Our Lady Fatima Catholic Church is the oldest Africana-American Catholic Church in the Birmingham Catholic Diocese, located on the Southside/Titusville Community of Birmingham, Alabama. It was formerly named Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church. The present location consists of the church, school, rectory, convent, Family Life Center, private cemetery, and playground.
Pioneering Efforts prior to 1905
Pioneering efforts to establish Immaculate Conception Church and School began as early as 1890, when Bishop Jeremiah O’Sullivan of Mobile, appealed to the Josephites Superior General (Society of Saint Joseph) to send a priest to establish a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
In 1896, the Sisters of Mercy in Alabama and Florida started Immaculate Conception Elementary School for Colored children in Birmingham. At that time the Superior/Administrator was Sister Mary Alfonso Goggin. (Resource: the Sisters of Mercy South Central archival information)
1904 – Father Francis J. Tobin, S.S.J., then serving in Montgomery, made exploratory visits to Birmingham. The city, located in north-central Alabama, was the industrial center of the South with a diverse population of 38,415 people. The Catholic Church was the smallest denomination within the city. According to best witnesses of the time, there were only five Black Catholics. Four of them were Mrs. Mamie Sims, Mr. Ralph Spaulding, Mrs. Ophelia Littlejohn, and Mr. Sidney Whittaker. Father Tobin later found a wood frame building with four small rooms that could serve as a church, rectory, and school.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception
January 11, 1905 – Mother Katharine Drexel (now Saint Katherine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) donated $7,000 dollars to Bishop E. P. Allen of Mobile “for the purpose of erecting a church and school for Colored people on Avenue F and 17th Street South…under the patronage of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.” (Source: Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament)
Sunday, March 12, 1905 – Father James E. Coyle announced in Saint Paul’s Church that a school for Negro children would open on Monday, March 13, on Avenue F (6th Avenue) and 17th Street South. Earlier that year the Sisters of Mercy began a school for Colored children at Avenue F and 17th Street South with an enrollment of twenty-four students.
Our Lady of Fatima is Officially Established
October 1, 1905 – Bishop Edward Allen of Mobile appointed Father Francis Tobin, S.S.J. to officially establish Immaculate Conception Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He offered the first Mass on this day in one of the rooms of the wood frame building, using a wooden crate for the altar. The four Black Catholics mentioned above participated.
November 30, 1905 – Virginia Duncan was recorded as the first baptism and death.
Father Tobin, S.S.J., used the $7000 donated by Mother Katharine Drexel to purchase land and construct a church, rectory, and school at 17th Street and Avenue F (6th Avenue South).
In 1906, when the buildings were constructed and fully operational, the school had eighty students. By the second year, the enrollment had increased to 117 students.
1906 – Father Tobin was reassigned and Father Joseph Murphy completed that year.
July 7, 1907 – Bishop Allen confirmed seven people, four of whom were converts.
1907 – Father Narcises Denis, S.S.J., was appointed pastor, making new additions to the rectory and school. September 1909 during his pastorate, the first marriage took place with convincing proof found in the Sacramental Records dated October 1, 1905.
1910 – Father William A. Murphy, S.S.J., was appointed pastor of our small church. The enrollment increased due to a migration of Catholic African Americans from Mobile, AL; New Orleans, LA.; and surrounding areas of the “Magic City.”
1911 – Father Charles E. Reilly, S.S.J., was appointed pastor and worked exceedingly until 1918.
1919 – Father William Reichmeyer, S.S.J., was appointed pastor for one year.
1920 – Father Patrick J. Walsh succeeded Father Reichmeyer. He remodeled and redecorated the church during his pastorate.
1925 – The Sisters of Mercy, due to personnel shortage, had to withdraw from the school. For the next twelve years, the school was run by dedicated lay teachers, two of whom were Mrs. Amelia Thomas-Baker and Mrs. Catherine Baker-Wood. The Daughters of Charity, from St. Vincent’s Hospital, taught catechetical instructions.
1931 – Father M.P. Morrissey, S.S.J., became pastor. Father Thomas Brophy, S.S.J. succeeded him 1935-1936.
1936 – Father Joseph M. Schmutz, S.S.J., was appointed pastor. Father Hugh Conahan, S.S.J.; Father A. J. Reilly, S.S.J.; and Father Lawlor, S.S.J., were his assistants.
1937 – The Sisters of Notre Dame of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province, came from Covington, Kentucky to assume the administration of the school. They established Immaculata Catholic High School. The school staff consisted of five Sisters of Notre Dame: Sister M. Sophia, Sister M. Domitilla, Sister M. Longine, Sister M. Terentia, and Sister M. Lelia; and five lay teachers: Mr. Tilford Cole, Ms. Elizabeth Sims, Mrs. Constance Price, Mr. Stephens, and Mrs. Virginia Larkin. High school enrollments, elementary school enrollments and church membership increased. Father Schmutz established the high school’s first football and basketball teams, which had a history of being athletic champions. He was also the school’s principal.
The Second Location
1948 – Groundbreaking took place for a new Immaculata High School on 1st Street and 6th Avenue South at a cost of $150,000. The capacity was 200.
