Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre leans against his crosier during his installation as archbishop of Louisville, Ky., during a Mass at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville March 30, 2022. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

‘You can be holy’

Black Catholic ministry director inspired, encouraged by Fabre installation

BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC

Attending the March 30 installation Mass of Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Archdiocese of Louisville, F. Veronica Wilhite thought to herself “I wish my mom was here, and my dad.”

Archbishop Fabre is the 10th bishop of Louisville, fifth archbishop of Louisville and first Black bishop of Louisville – not to mention all of Kentucky.

Wilhite, a Black Catholic herself, has ministered to Black Catholics in western Kentucky for decades, and considers Archbishop Fabre’s installation significant and “historic.”

“Black Catholics need to see that ‘you can do this, you can be holy,’” said Wilhite in a conversation with The Western Kentucky Catholic after the installation Mass.

“When you don’t see yourself,” as in other Black Catholics actively living the faith, “the message is that you’re not good enough,” she said.

Wilhite is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Owensboro. Owensboro is one of the six Kentucky and Tennessee dioceses that have the Louisville archdiocese as their metropolitan see.

Wilhite was appointed to her present role in 2003; a position which grew out of an initiative known as the Black Catholic Commission – a coordinated effort among Catholics in Owensboro, Paducah and Union County.

She initially worked out of the parish office at Blessed Sacrament Chapel – one of the diocese’s two historically Black churches – where she was also the pastoral associate. When Wilhite retired from Blessed Sacrament in 2013, she moved to an office in the diocese’s pastoral center.

Today, the spiritual needs of Black Catholics in Kentucky remain great, she told the WKC.

Many issues affecting Catholicism as a whole, such as young people losing their faith, are affecting the Black Catholic community too. Unfortunately, this is in addition to longstanding issues of systemic racism inside and outside the Catholic Church.

Still, Wilhite she said she is grateful for the efforts of Owensboro’s Bishop William F. Medley and Louisville’s previous prelate, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, “who did a lot of groundwork for dealing with racism.”

Louisville has “already done a lot of work with a bishop who understands,” said Wilhite, “so (Archbishop Fabre) is not walking into a vacuum.”

Bishop Medley had served alongside then-Bishop Fabre on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church; a committee which ultimately released the 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”

The letter is what brought Bishop Fabre to visit the Diocese of Owensboro in September 2019, when Bishop Medley invited him to speak on “Open Wide Our Hearts” and the issue of racism. This visit was one of Bishop Fabre’s few trips to Kentucky before his appointment as Louisville’s archbishop.

Wilhite said Archbishop Fabre will have the support of Black Catholics across Kentucky, many of whom attended the installation Mass.

“To have an archbishop, as a Black Catholic, it provides hope” said Wilhite, which for her was inspiration that “you can do this.”


Originally printed in the May 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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