The Church Bathroom That Stood As A Monument To A Segregated Past

Jan 11, 2014
Originally published on January 11, 2014 9:53 am

The old bathroom building behind Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in rural Vacherie, La., was little more than a shack. Hurricane Rita almost knocked it down in 2005. It finally got bulldozed in October.

Some members of the parish say that was long overdue.

When the bathroom building went up in 1959, one set of doors was painted white; the others were a different color. Ushers would follow black parishioners outside to make sure they entered the correct door.

"Let me tell you something maybe not too many people know," says Anita Battis, 76, a parishioner at Our Lady of Peace her whole life. "As long as I've come to this church, I've never, ever used that restroom. Never."

Her grandfather helped build the church, back before the days of indoor plumbing.

"This was, I would use the word, a slap in my face," says Battis of the segregated bathroom. "If I can't go in any one of the doors, I just as soon don't go in any."

Margaret Cortez used to pile into a station wagon with her eight siblings to get to mass as a kid. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Cortez never thought about why the doors of that bathroom were different colors before they were painted over. The bathroom was in use until a few months ago.

"I never looked at it as a separation of people, and I couldn't understand when people would talk about it why it meant so much," she says. "It's just a bathroom."

It was just a bathroom, until Cortez joined a discussion group with Battis and others from the church to talk about racism in the community. And that inspired a special Wednesday night mass.

"Let us acknowledge the mistakes, the decisions, the policies, the rules, the evil, the sins we committed that unfairly separated us, especially our African-American brothers and sisters, both living and deceased," Father Michael Miceli told the crowd at the church.

Then he set fire to pieces of the old bathroom building. And from the pulpit, the priest apologized. "Please, forgive us," he said.

Miceli's sermon the previous Sunday had also gotten applause — but not from everyone. During the sermon, Miceli said:

"Dear brothers and sisters, I know that many of you are not prejudiced or racist. But I also know some of you are."

Some parishioners sent letters to Miceli and to the bishop of the Baton Rouge diocese, arguing racism is gone from Vacherie and that the priest is just trying to stir things up.

"As time goes by, we'll see how many people show up at church, the collections and stuff like that," says Miceli. "But I don't worry about any of that. When you do the right thing, the Lord will make a way."

At a gathering right after Miceli's from-the-pulpit apology, Battis told him it felt like a burden had been lifted. "And it just was an awesome feeling that I accepted that apology from him for all the injustice that was done in the church," says Battis.

The next morning, a bulldozer tossed the old bathroom building into the air.

Later this month, the group discussing racism in the church will meet again to keep the conversation going.

Copyright 2014 WRKF Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wrkf.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A story now about religion, racism and redemption in the deep South. For generations, the bathroom building behind Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Vacherie, Louisiana was little more than a shack. Hurricane Rita almost knocked it down in 2005. It was finally torn asunder in October. Some members of the parish say that was long overdue. From member station WRKF, Amy Jeffries reports.

AMY JEFFRIES, BYLINE: Anita Battis is 76 and has been a parishioner at Our Lady of Peace her whole life. Her grandfather helped build the church back before the days of indoor plumbing.

ANITA BATTIS: Let me tell you something maybe not too many people know. As long as I've come to this church, I've never, ever used the restroom - never.

JEFFRIES: When the bathroom building went up in 1959, one set of doors was painted white and one another color. Ushers would follow black parishioners outside to make sure they entered the right door.

BATTIS: This was I would use the word, a slap in my face, you know. If I can't go in any one of the doors, I just as soon don't go in any.

MARGARET CORTEZ: My name is Margaret Cortez. I love God and I love my parish.

JEFFRIES: Margaret Cortez used to pile into a station wagon with her eight siblings to get to Mass as a kid. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Cortez never thought about why the doors of that bathroom were different colors before they were painted over.

CORTEZ: I never looked it at is as a separation of people. And I couldn't understand when people would talk about why it meant so much. It's just a bathroom.

JEFFRIES: It was just a bathroom, until Cortez joined a discussion group with Anita Battis and others from the church to talk about racism in the community. And that inspired a special Wednesday night Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OUR LADY OF PEACE GOSPEL CHOIR: (Singing) Ain't nobody love me like Jesus. Ain't no nobody love me like the Lord.

JEFFRIES: After the Our Lady of Peace Gospel Choir warmed up the crowd, Father Michael Miceli set fire to pieces of the old bathroom building.

FATHER MICHAEL MICELI: Let us acknowledge the mistakes, the decisions, the policies, the rules the evil, the sins we committed...

JEFFRIES: And, from the pulpit, the priest apologized.

MICELI: Especially our African-American brothers and sisters both living and deceased. Please forgive us.

(APPLAUSE)

JEFFRIES: Some parishioners sent letters to Father Michael and the bishop of the Baton Rouge Diocese arguing racism is gone from Vacherie and that the priest is just trying to stir things up.

MICELI: As time goes by, we'll see how many people show up at church, the collections and stuff like that. But I don't worry about any of that. When you do the right thing the Lord will make a way.

JEFFRIES: At a gathering right after Father Michael's apology, Anita Battis told him it felt like a burden had been lifted.

BATTIS: And it just was an awesome feeling that I accepted that apology from him for all the injustice that was done in the church.

JEFFRIES: The next morning, a bulldozer tossed the old bathroom building into the air. And later this month, the group discussing racism in the church will meet again to keep the conversation going. For NPR News, I'm Amy Jeffries in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.