1949 – The school relocated to the new building. In 1950 a year later, Bishop Toolen dedicated the building and was assisted by Rev. T.P. McNamara, Superior General of the Josephite Priests; Father E. J. Lawlor, S.S.J.; Father Edmund Drake, C.P.; and Father Francis Pilor, O.F.M. The following witnesses were present: Sister Aura, S.N.D, Sister Honora S.N.D, Sister Josine, S.N.D, and Sister Maurine, S.N.D; Mrs. Constance Price, lay teacher; Mr. Emory Jackson, editor of the Birmingham World; Rev. Msgr. Walter J. Tobin; and Joseph Dentici. At this time 150 students were enrolled in the high school, 250 in the elementary school.
1949 – Our Lady of Sorrows, a former white church, located on 14th Street and 6th Avenue South, was completely destroyed by fire and relocated to Homewood, Alabama. Its rectory and red brick school building, across the street from the church, were left undamaged. The church was rebuilt for Immaculate Conception through a generous donation from Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen with a stipulation to change the name to Our Lady of Fatima.
1950 – After Our Lady of Sorrow relocated, Our Lady of Fatima moved into the church rectory and elementary school buildings, located on 14th Street and 6th Avenue South. This was the second site for the Our Lady of Fatima complex.
1956 – Assistant Pastor, Father Paul Downey, S.S.J. joined our church family. Under his leadership the first Student Council, the first students’ membership to the National Catholic Youth Organization, and the first basketball cheerleader squad were established.
1962 – Due to urban renewal and the expansion of University of Alabama in Birmingham, now pastor Father Paul Downey, S.S.J. began expansion plans for a new church, school, and rectory complex.
1964 – Bishop Toolen ordered all catholic schools to desegregate in the Catholic Diocese. This precipitated the potential closing of Immaculata High School.
1966 – Immaculata High School closed after thirty years of service (Our Lady of Fatima Elementary School presently occupies the building). Father Paul Downey, SSJ was reassigned. Father Eugene Farrell, SSJ was appointed pastor and continued the expansion plans for the new complex by developing a successful fund raising drive and implementing an operational plan.
Present Location for Our Lady of Fatima Begins
November 3, 1968 – Groundbreaking for the new church took place adjacent to the school. Archbishop Toolen officiated the ceremony, aided by Pastor Eugene Farrell, S.S.J. and Father Robert DeGrandis, S.S.J., assistant pastor. Others present were Mr. Ransom Jones, Mrs. Amy Henderson, Father Paul Donnelly, Reverend John Porter, pastor of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church; Sister Mary Josilda, S.N.D, school principal; and Jim Adams, the architect of Cobb, Adams and Benton.
March 7, 1969 – the last Mass was offered for Our Lady of Fatima Church on 14th Street and 6th Avenue South. Former pastors celebrated including Father Paul Downey, S.S.J., of Washington, D.C. and Father Edward J. Lawlor, S.S.J. of Mobile, AL. Another dignitary included Reverend Monsignor Herman C. Cazalas, who was pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows when it burned. The church was later torn down to make room for the University of Alabama in Birmingham Medical Center, now part of the UAB campus.
September 7, 1969 – The new parish opened with a seating capacity of 250 at a cost of $172,000. The liturgical design had everything directed toward the altar of sacrifice in order to bring the people closer to God. According to the Josephite archives, this was “the only Catholic Church in the City of Birmingham with upholstered seats.”
July 3, 1969 – Private Bill Terry, Jr., a member of Our Lady of Fatima Church, was killed in military combat in Vietnam. Before leaving home, he made one request: In the event of his death, to be buried in the all-white, Elmwood Cemetery. His wife, Mrs. Margaret Terry, and his mother Mrs. Jimmie Lee Terry upon the return of his remains from Vietnam, applied for a lot at Elmwood Cemetery. Elmwood’s Board of Trustees refused because he was Negro. Pvt. Terry was then interred at Shadow Lawn Cemetery. The Terrys filed suit in the United States District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, against the Elmwood Cemetery’s rule prohibiting the burial of Negroes. Our Lady of Fatima’s pastor and congregation supported Pvt. Terry’s civil right to be buried in the cemetery of his choice. Father Eugene Ferrell led the congregation, community leaders, friends and other supporters in peaceful prayer services and marches to focus the public and media attention on this injustice. Judge Seybourne H. Lynn ruled in Pvt. Terry Jr.’s favor.
January 3, 1970, Pvt. Terry’s remains were reinterred with a Requiem Mass held at Our Lady of Fatima Church; Father Eugene Farrell, S.S.J. officiated and Bishop Joseph Vath presided. The funeral procession drew national media coverage. Father Eugene Farrell S.S.J., led the procession with family, church members, friends, local clergy, civic leaders and other civil rights advocates. Over 1,000 people participated.
