Monday, February 25, 2013

The Heithaus Homily: February 11, 1944

The report on the Homily in
the St. Louis Globe Democrat
“Startled students of St. Louis University at the regular students’ mass heard Rev. Claude Herman Heithaus, S.J., make an impassioned plea yesterday for them to rid themselves of race prejudice and make a pledge ‘never again to have any part’ in the wrongs white men have done to Negroes.” So began the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s brief report on the Heithaus Homily, published on Saturday, February 12, 1944. And students were not the only ones startled: university faculty and administration, together with civic and church leaders across St. Louis, were also caught off-guard by this dramatic intervention in the tense debates surrounding racial segregation in the city and the state. “I’m surprised Father Heithaus spoke publically on his personal opinion in the matter at this time,” said Saint Louis University President, Rev. Patrick J. Holloran, S.J., that same Saturday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I told Father Heithaus so.” Yet Claude Heithaus’ brave and forthright call for the SLU community to embody the ideals of its Catholic, Jesuit identity – to match words with deeds – led directly to the admission of one African-American woman and four African-American men for the 1944 summer session, making Saint Louis University the first historically-white university in a former slave state to admit African-American students.

The report on the Homily in
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
In 1944, racial segregation in public institutions of education was mandated by law in the state of Missouri. Popular (albeit erroneous) belief held that private institutions, such as SLU, were also legally barred from attempting integration. Tensions surrounding the issue could run high: the previous year, as reported in the African-American newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a protest against segregation at Washington University, involving around 500 students, had been dispersed “and ringleaders expelled.” The issue was no less heated in Catholic institutions, for (also in 1943) the Archbishop of St. Louis, Most Rev. John J. Glennon, had privately intervened to block the admission of Mary Aloyse Foster, an African-American, to the Loretto Sisters’ Webster College (now Webster University).
In the midst of these developments, under President Holloran’s leadership, Saint Louis University began to officially explore the possibility of admitting black students.

On Friday, February 11, 1944, in Saint Francis Xavier College Church, the Jesuit Claude Heithaus rose to provide his own answer to the question. “Speaking with slow intensity” in a “quiet, penetrating voice” (according to a report that evening in the Post-Dispatch), he began:

It is a surprising and rather bewildering fact, that in what concerns justice for the Negro, the Mohammedans [Muslims] and the atheists are more Christ-like than many Christians. The followers of Mohammed and of Lenin make no distinction of color; but to some followers of Christ, the color of a man’s skin makes all the difference in the world.

Heithaus asserted that the root cause of this “bewildering fact” could be found in Catholics’ failure to practice what they preached. He pointed to the examples of saints (such as the Jesuit Peter Claver) and apostles, and to the encyclicals of Popes, to demonstrate that racial discrimination amongst Catholics was forbidden by the teaching and traditions of the church. And yet prejudice and discrimination against black people was still defended and practiced by members of the Catholic Church – even in Saint Louis University.
The Vicar of Christ upon earth, the great and enlightened Pope Pius XII, made black men bishops of Christ’s church and invested them with all the sublime power and dignities which the Son of God gave to the Apostles. But some people say that it is wrong to have a Negro play the organ in this University Church.
The Blessed Trinity is pleased, and the angels in heaven rejoice, when a Negro is united with Our Lord in Holy Communion. But some people say that it is indelicate to kneel beside a Negro at the Communion railing.

Heithaus denounced such prejudice, discrimination, and snobbery as inflicting upon African-Americans
a way of the cross that only the suffering Christ can understand. Like Him, they are hated and feared. Like Him, they are humiliated and despised. Like Him, they endure injustice and persecution. Like Him, they suffer meekly and in silence.
Such racism, he asserted, could only derive from a stifling combination of arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and ignorance; from all that is mean in the human spirit.
Ignorance is the school of race prejudice, and provincialism is its tutor. Its memory is stuffed with lies and its mind is warped by emotionalism. Pride is its book and snobbery is its pen. All the hatreds and fears, all the cruelties and prejudices of childhood are perpetuated by it. It blinds the intellect and it hardens the heart. Its wisdom is wonderful and fearful: for it never learns what is true, and it never forgets what is false.
Fr. Heithaus had the courage of his convictions (and also the wisdom to stiffen his resolve: he recalled, years later, “I had an editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the choir loft of the church, to make sure that I did preach that sermon”). Denouncing Catholics who refused to put into action the teachings of their church, he was not content to reject racism using only his words, but concluded his homily by leading every Catholic in College Church in a corporate act that renounced racial prejudice and discrimination.

