diocese of Raleigh.

8 “Dr. John Carr Monk Council 7529,” Knights of Columbus, 1997. (accessed January 2, 2010)

9 Powers, 277.

10 Powers, 277-278.

11 Reverend Monsignor Hadden, interview by Reverend Marcos Leon-Angulo, April 6, 2002.

12 Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley, A History of African Americans in North Carolina, (Raleigh: NC Historical Publications, reprint 2002),132.

13 Ibid.


15 Ibid.

16 Religion: Light in Newton Grove," Time Magazine, Monday, 8 June 1953,9171,935960,00.html. (accessed January 10, 2010).

17 Ibid.

18 Monsignor Thomas P. Hadden interview by Father Marcos Leon-Angulo, May 16 and 17, 2010.

19 Ibid.

20 "Religion: Cure for the Virus," Time Magazine, Monday 29 June 1953,9171,889738,00.html. (accessed January 10, 2010).

21 Crow, etal., A History of African Americans in North Carolina, 142.

22 The time of desegregation is still fresh in the memories of many African American people; this history was told by Msgr. Thomas Paul Hadden, the first African American priest of the Diocese of Raleigh in an interview by Fr. Marcos Leon-Angulo on May 31, 2008.