- “Take the Word of God to the Heart of the City”: Cincinnati’s Catholic Bible Center Apostolate, 1964–1971
Introduction: Inculturation in an American Catholic Context
As the term has been used by Roman Catholic bishops and theologians since the 1970’s, inculturation describes the encounter between the Gospel and particular cultural contexts: “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”1 The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, though without using the term, asserted the importance of inculturation by reminding the Church that it “is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation” and that it has a duty to promote a “living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people.”2 Since the Council, the term inculturation has been employed to describe the mutual exchange between Christianity and culture, often in the missionary context.
Though often used to describe the process of adaptation of the faith to non-Christian cultures, a wider view of inculturation allows for it to be applied to the adaptation of American Catholic catechesis and evangelization to non-Catholics, and especially to those in cultural systems which could view the Catholic Church as foreign—and those cultures that could similarly be viewed as foreign. Of particular [End Page 15] analysis here will be a local study of the inculturation process toward the African-American and Appalachian cultures in an urban context in the period after the Second Vatican Council at a time when the Church both internationally and domestically was becoming more concerned with the adaptation of the faith to other cultures as a mutually enriching process.
Cincinnati’s Migrant “Basin”
During the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, Cincinnati’s “basin area” was heavily populated with Catholic immigrants—Irish, Germans, and, to a lesser degree, Italians. These immigrant communities built churches, schools, and charitable institutions that corresponded to the needs of their neighborhoods. By the early 1960’s, ethnic immigrants and their descendants had largely been replaced by African Americans and Appalachian peoples, especially in the areas of the city known as the West End, Over-the-Rhine, and Lower Price Hill—all of which bordered the downtown city center.3
By the 1960’s many Catholics had deserted these neighborhoods and moved to the suburbs and some parishes and schools had closed, signaling to some that the Church was deemphasizing urban ministry in favor of suburban school and parish needs.4 But by mid-decade, the Catholic Church had become imbued with a new optimism for the possibility of social progress and the impact it could have in city neighborhoods. In Cincinnati, the Church attempted to at least maintain its presence in the city, hoping to serve the needs of more recent immigrant groups such as Cubans and Eastern Europeans—some of whom were Catholic—and Appalachians and African Americans, who were overwhelmingly Protestant.5
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati began an experimental “Bible Center” apostolate on August 3, 1964, setting up the Main Street Bible Center (also called St. Paul’s or Old St. Mary’s Bible Center because of its close proximity to two parishes). A second center was founded as the Eighth Street Bible Center (also known as St. Michael’s).6 [End Page 16] Located between Old St. Mary’s and St. Paul’s, two historically German churches in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the Main Street Bible Center began operating in a storefront at 1324 Main Street (in what was a former TV store), situated between the sections of the city then populated by blacks and Appalachians. The second center was established in Lower Price Hill near St. Michael’s Church, a parish then staffed by the Comboni Missionaries who were dedicated to missionary work among Africans, a mission that was extended to African-American parishes in the context of the U.S.7 As with the Main Street Bible Center, the Eighth Street Bible Center was located at a busy intersection, “Eighth and State,” near where the Price Hill incline had operated...