First, he addressed the suggestion that admitting African-Americans would cause white students to abandon the university in droves, cautioning those who made this argument:
Let them ask our students first before they tell us what is in their minds.
There and then, he declared, he would put this theory to the test.
I challenge the whole world to prove that even one of our Catholic students will desert us when we apply the principles for which Jesus Christ suffered and died. I will go further and prove the opposite. I will prove it here and now. Catholic students to whose welfare I have dedicated my life and all that I have, listen to me. St. Louis University admits Protestants and Jews, Mormons and Mohammedans, Buddhists and Brahmins, pagans and atheists without even looking at their complexions. Do you want us to slam our doors in the face of Catholics, because their complexion happens to be brown or black?
He called on all Catholic students to rise, and to declare publically, before God, their sorrow for any time they had played any part in any act of injustice against a person of color. And he further called on them to renounce all racism by declaring they would never engage in, but rather actively resist, all racial injustice from that hour forward.
And now I ask you Catholic students to look at the Blessed Sacrament and answer this question. Will you not do something positive right now to make reparation for the suffering which this prejudice has inflicted upon millions of your fellow Christians? … For the wrongs that have been done to the Mystical Body of Christ through the wronging of its colored members, we owe the suffering Christ an act of public reparation.
Let us make it now. Will you rise please?
Now repeat this prayer after me, “Lord Jesus, we are sorry and ashamed for all the wrongs that white men have done to Your Colored children. We are firmly resolved never again to have any part in them, and to do everything in our power to prevent them. Amen.”
It is said one newspaper reported that, when Fr. Heithaus made this call to his congregation to rise, “even the pews stood up.”


The editorial in the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The impact of the Heithaus Homily transformed the university, the city, and the state. The next day, an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared Fr. Heithaus a true son of Ignatius Loyola, who “took up the question of racial discrimination and attacked it with a vigor and a clarity fully in keeping with the zealous support of principle traditional with his church and his order.” The Chicago Defender proclaimed the Jesuit one of “our home front heroes in the war for democracy” for his delivery of “one of the most scorching denunciations of race hatred ever heard in a Catholic University.”

But the greatest legacy of the Heithaus Homily, and its call that our words should always be matched by our deeds, lies in the fact that, mere months later, Saint Louis University did become (to use the words found in the homily itself)
the only University in this state that teaches and practices the religion of Christ
when this Catholic, Jesuit institution admitted its first African-American students and became the first integrated university in the state of Missouri.


Rev. Claude H. Heithaus, S.J.

The Heithaus Haven cordially invites you to join us in commemorating Fr. Claude Heithaus, S.J., with a re-reading of the Heithaus Homily in Saint Francis Xavier College Church, at 1pm on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. The Homily will be read by Dr. Jonathan Smith of the African-American Studies Program at SLU.

The full text of the Heithaus Homily can be found on The University News website:



News Media

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 11, 1944: “St. Louis U. Students Asked to Back Admitting Negroes” (p. 3A).

The University News, February 11, 1944: “Text of Sermon” (pp. 1, 3, & 7).

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 12, 1944: “St. L. U. Students Urged to End Race Prejudice” (p. 2A).

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 12, 1944: “St. Louis U. Head Surprised at Priest’s Plea on Negroes”(p. 3A).

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 12, 1944: “Father Heithaus Speaks Out” (p. 4A).

Chicago Defender (National edition), February 26, 1944: “A Catholic Prayer Against Race Hatred” (p. 12).

Chicago Defender (National edition), May 6, 1944: Howard B. Woods, “St. Louis University to Accept Negro Students” (p. 3).

Other Sources:

William Barnaby Faherty, “Breaking the Color Barrier,” Universitas: The Saint Louis University Magazine 13, no. 2 (Autumn 1987), 18-21.

Philip Gleason, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Marilyn W. Nickels, “Showered with Stones: The Acceptance of Blacks to St. Louis University,” U.S. Catholic Historian 3 (1984), 273-78.


  1. In the midst of it all, was a man who understood there would be consequences to his actions, took those steps anyway and accepted the consequences with grace.

  2. I am grateful for this bit of information and the mentioning of the pioneering spirit of my late mother, Mary Aloyse Foster, and her quest for a Catholic education. What alluded her became a reality for many to follow. I appreciate the words of Father Heithaus and wished I learned of the reading of this homily sooner.


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