Dedication of the Present Building
February 8, 1970 – Our Lady of Fatima celebrated the Solemn Dedication of the new church. Bishop Joseph Vath, the first bishop of the newly formed Birmingham Catholic Diocese presided. Father Eugene Farrell, S.S.J. was pastor and Father Robert DeGrandis S.S.J. was associate pastor. Faithful parishioners and supporters fully joined the celebration. Father Eugene Farrell, S.S.J. was reassigned shortly thereafter.
September 10, 1970 – Father Meldon Elwood, S.S.J. was appointed pastor of our parish and completed the rectory and convent buildings. This was Our Lady of Fatima’s third site which was the former location of Our Lady of Sorrows/Catholic Cemetery. According to cemetery notes/or description: The remains of eighty people were buried en masse and enclosed within a chain linked fence with one large headstone and four smaller ones. Under Father Elwood’s pasturage the first Parish Council was structured.
September 13, 1974 – Father Earle Newman, S.S.J. (1974-1978) was appointed pastor. He beautified the exterior of the buildings and grounds.
1978 – Father John Crotty, S.S.J., was appointed pastor. He retired the church debt and installed the new automated church bell system. His relentless support of the parish school generated vigorous parish involvement, parent support, and flourishing student activities. He reorganized and/or established the following ministries: a renewed Parish Council, Ambitious Adult Group, Eucharistic ministers, lectors, weekly bingo, and the Renew process.
1986 – Father John Crotty, S.S.J., was reassigned, and Father Henry E. Dickson, S.S.J., succeeded him in 1987.
During the pastorate of Father Henry E. Dickson, S.S.J. church membership increased and the church family continued toward oneness and grace. Both the church and rectory were renovated. Father Rupert McDonald S.S.J and Father Armand Manuel S.S.J., served as associate pastors.
1993 – Bishop David Foley initiated the development of a school advisory board within each parish operating a school. OLF School Advisory Board served as a consultative partnership for the pastor and school principal. The Board consisted of professionals in education, a representative from the neighborhood community association, an alumni representative, president of the Parents and Teachers Association (PTA), a faculty representative, parishioners and school parents.
October 1, 1994 – Father John O’Rourke became pastor and continued the planning and support for the successful completion of our parish’s Ninetieth Anniversary Celebration. The activities culminated with a Unity Mass, October 1, 1995.
1997 – Father Paul Oberg became pastor of our parish family, organizing a building committee to oversee structural and financial planning for a Parish Life Center adjoining the church. The prayers and generous donations from parishioners and other faithful benefactors contributed to the successful completion of this project. His engaging personality enhanced the church’s spirit of family. He was beloved and served longer than any other minister.
1998 – The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament began staffing the parish school. The Principal was Sister Rita Radloff. At this time the Sisters of Notre Dame began their transition to withdraw three years later (2001). These beloved sisters had staffed the school for sixty-four years. Our Lady of Fatima Parish School continued to seek innovative and creative plans to secure the school’s longevity and financial stability.
1999 – Our Lady of Fatima School Strategic Plan for Development was completed through the engagement of the Institute of School and Parish Development (located in New Orleans, LA). This was a collaborative effort of parishioners, community advocates, parents, faculty/staff and parents. The project was funded by the Raskob Foundation and the Sisters of Notre Dame.
2005 – The parish celebrated its historic Golden Jubilee Anniversary marking 100 years of service in the Birmingham Catholic Diocese. The weekend celebration culminated with the Sunday Mass which was concelebrated by Bishop David Foley with assistance from Father Paul Oberg, S.S.J., pastor; Father Michael Thompson, S.S.J.; Father Robert Crossmeyer, C.P.; Father Edward Chiffriller, Josephite Superior General; Deacon Walter Henderson, Office of Black Ministry; and Deacon Douglas Moorer, the parish deacon.
The school administration hired its first lay principal – Mr. Nathan Wright.
2008 – The School Advisory Board, Father Paul Oberg, S.S.J., and Birmingham Diocesan office for Catholic Education hired the first African American woman, Mrs. Velda Gilyot of New Orleans, LA., as the school principal. Both the school enrollment and parish membership increased drastically due to her exceptional leadership.
2010 – The Beacon of Hope, Inc. assumed administration and operational duties of the parish school. It was established by Bishop J. Baker, S.T.D., and the Diocesan Department of Education and Lifelong Formation. In five years Beacon of Hope, Inc. withdrew due to changes in its scope and mission.
July 2012 – Father Paul Oberg was reassigned. His remarkable and compassionate service was celebrated with a resplendent reception in the Parish Life Center.
September 2012 – Father Peter Weiss, S.S.J., became pastor. During his pastorate he repaired the school roof and refurbished the rectory. The parish council constitution was restructured and implemented. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, withdrew from the school due to personnel shortage, after many years devoted service. This marked the second time in school history, the school was staffed by only lay teachers.
2014 – Father Godwin Ani, S.S.J., was appointed pastor.
The Josephite priests have been faithfully serving this faith-filled community since its establishment in 1905.
By the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, 2015 was a graceful year for Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church & School. The pastor, church members, school principal, staff and student body confidently celebrated the110th Anniversary; with the theme: Reflecting on the Past, Celebrating the Present, Preparing for the Future.